In June 2014, Angelita Baeyens joined Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights as Programs Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights, the international litigation and advocacy arm of the organization. As Programs Director, Ms. Baeyens co-directs the program and focuses on litigation, legal strategy and advocacy in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
Prior to joining RFK, Ms. Baeyens served at the United Nations as Political Affairs Officer in the Americas Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs in New York. Ms. Baeyens started her human rights career as a legal fellow for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington D.C. In 2008, she became the Special Assistant to the Executive Secretary, and starting in 2009, also served as Coordinator for the Office of the Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders of the IACHR. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center since 2012. A dual Belgian and Colombian citizen, she holds a Law Degree from the University of Ibague (Colombia) and an LL.M in International Human Rights Law from the University of Notre Dame (United States).
Q: How did you first become involved in international human rights law, and what motivated your transition from international organizations, such as the UN and the IACHR, to RFK?
I had the opportunity to work at the legal aid clinic of my law school in Colombia. Through this experience, I was exposed to working with real people and real victims. My first experience working with human rights was in using legal tools to aid victims. I began trying to connect my experience in constitutional law in Colombia with international human rights law, which became my interest.
While doing a clerkship at the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court in Colombia, I found an announcement for a three-week summer course in international human rights law. The course was conducted in The Hague, Strasburg, and Leuveb. I immediately applied. During the course, I learned about the international human rights law framework in an intensive setting. I became convinced that I wanted to pursue a path in international human rights law while incorporating my knowledge of constitutional law. I decided to complete my LL.M at the University of Notre Dame, which was a fantastic experience.
After the LL.M, I moved to D.C. and worked at the IACHR in different positions. After six years, I transitioned to the UN as a Political Affairs Officer. My experience at the UN complemented my previous experiences very nicely, and I gained a new perspective. It was very interesting to incorporate the human rights perspective into the political analysis. After two and a half years, the opportunity to work at RFK Human Rights came up. To me, it has always been clear that I wanted to work directly with victims, but I knew that the piece I was still missing was working from the civil society angle. As such, RFK Human Rights was a great opportunity to return to my initial inspiration to work in human rights. Now, it is an advantage to know how the international mechanisms work from the inside. With this experience, I can be a better advocate for the victims and a more effective partner to the organizations that we work with
Q: Currently, what is your primary organizational focus at RFK?
I have been working at RFK Human Rights for almost three years. The organization has several programs. One of them is RFK Partners for Human Rights, which is the litigation and legal advocacy arm of the organization. Currently, I am more involved in the day-to-day activities related to litigation and advocacy in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, with a particular focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. My responsibilities involve case litigation and legal strategy while participating in our growing docket of cases and projects. We’ve had very interesting projects. Recently, we completed a Training for Former Political Prisoners inMyanmar. This project demonstrates our Capacity Building tool. It is a tool focused in civil society that we use in addition to advocacy and litigation. Working with RFK Human Rights has been an incredibly rewarding experience.
Overall, the hard part is prioritizing. Since we are still a small team, we have to be responsible about how many cases we can handle successfully
Q: What has been the most rewarding part of working on international human rights law?
Working with victims and human rights defenders. It is a privilege to meet them and learn from their strength, courage, and never-ending struggle to find justice; it is humbling. Human rights defenders are at the front lines under difficult circumstances in most cases. To work hand-in-hand with them in cases or advocacy projects is always an inspiring experience. It keeps me motivated.
With all the limitations and frustrations that come with using the international human rights framework, it is important to use the existing tools and make the best of them hand in hand with victims of human rights violations and defenders.. Listening to their stories provides invaluable insight and is the fuel to keep going and not give up
Q: What advice would you have for law students who wish to take a similar career path to yours?
There is definitely no magic recipe. What works for someone, does not necessarily work for everyone else. But I would say that persistence is something very important in this field. Despite the great needs in the field of human rights, the opportunities are not always what we want. But if this is the path you really want to pursue, definitely insisting and not getting discouraged is key. It’s okay to take detours as long as you continue to use the experiences and opportunities you encounter to strengthen your capacity and skills to be a human rights lawyer.
It is important to remember that not every job or every experience you pursue has to have the human rights label. You can always use what you’ve learned. Hopefully it relates. A diverse set of experience is very good. At least in my case, I feel like it has really helped my career. Having exposure to the different pillars and sectors related to the human rights system is extremely enriching and valuable.
