Young Professionals in Human Rights: An Interview with Isabel Erreguerena

Beginning this week, I will be interviewing individuals working in the field of human rights and presenting their experiences to the GEN community. I hope that this effort will foster more communication, dialogue and exchange of information! 

Have a question for Isabel? Please post as comments and I will get them answered! 

Isabel Erreguerena, our first guest, is currently an Alumni Fund Scholar, pursuing her LLM in International Legal Studies at American University, Washington D.C. We spoke to her briefly about her past and current activities in the area of human rights, about her home country Mexico, and her plans for the future. 

1.       Can you tell us about your educational background- where did you complete your undergraduate studies from?

I studied my Bachelor of Laws LL.B. (equivalent to U.S. Juris Doctor Degree) in the Instituto Tecnologico de Mexico (ITAM) a private university in Mexico.  During my Bachelors, I had the opportunity to work in various research projects related to the Ombudsperson in Mexico.  One of the projects was focused on analyzing the work of the Ombudsperson with regard to migrant's rights in Mexico.  In this project, we also developed a handbook to help the migrants how to present their complaints to the Ombudsperson.  I was also involved in a project called “Atalaya Program,” with Prof. Miguel Sarre, member of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.  The Atalaya program is a watchdog project that monitors and assesses the work of the Ombudsperson of Mexico.

2.       How did your interest in human rights issues develop- what specifically drew you to the study of human rights law?

I have always had a passion for human rights, especially for minorities’ rights.  My interest comes from my childhood: having a brother with cerebral palsy brought me in direct contact with people with disabilities.  I became aware of the importance of creating ways to protect their rights.  That is why since I was young I became involved in creating organizations to achieve this goal. This enabled me to work with different vulnerable groups like street children and persons in jails. When I was in high school, I founded a student group to support street children in Mexico.  During my Bachelors, I acted as a treasurer in a student group “Por los derechos.” which aimed to promote the protection in human rights.  During my work in “Por los derechos,” we launched different campaigns— for e.g. one focused on raising awareness of the situation of the penitentiary system in Mexico. We also did a campaign to raise awareness about cluster bombs in Latin America, especially in Colombia.


3.       Currently you are studying at American University.  What kind of courses are you pursuing and what specific research, if any, are you pursuing?

During my LL.M. in Human Rights at the American University, I have taken courses in ‘Prevention of Genocide’ and ‘Prevention of Torture’ and ‘Terrorism and Human Rights’.  Currently I am pursuing courses in ‘Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’, ‘Comparative Law of Religion’, ‘Regional Systems of Protection of Human Rights’, ‘Women in Conflict’ and ‘Impact Litigation’. I am doing research on International Criminal Law and how it relates to the war on drug in Mexico, focusing on the crimes that are being committed and ways to prevent them, as well as assessing measures to prevent impunity.

4.       What kind of activities are you involved in currently in the field of human rights- both through American University and otherwise?

Currently, I work as a Dean Fellow with the Center of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the Washington College of Law (WCL) on the project ‘Human Rights Teaching and Research Partnership Program’. Under this project, WCL has received a $1 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through Higher Education for Development (HED) to facilitate a partnership among the law school and two universities in Cali, Colombia to expand and support teaching of human rights. The project seeks to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights in Colombia.  I am really proud and excited to be collaborating on this project because I believe that education and information dissemination on issues of protection of human rights is a core element to promote human rights.  I am also excited that the regional focus of my work is Colombia, a country I really admire – given its tumultuous past and problems similar to Mexico.

I am also working as a Foreign Legal Specialist with the Public International Law & Policy Group, a pro bono firm, which collaborates with governments and different groups on issues of war crimes prosecution, post conflict constitution drafting and negotiation of peace agreements. In 2005, the firm was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by its clients. I currently work with the PILPG Team for South Sudan, Burma, and Yemen and I enjoy my to work, which includes providing advice on peace agreements and constitutional drafting, focusing on the promotion of transitional justice and human rights, at some very crucial moments for our clients.

I am also the Secretary of the LLM Board of WCL and through this work I am involved in promoting different human rights activities on campus— to raise awareness of the human rights issues many of my classmates are working on.  Outside of WCL, I work as an advisor to a NGO in Mexico focused on Trafficking of Persons called AGAPE.  I also collaborate in several publications related to human rights including Human Rights Brief, IJCentralAsuntos del Sur and Factor Internacional.

5.       Prior to joining the LLM program, where were you working?

Prior to joining the LLM, I was working with the Permanent Mission of Mexico to the United in Nations as a lawyer.  I followed closely the legal topics on the agenda of the Security Council and the General Assembly, including the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court and the 1267 Security Council Committee concerning Al-Qaida.  I was also involved in the negotiations for creation of the Ombudsperson for the 1267 Committee, a huge step towards ensuring due process for persons subjected to the Committee’s sanctions.  I also participated in meetings where the human rights violations of Darfur were discussed.

