Archive for Latin America & the Caribbean

The Enforced Disappearance of Human Rights in the World

By Marina Kumskova, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


1Between March 2002 and July 2004, eight individuals of Chechen origin were “arrested by groups of armed and masked men in a manner resembling a security operation”. Pointing guns at the family members, the soldiers took men away in military carriers. Similarly, on April 28, 1991, Jeremías Osorio Rivera was officially detained by a military patrol when he went to the village of Nunumia to take part in a sports event. He was accused of making a terrorist threat for carrying an officially registered gun and explosives materials.

None of these men have been seen or heard from since, despite their families’ tireless efforts to find them. In both cases, the males were abducted and detained by armed men without arrest warrant, held in solitary confinement under mortifying circumstances for unidentified periods of time, and deprived of legal assistance or any other contact with the outside world. In both cases, after the abduction of the individuals and in the absence of any information about their whereabouts, the domestic criminal justice systems in the respective countries did not take any measures to provide remedies for determining the fate of the disappeared individuals. They also failed to safeguard the relatives’ right of access to justice and right to know the truth through effective investigation and through holding accountable those responsible for the crimes.

The aforementioned cases are typical examples of the crime that is internationally known as “enforced disappearance.” Today, this crime continues to take place in 88 states all over the world, and constitutes a continuous violation of multiple rights. Enforced disappearances emerged in international discourse after World War II, and the narrative of violations carried out by Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s shaped the development of this discourse. Since that time, the international community has begun to acknowledge that a wide range of human rights of both the victims and their families are denied by the act of enforced disappearance, claiming that states should be held accountable for their failure to prevent the disappearances, to investigate them, and to punish the perpetrators in light of their obligations under several international agreements.

Despite the number of treaties and agreements signed in order to establish an understanding as to the nature of enforced disappearance and determine state responsibilities, the international community has repeatedly failed to create a conceptual framework for enforced disappearances and to establish monitoring mechanisms that can proactively address the problem. This is likely due to political influence in the shaping human rights norms.

The context of the crime of forced disappearance implies that the perpetrator has an unfair advantage over the victim, because evidence is often under the exclusive control of the perpetrator, who typically has intent to hide it. As a consequence of this distinctive characteristic of disappearances, it is up to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, to promote and protect individuals from this violation.

2Unfortunately, the details and procedures of implementing judgment are specific to each Court. Both courts can and do force states to pay financial compensation to family members of disappeared persons. However, the whereabouts of victims have never been established, and required remedies have never been fulfilled, causing severe suffering of the victims’ loved ones. Under pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission, Peru adopted legislative amendments and provided special reparation policies. Overall, the Inter-American system has managed to develop valuable jurisprudence that still requires more work in terms of influencing state compliance. On the other hand, the European Court was not able to require any action to be taken by Russia as result of the judgment in the joint case of the enforced disappearance of the eight Chechen individuals referenced above, since it issues only declaratory judgments. Russia has failed to adopt any measures to ensure that no similar violations take place in the future, that violators are adequately deterred, or that family members of the disappeared persons are provided with necessary remedies.

Overall, despite the gravity of the crime, enforced disappearance continues to be ineffectively addressed by regional and international mechanisms. Unfortunately, international human rights courts cannot do much to prevent this crime from happening, especially when the courts investigate cases in which one of the parties is a so-called “powerful” country. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the Courts fail to provide effective remedies to the family members of disappeared persons. While countless people around the world are subjected to injustices, international courts and human rights activists cannot do much about it unless states express their willingness to comply with the judgments. In this light, the most promising method would be to lodge interstate complaints against the countries that are not willing to comply with recommendations or declaratory judgments by creating political pressure. However, the questions remain: which countries will be able to proceed with this legitimate measure without creating political tensions, and how can non-governmental organizations influence this process?

Marina Kumskova is a graduate student in Human Rights Studies Program at Columbia University and a research assistant at the Center for International Human Rights at John Jay College. In her research, she focuses on religious discrimination in the context of counter-terrorism policies.