Also, keep in mind that the field of international human rights is evolving. Simultaneously, human rights language is also evolving. Language and global trends matter. Understanding why certain issues and trends have emerged is important. For example, look at the concept of vulnerable populations. We used to refer to indigenous peoples as vulnerable people. However, there has been an evolution towards talking about certain groups as “groups in situations of vulnerability” instead of “vulnerable people”. Indigenous people are not vulnerable per se, on the contrary, they are strong and resilient, but injustice, exclusion and discrimination have put them in a situation of vulnerability Words are powerful. It is important to be aware of proper terminology and the reasons for that language choice to be an active participant in the field of human rights.
Finally, don’t forget the bigger picture. For example, if you are interested in children’s rights, it is important to remember intersectionality with other issues. For example, recognizing that the perspective of children with disabilities will differ from the point of view of children without disabilities. By being aware of larger issues in the human rights framework you can effectively address these differing perspectives.
Q: Turning to the IACHR, and with the understanding that RFK Human Rights is a very active supporter of civil society in petitions before the Inter-American Commission, what alternatives has RFK Human Rights been employing over the past year to help victims of human rights abuses who may have otherwise petitioned the Commission?
Currently, we are looking more into other human rights mechanisms. We are starting to petition UN mechanisms for a variety of reasons: sometimes the timing and the litigation cycle of an individual case at the Inter-American system is longer than a treaty-body mechanism; in other cases, the leverage is different within different mechanisms; certain states are not as responsive towards a decision from the Inter-American system, as a UN decision, and vice versa. It really depends on the case, the country, the needs of the victims, and the families. It also depends on whether we are seeking a faster response or a more thorough response. For certain cases, the Inter-American system has advantages over the UN system. Think of our determinations as a balancing test of pros and cons. Currently, we go through this analysis for each case and, depending on the needs of the particular case, incorporate other potential legal avenues as well.
At the same time, we are also using more advocacy tools to advance the needs of the victims, instead of investing all hope in the litigation. It is important to use all the available mechanisms both internal and external to the Inter-American system. For example, directly advocating to relevant government bodies can be an effective tool outside of litigation.
Just as a note, when I worked at the UN, I realized that advocates sometimes forget the importance of directly engaging with the political agencies. It is important to not only look at the human rights offices or the treaty-bodies, but to look beyond those mechanisms to find other potentially effective leverage points. By thinking creatively advocates can find other avenues and allies to help advance the needs of victims. At RFK Human Rights, we practice targeted advocacy because we have to choose where to focus our efforts and the best methodology to use because we do not have the resources to advance massive advocacy initiatives. We have to identify the useful points of pressure to achieve the goals we set.
Q: Will RFK Human Rights be presenting on behalf of any petitioners during the upcoming 161st Ordinary Period of Sessions here in Washington D.C.? If yes, what are the thematic focuses of these hearings?
Every session is different. Sometimes we present a petition, or we collaborate on an issue with a different organization, or we support an organization that is presenting a case. During this period, we will be supporting different organizations that are working on behalf of petitioners. One of the thematic issues we were working on, and hoped for a hearing during this session, is the ongoing challenge of femicide and the disappearances of women in Ciudad Juarez. This is a situation that has received international attention in the past using various international bodies. For example, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) ruled, in a landmark decision, that Mexican authorities had failed to prevent the murder and disappearance of three young women whose remains were found at Campo Algodonero. Despite the ruling, we continue to see the same patterns of women and girls disappearing. If countries like Mexico fail to remedy these human rights abuses, we will continue to fight on behalf of the victims.
Q: The limited funding for the IACHR is by no means a recent issue, and certainly there are many other obstacles that civil society and individual victims encounter in filing a petition with the IACHR. Could you describe what you believe to be the greatest challenges with regards to accessing the Commission, or the Inter-American Human Rights System generally?
The Inter-American system as a whole does not have the capacity to respond to the needs and demands of all the victims. The Commission’s resources have been stretched thin trying to meet the demands of the stakeholders, particularly the States themselves. However, spending its limited resources on meeting States’ demands, although valuable, may not always coincide with the true core function of the Commission.