Before going to New York, I worked in the Federal Institute of Access to Public Governmental Information in Mexico City where I drafted resolutions related to the right of access to public information for the Government of Mexico. My work was relevant to promote accountability of federal officers, which had broader implications for improvements in public policies.

6.       What was the nature of your work and responsibilities and how did your background in human rights law help you with your work? 

Part of my work in the Permanent Mission of Mexico was to attend negotiations and meetings in the United Nations.  During some of these meetings, we analyzed proposals for resolutions, before such resolutions were formally adopted. I also participated in the Security Council Working Group on International Tribunals. My background in human rights law gave me skills that allowed me to critically analyze information and materials before me and ensure a rigorous maintenance of international human rights standards. Regarding my work in the Federal Institute of Access to Public Governmental Information in Mexico, I used my knowledge of human rights as the starting point when I drafted projects on the right of information, considering the interrelation between human rights and right to information.

7.       What is the area in human rights law which you most particularly identify with and would like to work on a sustained basis in the future? 

My main interest in human rights law lies specifically in two areas:  minorities’ rights and human rights protection in conflict and post conflict situations.


8.       How does the LLM program at American University fit in with your plan for, say, your future work?

I will say that the LLM program at American University is a great option, for two reasons. The first one is that you have an opportunity to have classes with leaders and great achievers in human rights from the international community. For example, with Prof. Juan Mendez, former Undersecretary for Genocide to the UN and current UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is on the faculty of the WCL.  Prof. Mendez was also one of the persons who helped designed the Inter-American System of Human Rights. I have also had the opportunity to take classes with Prof. Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Deputy Executive Secretary for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Prof. Robert Goldman, Eminent Jurist and Panelist on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights of the International Commission of Jurists.  Having classes with such thought leaders of the international human rights community help you learn how the system works, and the concerns for the future. 

The second reason that the LLM in the American University is a great option is your classmates. My LLM class is a remarkable group of 100+ people from 72 countries, which allows me an opportunity to learn about the fight for defending human rights in other parts of the world.  This also gives me an opportunity to create networks in the field of human rights for future work.


9.       What do you plan to do once you have finished your LLM program—do you plan to return to Mexico to work?

After finishing my LLM program, I would like to stay in DC for a year and work on issues, preferably related to the Inter-American System of Human Rights.  After this, I would like to return to Mexico to help the ongoing work in the field of human rights, through the government or through a NGO.


10.   In Mexico particularly, what do you think is one of the most important human rights challenges in current times?

The most important challenge in Mexico currently are the violations committed in the context of the war on drugs. The violence has worsened and every day we wake up with news about tortured and mutilated bodies being found.  Just yesterday, 12 bodies of members of a music band were found in Nuevo Leon state. The authorities have not been able to combat this violence and in response, they have approved amendments that give the police more powers. This has translated in reports of International NGOs denouncing torture as an “epidemic” and a systematic practice in Mexico.  In addition, other abuses of authority by the government have been denounced, as well as forced disappearances.

11.   Tell us about the presence of a human rights community in Mexico—how does it organize itself, what are the kind of activities, what are the major issues it faces? 

The human rights community is strong in Mexico.  There is a National Network of NGOs called Red todos los Derechos para Todos. Seventy-three NGOs are part of this network from 21 of the 31 States of Mexico.  This network has done a great job in coordinating the work on human rights across Mexico and has been recognized internationally for its efforts and contributions. One of the problems the human right community faces in Mexico is the duplication of tasks—most NGOs focus in migrants, women’s rights and due process. Another serious problem it faces is the continuous attacks on human rights defenders.


12.   What are your future plans, say 5 years and 10 years from now- where do you see yourself working?

In 5-10 years, I see myself working in the promotion of human rights preferably with an international organization, or the Mexican government, or NGO or an academic institution.


13.   You diligently contribute writings on human rights issues—both to the Human Rights Brief at the American University as well as to various other publications in Mexico.  Could you tell us about your experience on writing about the spectrum of human rights issues that you cover in your writing—how do you arrive at a particular issue, the kind of research do you undertake, how long it takes you to research and write on a particular issue? 

I have particular interest in conflict and post conflicts situations so I continually monitor the news. When I find a particular issue that has significant implications on human rights, I try and understand the legal analysis and start researching on it. I do the same thing about minorities rights and women’s rights.


14.   For new entrants in the field of human rights— do you have any recommendations about how to develop and nurture their skills in the area?  What tips you would give to our readers who may want to write on pressing human rights issues but do not know where and how to begin?

I really recommend to stay on top on the news in human rights, understanding what happens in the field is a great way of understanding the importance of the protection of human rights and the forthcoming challenges. A great way of doing this is by reading articles and Op-Eds issued by different think tanks and policy institutions as well as through the use of social media, which gives you an opportunity to connect with people interested in human rights from all over the world. I recommend maintaining an active blog and blogging about these issues and circulating them via social media or other networks—this helps in improving analytical and writing skills.

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