ISHR Event: Honoring Indigenous Women at Columbia University

By Megan Baker, student at Columbia College

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

On May 24, 2013, the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenas (International Indigenous Women’s Forum), or FIMI, honored two indigenous women, an elder and a youth, with the 2013 FIMI Leadership Award at the “Honoring Indigenous Women’s Visions and Creativity” awards ceremony held at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University. The awards ceremony was hosted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program in partnership with FIMI. This award marked these women’s demonstrated exceptional leadership and the impact they have had in their communities, countries and at the international level defending and advocating for human rights.

The first to be honored was Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous Miskita woman from the community of Waspam in Nicaragua. Ms. Cunningham began her career as a primary education teacher, but left her community to study medicine and surgery. She became the first female Miskita doctor and worked for the Ministry of Public Health, but following the armed conflict in the late 1970’s, she returned to Waspam as a community health organizer. Ms. Cunningham also later became the first female Miskita governor in the autonomous region’s regional government. In the 1990’s, she founded and served as the director of the University of the Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, also known as URACCAN, which sought to facilitate a intercultural university community for indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. Today, she is the current Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and its Chairperson in 2012, and the President of the Center for the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) in Nicaragua.

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

The second indigenous woman to be honored was Mphatheleni Makaulule, a South African indigenous leader recognized for her work in the VhaVenda region of South Africa. There, she works alongside other indigenous women leaders called Makhadzis in a group called Dzomo la Mupo. These women leaders are custodians of the sacred natural sites and the traditional knowledge regarding seeds and soils. Together, they have been working to secure food sovereignty through the recuperation of local seed varieties and the rituals in which particular plants are used.  In addition, they stand up against threats to their land and culture, such as mining projects in the region. The knowledge of the Mikhadzis is crucial in maintaining environmental stability in the VhaVenda region.

This awards ceremony marked the conclusion of FIMI’s and Columbia’s “Indigenous Women Leaders at Columbia University, a two-day seminar,” which was hosted by ISHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia’s Deutsches Haus, May 15 -16, 2013. Participants of the seminar are a part of the first annual Global Leadership School of Indigenous Women of FIMI, which also includes online and in-person classes and attendance at the annual session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The women of the Global Leadership School come from indigenous communities from across the globe, including Sudan, Nepal, Ecuador and Peru. This two-day seminar aimed to provide the participants with a human rights and capacity-building curriculum that will give them the opportunity to explore a broader context of human rights topics and advocacy. The lectures and discussions of the Columbia two-day workshop were conducted by Columbia faculty, Prof. Elazar Barkan, Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Mr. John Washburn, Visiting Scholar, Prof. Tone Bleie,  Prof. Michael Silverman,  Prof. Amalia Cordova from New York University and UN Legal Affairs expert Ms. Anne Fosty. The lectures included topics such as “Situating human rights in International Law,” “The International Criminal Court and its relevance for indigenous peoples,” and “Ethics and compliance: the challenges of managing organizations.” The FIMI Global Leadership School, which began in February 2013, will conclude August 2013. With the success of its first year, FIMI looks forward to continued programming for the Global Leadership School and ISHR, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program and Columbia University look forward to hosting our partners and affiliates again in the future.

Megan Baker is a senior at Columbia College where she is double majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and Ethnicity and Race on the American Indian Studies tract. She is president of Native American Heritage Month and publicity chair of the Native American Council.

Good Business and Good Coffee: A Case Study of Human Rights and Sustainable Business Practices

By Colleen J. Brisport, graduate of the MA in Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

My thesis explores current theories on business, fair trade and human rights developed by scholars such as John Ruggie and Laura Raynolds. These academics have articulated the difficulties and the improbabilities of corporations sincerely incorporating human rights within their business operations. Several scholars of human rights and business, such as Kenneth Roth, believe that the ‘naming and shaming’ tactics of non-profit organizations, voluntary industry standards and legal suits are ways in which we can pressure businesses to consider human rights in their business operations and hold them accountable for their actions. However, my thesis supports a different approach and illustrates how the Starbucks Coffee Company and Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative have worked cooperatively to make economic, social and cultural rights of the Tarrazú coffee farmers an important aspect of their business relationship.