At the end of the day, what makes the Commission’s work significant and unique is its (1) the system of individual petitions and cases, (2) regional impact on human rights, and most importantly its (3) ability to get states to adopt immediate measures to preserve the life and integrity of its citizens. The Commission should do what is necessary to provide faster and more comprehensive relief to the victims of human rights violations. I hope the system will get additional funding, but if that doesn’t happen, there has to be an evaluation process to determine where resources are being directed to ensure the core function of the Commission is protected. Victims need to remain the Commission’s priority. States are also very important, without their involvement, the system cannot function. But the Commission’s decisions and the strategic planning should focus on the victims’ needs in order to fulfill its primary function as a human rights body.
The challenges of accessing the Commission, and other international bodies in general, depends on each country. Some countries are aware of the existence of the IACHR and the IACtHR, but citizens in other countries do not know that petitioning these bodies is even an available option. This is the first layer of the disparity of reaching the system. Outreach to those countries with limited exposure to these bodies, and regions within those countries, is important to promote awareness of the Inter-American system tools. The Inter-American system strives to achieve accessibility at the initial stage. Technically, any person can file a petition with the Inter-American system without the help of a lawyer or an organization. Although many petitioners find it helpful to have the support of an organization, sometimes civil society groups lack the resources to be able to fully support victims who seek to access the system. Some civil society organizations are in a very precarious position due to a confluence of issues: lack of funding, hostile social or political environments, and the redirection of resources to other projects, to name a few. Other obstacles after the initial stage include the timing of the process itself, implementation, and eventually, compliance.
Q: With such limited funding to address human rights issues through legal binding and non-binding mechanisms, how can civil society and human rights advocates strengthen international state obligations?
First, it is important to defend and use the international human rights framework that we have achieved. We need to highlight that, despite the flaws of the current international human rights framework, we are better off with these tools than without them. Part of the responsibility of protecting human rights also falls on the shoulder of civil society organizations. Civil society organizations and advocates alike should be concerned every time threats to destroy or ignore human rights mechanisms are identified. If these systems are destroyed or abandoned, what types of recourse are we left with? While advocates work to improve these systems, civil society organizations must highlight the importance of keeping and respecting these mechanisms within their spheres of influence. I believe that we are better off with the systems in place, so we should focus on strengthening and improving these tools, rather than destroying or circumventing them.
Q: How do you think the current rise of nationalism will impact the IACHR and other international organizations?
The practical implications are financial. Certain states are particularly important to the financial survival of the Commission and could have a strong impact in an already limited capacity environment. The compliance or disregard for the international human rights framework also presents a major challenge. Even if decisions are rendered favorable for victims, implementation is key to ensuring justice. For example, since Argentina’s return to democracy, the country has consistently supported the Inter- American system, but recently, the Supreme Court of Justice in Argentina minimized the authority of the IACtHR to review domestic judicial decisions. Political will continues to be a problem, but if judicial compliance decreases further, victims will be effectively barred from receiving the type of relief they seek.
The resurgence of nationalism contributes to declining compliance. Politicians who promote nationalism and their country’s exceptionalism often tout the country’s domestic enforcement mechanisms. By uplifting domestic laws and policies, a government can simultaneously undermine recommendations or decisions by the Inter- American system and all other international human rights bodies. Although advocates have seen this trend before, it’s resurgence is concerning. Certain states that have a historically long-standing commitment to international human rights law have changed course. Now, there is a movement of states that are questioning the core principles of human rights. This movement seeks to dial back the advances in human rights that have been slowly and painfully achieved.
Despite the challenges, it’s important to keep a positive perspective. The current situation presents an opportunity for civil society organizations to reflect and re-think strategies, narratives, priorities that can be used to fight against any damage to the human rights framework. Also, this is an opportunity for the Inter-American system and the UN system to think about possible ways to convince states to implement decisions and to engage more effectively with stakeholders. Crisis always presents opportunity. Depending on how this financial crisis is dealt with, there are several potential positive outcomes. The response of civil society organizations can lead to greater action and engagement with the international system. As seen in the United States since the election of Donald Trump, citizens seem more active and engaged, collectively organizing and protesting in response to government actions. An engaged citizenry presents an opportunity to advocate for stronger protections of vulnerable communities and protect the advances made by the international human rights community. I strongly believe this is a great opportunity to continue building on our work.