07 September 2023
On 7, 8 and 9 September, the University of Deusto hosted the AHRI Conference, a major event in the human rights field that brought together more than 80 Human Rights Institutes from the five continents.
Nearly 200 academics, researchers and important leaders of institutions and professionals working in the human rights field took part in this Conference hosted by the Deusto Pedro Arrupe Human Rights Institute, in collaboration with the International Association of Human Rights Institutes (AHRI). The University has been a member of this network since 2013 and its participation consolidates the commitment of the Society of Jesus and Deusto to the human rights cause.
The President of the Basque Government, Iñigo Urkullu, and the Rector, Juan José Etxeberria, opened this world event entitled "Human rights defenders under siege" on 7 September. This conference seeks to highlight the key role of human rights defenders in today's society, as well as the challenges and dangers they face in certain contexts.
As Rector Etxebarria pointed out, he choice of this theme is particularly relevant as the year 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1998. Despite this legal instrument, the situation faced by people trying to defend human rights on 5 continents remains dramatic. Although the Declaration has brought some progress, defenders continue to face threats, attacks, stigmatisation, criminalisation and prosecution, disappearances, torture and assassinations. Certain groups such as women human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, children or members of the LGTBI+ community are in a situation of greater vulnerability, with multiple forms of discrimination and stigmatisation. This all takes place in a climate of growing impunity, which shows the lack of political will on the part of many states to effectively protect the work of human rights defenders and to prosecute crimes against them.
A safer world
Juan José Exteberria expressed his concern about this situation and pointed out that, in fact, Deusto is experiencing it first-hand. In this regard, he recalled the death in 2019 of Cristina Bautista, a Deusto student who was murdered in Colombia along with her bodyguards for her work as a human rights defender. A year later, Santiago Manuin, a Peruvian indigenous leader and also a former student at the University, died after years of illness as a result of injuries sustained to stop the violence in the context of the confrontation over the extraction of natural resources. He also spoke of the hosting of a number of human rights defenders from Afghanistan last year, which has served to share their situation and the need for their flight from the country.
And more recently, he referred to the situation in Nicaragua and the arbitrary decisions of his government to close the Central American University in Managua and the outlawing of the Society of Jesus in the country. “The UCA is a sister university," he said, "with which we have many ties, so we are very close to their suffering and what it means for the cause of freedom and human rights in Nicaragua". For this reason, he announced that Deusto is preparing to be able to welcome UCA students who cannot continue their studies there "and who are knocking on our doors".
The Rector added that, in the face of these realities, "we at the Academia want to accept our responsibility and commitment to contribute to a better and safer world". And the University does this, in addition to the initiatives already mentioned, through a wide range of projects in education, research and impact-transfer. He highlighted the Human Rights Training Programme for Indigenous Leaders in Latin America, for its special link to the figure of human rights defenders. More than 130 indigenous leaders, defenders of human rights and their right to land and territory, have been trained at Deusto in the international human rights system and in issues related to the defence, protection and promotion of their rights. Santiago and Cristina were students of this programme. Full speech.
The black experience in the Basque Country
In turn, the Basque President, Iñigo Urkullu, recalled the violation of rights that the Basque Country has suffered for decades as a result of "a black and long dictatorship, and also due to the attacks of unreason and the injustice of terrorism and violence", and assured that these attitudes have long had no place in the Basque Country, although "even today," he said, "we are still in an open process, trying to heal the wounds little by little". He noted that despite awareness of the fact that we are living in new times, "we must never forget that some people are no longer with us".
In his opinion, this long "black experience" has strengthened the Basque Country's commitment to a model of coexistence based on non-violence, ethical and democratic principles and values, and the active defence, protection and effective guarantee of human rights.
At another point in his speech, he stressed that the world is going through difficult times for human rights and warned of a "real danger of involution". He also condemned the recent closure of the Central American University (UCA), founded and run by the Society of Jesus, by the Nicaraguan government. Finally, Iñigo Urkullu thanked the "modest but singular" contribution of this international conference to the "collective effort to defend, strengthen and guarantee Human Rights worldwide". Full speech.
The institutional opening of the Conference was also attended by Gorka Urrutia, director of the Deusto Human Rights Institute, and Kasey McCall-Smith, president of AHRI, as well as Wangui Kimari, director of the Matare Social Justice Center in Nairobi, Kenya, and Tania Reneaum, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who gave the keynote speeches.
Other attendees at this welcoming ceremony were Nerea Melgosa, Basque Minister for Equality, Justice and Social Policies; Inés Ibáñez de Maeztu, Deputy to the Ararteko; José Antonio Rodríguez Ranz, Basque Deputy Minister for Human Rights, Memory and Cooperation; Felipe Gómez, researcher at the Deusto Human Rights Institute and member of the AHRI Network Council; Manfred Nowak, Secretary General of the Global Campus of Human Rights in Venice; Javier Arellano, Vice-Rector of Research and International Relations at Deusto; and Gema Tomás, Dean of the Deusto Law School.
An uncertain global context
AHRI's aim has been to encourage debate, sharing of experiences and identification of good practices that contribute to strengthening the protection and promotion of all human rights in an increasingly uncertain global context. To this end, the conference invited leading human rights experts, including Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, and Lourdes Castro of "Somos Defensores" from Colombia, who raised the issue of impunity in Colombia.
In her presentation "¿Quién tiene miedo a los defensores de los Derechos Humanos?” she explained that, despite the protection mechanisms in place, the risk against human rights defenders persists. "There are more and more murders," she said, "and those who fight for the environment and for indigenous peoples are the ones who suffer the most. The most common attacks are threats: "Through fear, they try to get people to give up their work". In her view, impunity enables violence. She cited that 1,333 murders were committed between 2002 and 2022, and of these only 75 resulted in convictions. Lourdes Castro has not forgotten the work of defenders in recent years: "Among other things, they have supported vulnerable people and contributed to the release of those unjustly detained," she said.
Other speakers were Antoine Buyse, from the SIM Human Rights Institute of the University of Utrecht; José Aylwin, from the Observatorio Ciudadano in Chile; Mario Hurtado, from Espacio OSC in Mexico; and María Díaz de la Cebosa, president of the RFK Human Rights Spain Foundation, who gave a presentation entitled "Speak Truth to Power: an interactive method to teach human rights literacy to young people". In this talk, she spoke about this programme that aims to train young people committed to the defence of human rights, so that they can make a difference in their communities and promote a culture of defence of human rights in their respective educational institutions.
The STTP programme is based on the book written by Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter and president of the global foundation. It draws on more than 80 cases of human rights defenders worldwide and is structured around the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More than 6,000 students and 400 teachers have benefited from it since its inception in Spain in 2015.
Other topics discussed at this conference: "Growing pressure on civil society: barriers and opportunities for the defence of human rights", "The role of academia in supporting human rights defenders" or "Public policies and regulatory frameworks for the protection of human rights". These round tables and presentations were complemented by a large number of parallel sessions on various topics.
See further information and full programme here.