I was fourteen years old when I participated in one of the most influential service projects of my life. This event was a day of service in which a small group of students planned youth service projects, ranging from park cleanups to visits to the elderly, for over 15,000 youth volunteers.

For the four years I was involved in planning the event, Starbucks provided the after-school caffeine necessary to plan this very large and demanding day of service. They would also provide breakfast and coffee for the day of the event so that our volunteers would be ready and energized to commit to a full day of service work.  Although many different experiences and academic pursuits have lead me to write my thesis on business and human rights, I am confident that my positive experience with corporations has made me a passionate advocate and believer for integrating human rights in the private sector.

Coffee Fields in Tarrazú (tall banana trees provide the shade for the coffee plants necessary for organic farming). Photo: Colleen Brisport

The reason I chose to study Tarrazú, Costa Rica and their relationship with Starbucks Coffee Corporation is because the people of Tarrazú truly identify as a coffee community and the cultivation of coffee is integral to their social, cultural and economic rights.

The Costa Rican Coffee Institute describes the country’s relationship with coffee as such: “To truly comprehend the meaning of coffee for Costa Rica, it is important to understand that for us it is an everyday matter, but that it also represents a great value for the country’s socio-economic and environmental system.”  As a result of this relationship to coffee production, I believed that they would be very sensitive and critical of any relationship they had with private companies.

The processing plant at Coopetarrazu Coffee Cooperative. Photo: Colleen Brisport.

I traveled to Tarrazú, Costa Rica during March 2012; I expected to find the coffee farmers discontented about their relationship with Starbucks.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship was that the coffee farmers did not identify as poor farmers who were victims of capitalism and globalization as described in the literature on coffee farming and human rights. For example, in Guatemala coffee farmers are not paid a minimum wage and child labor is rampant.  As noted in The Ecologist, typically coffee farmers only earn about 10% of the retail price of the coffee they produce.  It was made clear to me in my discussions with farmers and the cooperative staff that they regarded themselves as professional business people who desired to make a profit from a product they love.  They perceive their challenges as normal experiences of any entrepreneur and seek positive relationships with multinational companies, buyers and distributors of coffee to overcome these challenges. Starbucks acknowledged this and works to ensure predictable coffee production quantity and quality for the company and for Coopetarrazu.

Even before Starbucks offered their assistance, the Tarrazú farmers were aware that conventional agriculture was ruining the environment. They knew that there was both an environmental need (due to polluted water sources and soil dilution of nutrients) and an economic need (increasing consumer demand for organic coffee) to switch to organic coffee. Starbucks is the first company to come to the community and discuss issues of environmentalism and sustainability. The most significant contribution that Starbucks has made to the community is the involvement of Starbucks scientists and agronomists in assisting the Tarrazú coffee farmers’ switch to organic farming. This is accomplished through farmers support centers where coffee farmers are trained in sustainable farming techniques.

Starbucks supports human rights by paying a price for coffee that is high enough to maintain the livelihoods of the farmers and uses ILO guidelines to monitor working conditions for coffee pickers. However, the most important aspect of the relationship cited by both Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is the ability to maintain an open and transparent relationship between the two organizations. I could certainly tell there was an amicable relationship between the two, when a cooperative administrator told me to say hello to his friends in the Starbucks office in San Jose Costa Rica.

Starbucks is currently conducting research on which coffee plants grow best in the various climates in the regions of Costa Rica where they source their coffee. The most significant aspect of the Starbucks-Coopetarrazu partnership is that Costa Rica is a country that is very environmentally conscious, believes in labor rights, is the most developed in comparison to its neighbors and still welcomes the suggestions and regulations of a private company. This suggests that the private sector can provide services, knowledge and a relationship to agricultural workers that is necessary for them to sustain their livelihoods, societies and cultures.

Sign outside the Costa Rican Coffee Institute in Tarrazú, Costa Rica.  Photo: Colleen Brisport.

