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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Human Rights Program Celebrates its Three-Year Partnership with Schools in Antioquia, Colombia

On 30 June 2015, the Human Rights Program recognized the closing of the first chapter of what will hopefully be a long-lasting partnership with schools in the Department of Antioquia, Colombia.  The Minnesota-Antioquia Human Rights Law Partnership, funded by USAID and the Higher Education for Development (HED), provided a space for students, faculty, staff, and schools to come together to broaden their skills and experience in the field and study of human rights—all the while building a network of life-long friendships and partners through mutual respect and empowerment. 



Beginning in October 2012, the Partnership, commonly referred to as the “Alianza,” developed among five schools: the University of Minnesota; and, in Antioquia, the Universidad Católica del Oriente, the Universidad de Medellín, the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, and the Universidad de Antioquia. The Alianza was conceived with the overall mission of being an interdisciplinary, team-based program working to strengthen the capacity of all partner schools in the teaching, research, and practice of human rights. From this general guideline, three primary goals for the promotion of the Partnership quickly developed: 


Develop faculty expertise in human rights and the rule of law

Strengthen the capacities of the Antioquia law schools to better serve vulnerable populations in the areas of legal services and human rights litigation
Enable students in the partner schools to be better prepared to protect human right in Colombia

The Alianza carried out a wide range of activities designed to accomplish these goals including enhancing Spanish-language human rights materials on line; providing courses on  human rights by various professors and practitioners; connecting with transnational human rights organizations and experts; providing a scholarship for four faculty members to receive a Master’s degree in human rights; providing exchange programs for faculty and students to observe classes and take part in internships; and applying the knowledge and skills developed through the partnership to human rights situations, issues, and cases. 


After UMN was selected to coordinate the Antioquia Partnership, the challenge lay in creating a collaborative relationship among the schools to carry out these activities.  Because of the large number of actors involved in the UMN-Antioquia Partnership, a democratic decision-making process was needed to set the Partnership’s priorities, select recipients for externships, design strategic initiatives on issues, and distribute responsibilities.  The Antioquia partner schools, which varied significantly in size and mission, established a consortium for this purpose. Composed of two representatives of each school’s legal clinics, the consortium met regularly in consultation with UMN to make collective decisions about the direction and implementation of the Alianza’s goals and objectives.  The transparency and representative nature of this consortium allowed the voices of each of these distinctive partners to be heard, and served as a model of an iterative and democratic process that added legitimacy to the decisions and actions of the Partnership.


To support the needs of this large and diverse Partnership, UMN hired a staff of three Colombia-based lawyers, who provided a broad array of services in Antioquia, including coordination of events, meetings, and collaborative legal activities, as well as support for curriculum development, training and human rights expertise.  Over the three years of HED-funded activity, the Partnership benefited from this Antioquia-based team of committed and talented human rights lawyers, which included a General Coordinator, a Legal Clinic Coordinator and a Human Rights Lawyer. The UMN-based staff, including the Partnership directors and Minnesota-based coordinators, met weekly via Google Hangout with the Antioquia-based staff to ensure that activities were proceeding in a timely and effective manner.


Using this process, characterized by mutual respect and empowerment, the Alianza of the five partner schools developed into an effective and sophisticated human rights program with its own institutional identity, which was in the position to respond in a timely and strategic manner to the pressing human rights issues in the various communities. Working together to create educational programs and advocacy opportunities that promoted human rights in Colombia, the Alianza built synergies among faculty and student groups, legal clinics, national and international NGOs, international organizations and experts, and like-minded government actors.  


In Minnesota, the most visible presence of the Partnership was from the frequent visits of Colombian law students over the last two years.  The UMN hosted student externs over four semesters in 2013-2015, nine students in total. This experiential learning opportunity was a competitive process for students in the partner schools. The University of Minnesota engaged the prospective externs ahead of their visits, to design meaningful learning opportunities specific to the students’ stated interests and personal/professional goals. Students who were interested in a broad array of topics, such as business and human rights, LGBTQA+ rights, and children’s rights, met with faculty and experts in the Twin Cities who specialize in a these issues.

