By Anna Miller, RightsViews co-editor and graduate student in the human rights M.A. program.
This spring, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights had the opportunity to connect with a graduate of the program who has endeavored on a remarkable career. Read on to learn more about international professional Bárbara Matias, and her career that spans across countries, cultures, and job sectors.
Please introduce yourself, your relation to Columbia University, and ISHR.
My name is Bárbara Matias, I am a professional in the field of international affairs who identifies as both a citizen of Portugal and of the European Union on top of a global human rights advocate, and I am a proud Columbia University alum.
I moved to New York in 2016 to undertake a graduate degree in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR), as a Fulbright Scholar. Throughout my Master’s degree I was a Teaching Assistant for the undergraduate Introduction to Human Rights class, wrote several publications for the University’s Human Rights blog and was granted the Columbia University GSAS Fall Award. It was a very special time of my life and definitely helped me find my voice as an academic and professional.
How did you become interested in human rights? Was there a particular moment when you realized you wanted to focus your career around human rights issues?
Firstly, I believe everyone is interested in human rights – yet some choose to pursue a career in advocating for their respect around the world. After all, every single person plays a role in the advancement of human rights, be it through awareness-raising, protesting or exercising the right to vote.
Personally, I have always been intrigued by how the world works, on a political level, and knew I wanted my voice to be applied in making it a little bit better and more inclusive for everyone. I grew up in a multicultural environment which exposed me to the richness of our world, but also how diversity can bear challenges – for instance, the enriching difference between a cisgendered white male and a non-binary black person is unfortunately often acted on in a negative light given discriminatory tendencies and blatant minority oppression. These threats to healthy communal living and equal treatment are up to us to tackle and rectify.
Since the start of my undergraduate degree, I have put pen to paper on varied injustices reported on the news and written opinion pieces for different think tanks on international relations, foreign policy and global security. I found that what I most love to read about and debate in formal or informal settings always circled back to passionate and open-minded discussions on fundamental rights, minority issues, gender inequality and political liberalism, to name a few. Over time it became clear that, when devising a career path which would keep me both busy and fulfilled, policy work related to foreign aid and human rights was a sure bet. Every time I start a different role dealing with a new geopolitical region or issue I prove myself right by feeling undeniable eagerness to handle different portfolios.
You have travelled throughout your career, much more than the average person with a desk job. How has your experience been as you adjust to a new job, in a new country, with a new language?
Constantly adapting and being on the move is as exciting as it is draining. Your thick skin has to match your versatility to embrace the new, often temporary, home and role.
Since 2011, I have lived in 10 countries for reasons ranging from work, studies, field work or thesis research. My approach is that I let every place I have lived in inform me. Through in-country travels or conversations with community locals, I let the country tell me its story. Being open to difference – be it religious, cultural, linguistic and even gastronomical – is key, and not creating expectations that this chapter will be like anything in your past or future (good or bad). Rather, it’s an entirely new stage of your life and, if you embrace it as such, it will shape and enrich you further.
For instance, no matter how much I had read about the Western Balkans beforehand, when I moved to Kosovo in 2018 and travelled in the region was when I properly understood the ethnic sensitivities, the historical tensions, and young people’s deep hope for a better future in the EU. I now carry many causes and countries as part of my identity, with a local sensitivity.
Aside from the human rights issues you directly address in your current role, what are currently the most important human rights issues in your opinion?
My current role involves the EU’s Eastern Partnership, namely bilateral cooperation with Armenia and support to the Nagorno-Karabakh disputed region. Aside from the geopolitical tensions in the Western Balkan and Caucasus regions due to Russian and Turkish influence in countries with EU political agreements, I consider growing political extremism to be the human rights issue most prevalent today. My opinion is that it is the one which is escalating most dangerously, and arguably has the biggest leverage to severely impact the human rights situation globally. If more conservative or authoritarian governments lead sovereign states, less will the respect of human rights and the rule of law be on the political agenda. Trends are not pointing in our favor, but it is inspiring to see social movements rise up against illiberal policies.
In parallel, serious longstanding human rights breaches persist. Gender-based violence and gender equality remain a grave issue of concern and we mustn’t forget that, while the Me Too movement raged in some countries, others could not be further from that accountability mindset. Child brides, honor killings, female genital mutilation, gang rapes and accompanying impunity remain serious human rights violations across the world.
What human rights ideologies and practices did you pick up on the job as opposed to in the classroom? That is, what skills and knowledge have you learned in your career as opposed to at university?
In my view, university provides a strong foundation to fuel an early career – but not sustain it. We must sustain our work by constantly pushing ourselves to dig into the human rights domain from a different angle or adopting a different lens (i.e. economic, political, geographical, cultural). In the classroom, I gathered knowledge on international human rights law, on great thinkers and schools of thoughts, and on advocacy. All are important and an inescapable base.
On the job, certainly conducting political reporting or analysis and drafting briefings from the institutional point of view, rather than that of the academic or think-tank researcher. It is very enriching to know how to fill both shoes and adapt the narrative. The realm of political sensitivities is immense when writing on behalf of the EU27 instead of an independent non-governmental organization, and that is very interesting to tap into as a political officer.
Furthermore, I have noted the bigger importance of local ownership of reforms and human rights progress over the overarching, often box-ticking, exercise requested by international organizations such as the UN or the EU. Local implementing partners, including the government itself, are key to success, wide visibility and mass mobilization, not necessarily the political agreements adopted between a beneficiary country and an international organization. In line with that, another learned skill is the ability to handle multi-layered bilateral discussions with partner countries, be it in Kosovo as an aspiring EU Member State or Armenia as a neighboring partner, on programming, funding, or cooperation priorities.
What is your best piece of advice for the future human rights professional? What would you like to have known 10 years ago?
My main piece of advice is to ask questions and dig deeper. To ask politically-sensitive questions and to stir uncomfortable yet constructive discussions, not just among friends and family but also in social gatherings when appropriate. This will not only raise awareness to issues which are perhaps under-discussed in some circles, but also further inform you on what others are thinking, doing, prioritizing. In the human rights world, every opportunity for engagement is an opportunity for growth.
In a world of personalized ads and tight-knit social bubbles, we must burst our own political bubble sometimes to be cognoscente of what is going on around us.