It is very easy to become frustrated and irate about the egregious human rights violations of corporations. It is even more daunting when human rights advocates realize there are little legal tools or international agreements to protect individuals from corporate human rights abuses. As a result, I hope my thesis can inspire both businesses and advocates to seriously explore ways in which profits, business models, employees, producers and consumers can combine efforts to make human rights an important internal matter for private corporations. The case of Starbucks and Coopetarrazu is one example of this type of relationship.


Colleen Brisport graduated from the MA in Human Rights Studies program in October 2012 and is currently enrolled at New England School of Law in Boston. In the future, she hopes to pursue a career in business and legal consulting for organizations interested in social entrepreneurship, human rights and corporate social responsibility.  She would like to thank the community of Tarrazú, Costa Rica for participating in her research program and providing her with an invaluable life and learning experience.

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator

An Interview with Filmmaker Pamela Yates

By Jennifer Wilmore, student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs 

Filmmaker Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is an American documentary filmmaker and co-founder of SkylightPictures, a company dedicated to creating films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice.  In 1982, at the age of 24, she traveled to Guatemala to shoot footage of the hidden war unfolding there between the military government and guerrilla forces. While in Guatemala, Yates also witnessed the government’s genocidal campaign being carried out against the Mayan people mostly, in which at least 200,000 individuals were killed, “disappeared” or forced into exile.  Skylight Pictures used this footage to create a film called When the Mountains Tremble, which won the Special Jury Award at the 1984 Sundance Film Festival.

Since then, Yates has created films on a variety of issues, including poverty and homelessness in the United States, terrorism, and the International Criminal Court. Her current Sundance offering, Granito: How To Nail a Dictator, takes viewers back to Guatemala – along with Yates herself, who is the central figure of the film. Partly a political thriller and partly Yates’ memoir on filmmaking, this feature-length documentary spans four decades to take audiences through a haunting tale of genocide and justice. In the film, Yates revisits her 1982 footage to find evidence that would be entered in an international court case to prosecute those most responsible for the genocide in Guatemala.  Granito is currently up for Academy Award consideration. She also recently directed the development of Granito: Every Memory Matters, a transmedia project using mobile applications to gather testimonies from victims in Guatemala and members of the Guatemalan Diaspora in the U.S.


I had the opportunity to talk with Pamela at a Manhattan café during a busy week for her. She was premiering Granito in New York theaters, and then shortly after our meeting she left for Los Angeles to premiere the film there. To qualify for Oscar consideration, the film had to have a commercial run for at least one week in both locations. What follows is a glimpse into our very interesting conversation in New York.

.  .  .

What do you believe documentary films uniquely contribute to human rights struggles?

I think the films and media offerings we do humanize the struggle for human rights.  You probably notice that I use a lot of close-ups of faces in my films. That’s because connecting with the eyes of another person fires something in the brain that connects us as human beings. You can have brilliant, footnoted reports.  You can have good television reports.  But long-form documentaries take you on an emotional journey to meet people you probably would never be able to meet.  It also brings the voices of the powerless and of the victims into places where they might not be invited to go.

A film that had an effect on me in terms of wanting to be a filmmaker and choosing films about human rights and the quest for justice was To Kill a Mockingbird.  I didn’t articulate it at the time, but now looking back, I realize it.  I saw it when I was the same age as Scout, and the fact that a six-year-old could actually make a difference – and also this extreme sense of injustice that she had – had a really profound effect on me.

How did you first end up coming to New York?

I ran away from home when I was 16 to the most exciting and dangerous place I’d heard about: New York City. I’m from the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania, so this was like Oz. We used to listen to transistor radios under our covers at night – me and my sisters – and we would get the New York stations, and I was always like, “That’s where I’m going.”

Did you know then that you wanted to do filmmaking?

