[“Dignidad por derecho no por pesar” mural in Bogotá, Colombia. Credit: Alisa Zomer]

“We can’t predict the future, but we are asking you to try and prepare for possible future scenarios.”

This was one prompt Dejusticia used to help workshop participants start thinking and planning for the unknown. On neon sticky notes, our task was to identify three examples of signals or emerging trends that could have potential for big change. Many examples included the use of new technologies and laws to limit speech and enhance state surveillance. Others mentioned the spread of the #MeToo movement and rekindling of grassroots mobilization in response to an increase in populist sentiment.

For human rights activists working in precarious situations, moving from reacting to strategizing is not simple. In some cases, it is a luxury. Osamah Alfakih, for example, works for Mwatana for Human Rights, a non-partisan organization in Yemen that documents atrocities in the ongoing proxy war between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi movement backed by Iran. One aspect of Osamah’s work is to put pressure on countries that are supplying weapons in the conflict, including illegal weapons like cluster munitions that are banned under international treaties.

Osamah Alfakih, human rights researcher from Yemen. Photo: Dejusticia website.

The war in Yemen is considered one of the world’s worst humanitarian conflicts, but little global attention is paid to the situation due to political loyalties in the region — loyalties that prevent intervention, but allow weapons sales. As a result, groups fighting for human rights in Yemen, like Mwatana, are increasingly isolated, and the constant stress this causes is evident in the high set of Osamah’s shoulders. He speaks with conviction about their ongoing work with the Dutch Government to build international pressure, but the seemingly simple exercise of imagining future scenarios could threaten an already tenuous hope.

To bridge future thinking with current realities, Dejusticia’s Rodrigo Uprimny spoke about his role in the recent Colombian Peace Accords, reached after more than fifty years of conflict. For workshop participants (most in their thirties), Rodrigo brought a long-game perspective of what it means to work on a deeply entangled and entrenched conflict. He spoke of the first failed popular referendum, where urban Colombians, many not directly affected by the conflict, overwhelmingly voted against peace. This was a surprising outcome and a hard lesson learned as they worked to build broader support for a revised version that was passed by congress. Though the outcome of the peace process is still unfolding as a new administration takes office, Rodrigo’s insights provided a concrete example of progress over time and how to learn and move on from unexpected failure.

Following this note of optimism, Kathryn Sikkink from Harvard presented her new book Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century, which reviews the impact of the human rights movement over time. Kathryn spoke of the role of Global South thought-leaders in the drafting and conceptualizing of the first human rights charters in the first half of the twentieth century. Oftentimes, human rights are touted as a western concept, but her research dives deep into the origins of the movement and highlights the influence of key figures from India (Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit), China (Peng Chun Chang), Chile (Hernan Santa Cruz), Brazil (Bertha Luz), Lebanon (Charles Malik), and other nations. For many workshop participants, this was a fresh lens to understanding the development of human rights as well as a new orientation for reimagining the next chapter.

One clear signal was the need to strengthen collaboration and innovation between activists in the Global South. A timely example of how Dejusticia is building such a network is their recent collaboration with Provea, a human rights organization in Venezuela. Like activist groups in Yemen, Provea is struggling with regional and global isolation amidst a growing economic crisis triggered by falling oil prices. Provea and Dejusticia worked together with journalists from both countries to do an interactive series on migration from Venezuela to Colombia. The series “Cúcuta: salida de emergencia” (Cúcuta: Emergency Exit) is online in Spanish and is also being translated into English.

Screenshot from “Cúcuta: salida de emergencia.”

The series is critical in shedding light on the state and scale of migration, which was previously denied by the Venezuelan Government. On the last day of the workshop, just a week after the series’ release, the Colombian Government announced temporary residence for 800,000 Venezuelan migrants. It was powerful to see the relief on the faces of Rafael Uzcátegui and Lexys Rendón, who joined the workshop from Provea. Even as they celebrated the news, Lexys was rushing to get an approval letter so they could bring home a shopping bag overflowing with basic medicine. Unfortunately, progress across the border did not begin to address the root of the problem in their home country.

These stories only begin to touch on the amazing and difficult work done by the workshop participants working across the Global South on issues ranging from indigenous to LGBTQIA+ rights to documenting ongoing human rights violations. [To learn more check out Amphibious Accounts, written by participants in their own words]. The Taller Global workshop was the sixth in a series convened by Dejusticia to build a network of Global South activists, which now includes more than eighty people from over thirty countries. MIT GOV/LAB was fortunate to attend the workshop as part of our work with the Learning Collaborative, to get a better understanding of how activists can learn from the past and begin to prepare for an uncertain future.

Defenders selfie with activists and lawyers from Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Philippines. Credit: Alisa Zomer.