The nine student interns included:

Juliana Vélez, Universidad de Medellín
Martin Palacios, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana
Sara Mejía, Universidad de Antioquia
Leidy Baena, Universidad Católica de Oriente
John Marin, Universidad Católica de Oriente
Carolina Londoño, Universidad de Medellín
Verónica Cadavid, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana
Miguel Arias, Universidad de Antioquia
Dani Castaño, Universidad Católica de Oriente

During their time in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul students had the opportunity to observe classes at both the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts and the Law School. They met with faculty and staff at UMN and various other universities, took learning field trips, and worked with the human rights clinics at the UMN Law School.  Each visiting student was required to carry out a 20 hour per week internship with a human rights organization based in Minnesota. Organizations that sponsored the student externs included: The Volunteer Lawyers Network, Immigrant Law Center, The Advocates for Human Rights, and The Prison Nursery Project. These internships helped shape the students’ perspectives and professional capabilities.



Tying education to advocacy, the Partnership was able to grow through its system of support and collaboration over the years into an effective and sophisticated human rights program with its own institutional identity as a champion of the practical promotion and protection of human rights at the local, national, and international level. In Antioquia, human rights clinics in the partner schools made great strides toward becoming spaces of experiential learning, where students were encouraged to work hand-in-hand with community groups to develop and implement strategic advocacy on pressing issues. This was visible in the work of clinical faculty and students with residents of “La Playita,” a neighborhood deeply affected by flooding and other environmental risks; as well as with residents of “La Argentina” and “El Arrayan” in the community of Nariño, Colombia who, since their forced displacement in 2006, were still residing in informal emergency settlements without basic public services. 

The work of the Partnership was able to utilize the human rights framework to advocate strategically with various communities for lasting solutions to their human rights challenges. Using this strategic approach, the Partnership communicated its concerns in two important international fora. In 2014, it presented its findings to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) with regard to issues facing Antioquia’s children, such as illegal mining work, lack of access to healthcare, environmental pollution, and lack of regulation and oversight in the adoption process. The UN Committee included the Partnership’s concerns in its concluding observations, and, as a follow up, one of the expert members of the CRC visited Antioquia in April 2015 to present her findings in person to a public audience organized by the Partnership. 


Over the last three years, the Partnership was able to promote the rights of children internationally by appearing twice before the CRC in Geneva, Switzerland. In June 2014, representatives of the Partnership presented their recommendations for ways in which the Colombian government can advance children’s rights in a pre-sessional meeting of the CRC’s members, and in January 2015, two more representatives participated in the CRC’s review of Colombia’s compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Partnership was the only academic-based group presenting at the CRC review, working alongside other NGO coalitions to provide continued dedication to the support for international human rights. 


The Partnership was quite active in promoting human rights on the regional level as well. In March 2014, representatives of the Partnership were able to travel to Washington DC to meet with human rights organizations, congressional offices, and media to raise awareness for the rights of workers. The following March, the Partnership was granted a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to explain the problems of communities facing harm in resettlement processes related to displacement from violent conflict, urban development, or high risk living situations. At the hearing the Partnership targeted the Colombian State's failure to adopt legislative and administrative measures aimed at protecting the rights of those affected by resettlement. Representatives of the Colombian Government also presented evidence to the IACHR at the hearing. A final report is expected within the coming months from the IACHR, and the Partnership will continue to monitor the IACHR’s recommendations and advocate for their implementation.


At the end of the three-year chapter of the Partnership, the Human Rights Program and the schools in Antioquia can claim several long¬-lasting contributions to protection of human rights in Antioquia and elsewhere, including the formation of human rights leaders and advocates, new and strengthened legal clinics which can carry out effective collaborative casework, and access to resources for teaching, research and advocacy. In addition to these lasting contributions, the partners anticipate an ongoing and productive relationship. The schools and programs are already planning for the future of the Partnership, which includes:


Joint research initiatives between faculty members underway on domestic violence and the tutelage process in Colombia;

Collaboration among the partners and NGOs in monitoring the Colombian government’s actions to implement the recommendations of the CRC and the IACHR;
Invitations to faculty at the University of Minnesota to present on their research; and
The development of institutional agreements among the partner schools to support faculty and student exchanges


The Partnership will be shifting its immediate focus as it looks ahead. In the near future, the partners in Antioquia will continue to be committed to working together to implement the recommendations that were drafted with regard to human rights in Colombia. In the long term, the Partnership intends to expand to include faculty and staff from legal clinics in other law schools in the area, bringing together a more robust network of advocates and scholars of human rights, a key aspect of maintaining and growing a successful partnership across continents. 

We would like to thank all the individuals who have contributed to such a successful beginning of this partnership. Over the years, the Human Rights Program was able to build tremendous relationships, partake in unique experiences, and reach achievements only possible through the support and respect of individuals united in the goal of studying and promoting human rights. As we look forward, we are excited for the many opportunities to come to the Program and our partners in Colombia!