Pamela Yates in 1982

You know, I always had artistic sensibilities. I’m from a part of the Appalachian Mountains where storytelling is very big. The currency in my town was how good a story you could tell, and my father was a great storyteller. So I think filmic storytelling is just an extension of that cultural richness that I took with me from this Irish-American enclave in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

For When the Mountains Tremble, your 1982 film about Guatemala, you were able to interview some high-level people, including then-President Ríos Montt and top military officials. How did you get that kind of access?

It took a long time and a lot of persistence.  I also realized that I was at this particular moment that I could use to my advantage.  President Carter had cut off military aid to the Guatemalan military because of egregious human rights violations.  And then President Reagan was elected in 1980.  The Guatemalans wanted him to re-open military sales to expand the counter-insurgency campaign, and he was very open to that.  So they saw me and the crew as a megaphone for supporting that in the American public.

What did they think you were doing there?

Well, I never lie.  But I also don’t always tell the full story, and in that case I was concerned for my safety and the safety of the cameraperson, Tom.  Basically, we were just making a very broad statement that we wanted to tell the story of what was happening in Guatemala, and we really needed to have the military point of view.

Rigoberta Menchú, an activist who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is the narrator of When the Mountains Tremble.  How did you come to know her?

Someone brought her to our studio in New York.  She was so magnificent in the way that she spoke that we decided to show her parts of the assembly of the film, because we were at this impasse, where we had all these great scenes but nothing to really hold it together as a film.  She watched the assembly, then came back and for a few days looked at everything, and she wrote her part.

When exactly did you film her?

In 1983.  She’s actually never in Guatemala, because she was in exile, but the way we filmed makes you feel like she’s a part of it. So her story is told in parallel with this story of what was going on in Guatemala.

You have said that in 2003 a lawyer asked you to look through outtakes of your 1982 footage for evidence that could be used in a genocide case in the Spanish national courts. Was it through this process of revisiting your old footage that you decided to make your newest film, Granito, partly a memoir?

Well first of all, the story was so circular about destinies.  Rigoberta was the plaintiff that brought the case.  So that was one thing.  And then when we started to look through the footage, I saw myself in the footage.  I’m in every single shot, either at the beginning or the end of the shot.  And I realized that I could actually make the film about documentary filmmaking.  I realized I could be a witness.

There’s a part in Granito where you show When the Mountains Tremble to children in the Highlands area where people were killed in the 1980s – was that the first time they had seen the film? 

They had never seen the film before.  And I got the impression from the look on a lot of the older people’s faces that they had never actually seen images like that.  The guerrilla resistance was something that everybody talked about or heard about.  But then to actually see it… they hadn’t seen images like that in a very long time.

Do you find that younger generations’ parents haven’t really been telling them these stories?

Yeah, often.  Especially in the Highlands, because they’re sheltering their kids.  They don’t want them to know about it. They don’t want them to lash out and put themselves in danger.

And then sometimes I think people who have been persecuted feel on some level like it’s their fault and don’t want to share it with anyone else.  For a long time, a lot of the villages in Guatemala thought they were the only ones attacked.  It was only many years later when they all came together that they realized it was this widespread and systemic plan.

Granito follows the process of building a genocide case in the Spanish courts against Guatemalan military forces from the 1980s.  Have people actually been arrested and convicted through this court?

No, but there’s actually this trend happening in Guatemala.  It’s what they call the “Pinochet effect,” where you start with an international court, and that makes it possible for the domestic court cases to move forward.  The fact that there was an international case in Spain emboldened judges and prosecutors in Guatemala into saying, “Now that this evidence has been uncovered in the Spanish national court, we can take that evidence and do it here.”

So on June 17th, the chief of staff under Ríos Montt was arrested and charged with genocide. No army officer in the history of Latin America has been charged with genocide, so this is a precedent. And several special forces people have been arrested and convicted.  More perpetrators of those crimes have been arrested and convicted in Guatemala in the last three months than in the past 30 years.  So we’re really seeing this tipping point for justice.

What would you tell students who might want to get involved with your production company?

Send me an email.

Jennifer Wilmore is pursuing a Master of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, with a focus on human rights and a specialization in international media, advocacy and communications.