MedellÍn & Minnesota - Partners in Human Rights

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2014

A unique program at the University of Minnesota is helping shape human rights advocacy in Colombia

By J. Trout Lowen

It’s a chilly fall day, but the discussion in University of Minnesota Professor Barbara Frey’s graduate seminar on human rights advocacy is rapidly heating up. About a dozen students are clustered around a blackboard dusty with chalk diagrams and leafleted with multicolored sticky notes. The students are trying to map a human rights problem: How does the criminal justice system in Colombia work, and who are the institutional actors responsible for prosecuting human right abuses? Puzzled by the intricacies of the country’s legal system, the students turn to Juliana Velez, a 24-year-old exchange student from the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia, for help.

Velez, who earned her law degree in Colombia before coming to the University last fall, is well aware that obtaining justice from the country’s courts is not always a straightforward affair, especially when it comes to the poor. So with translation help from a Spanish-speaking student from Mexico, she does her best to answer the students’ rapid-fire questions. By the end of the session, Frey’s class has a more sophisticated understanding of the Colombian legal system. They also have a better grasp on the laws and legal mechanisms they can use when advocating for people in need—a vital part of the learning process for these students, for whom human rights questions can be a matter of life and death.

sp2014_medellininmn3Velez, Palacios, and other law students from the Universidad de Medellín are assisting residents of La Picacha, pictured here, who are threatened with eviction.

Frey is the director of the University’s Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts, and these students are participants in a unique partnership between the Human Rights Program, the Law School’s Human Rights Center, and four Colombian law schools in the city of Medellín and the surrounding state of Antioquia. Funded by a $1.25 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the partnership aims to strengthen Medellín law schools’ ability to teach, research, and provide clinical legal representation that promotes international human rights and laws.

It’s also intended to improve Colombian citizens’ access to justice, especially in historically underserved rural areas ravaged by decades of civil war and illegal drug trafficking. “Ultimately, the purpose of the grant is to provide legal services to vulnerable populations,” Frey says, explaining that over the course of the three-year program students and faculty from the University of Minnesota will collaborate with students and faculty at the Universidad de Medellín, Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, and Universidad Católica de Oriente to develop curriculum and faculty expertise, as well as educate students about human rights law.


The University of Minnesota has long been known for its expertise in human rights education and advocacy. Since the late 1980s, the Institute for Global Studies and the Law School have offered graduate and undergraduate courses in human rights law. Frey and Law School Professor David Weissbrodt, who codirects the Antioquia partnership, are widely recognized for their human rights work. Frey spent a decade as director of the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights, and has served as director of the University’s Human Rights Program since its creation in 2001.

A noted legal scholar, Weissbrodt helped establish the University’s online Human Rights Library, a unique repository of more than 60,000 human rights documents in multiple languages. More than 250,000 students, scholars, and activists access the library each month from more than 150 countries. All of this experience, along with the breadth of involvement of University faculty and the Twin Cities Human Rights community, fueled USAID’s decision to fund the grant.

Each semester through the summer of 2015, University faculty will conduct workshops and teach courses in Medellín. At the same time, one visiting faculty member and two students from Colombia will spend a semester here, studying and discussing human rights law and practice. The ongoing exchange will benefit everyone involved, Frey says, noting that University faculty “will certainly learn as much as they will teach” and then share that knowledge with students from both countries. “The goal is to help the students (in Colombia) use human rights law more strategically in their cases,” Frey explains. “But it’s also great for our students because they get to work on real human rights cases, and to understand human rights law in another context. You really have to work on real-world cases or it becomes the study of human rights from afar.”

Partnering at a Critical Time

In addition to funding the University/Colombia partnership, USAID has also funded partnerships between Colombian law schools and American University and the University of Florida. All three grant-supported programs come at a critical time. The oldest democracy in South America, Colombia has experienced decades of civil war, drug trafficking, and endemic government corruption. Slowly, though, things have been changing for the better. In 2012, for example, the Colombian government initiated peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known as the guerilla group FARC. For many, the talks represent the first real opportunity for a peaceful end to the ongoing conflict that has left 220,000 Colombians dead and more than 5.7 million citizens displaced.


Also in 2012, the Colombian government began implementing the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which will return millions of acres of abandoned and stolen land to people forced to flee their homes and farms during violent conflicts between government forces, rebels, and right-wing paramilitary groups. As some measure of peace and stability returns to the country, economic activity and tourism have increased. Medellín is becoming known for its cutting-edge public transportation rather than for being the home territory of the notorious late drug lord Pablo Escobar. USAID believes that engaging law schools in training students who can represent vulnerable groups and monitor their treatment is vital to the creation of a more civil society.

Juliana Velez agrees. She is heartened that President Juan Manuel Santo wants to negotiate with the guerillas after what has been, for her, a lifetime of war. But she knows Colombia’s struggles are far from over. “Some places you can be safe,” she explains. “There are public services. The justice system and the courts are functioning and are good. It is not the disordered country it was in the 1990s, but we have places where it is so dangerous, where there is territorial conflict between paramilitaries and criminal bands.”

In rural areas, Velez continues, residents continue to suffer violent conflict, forced displacements, illegal drug trafficking, and the more recent scourge of illegal gold mining by criminal and rebel groups seeking to replace cocaine with a new income stream. Land restoration efforts are painfully slow as well. Though they received thousands of claims, the Colombian courts had ordered just 15 restitutions by the end of 2012, and land claimants and the human rights advocates who support them are routinely threatened and killed.

[h3Working Together for Change

Velez knows that human rights advocates, including lawyers, may sometimes be risking their lives to help their clients, but she is committed to improving access to justice for the country’s poor. It’s something she learned from her mother. “She is not an activist, but she is a peaceful person all of the time,” Velez explains. “This moment in Colombia is important because the government wants to speak about peace.”

During their six-week visit to the University, Velez and fellow Colombian student Martine Palacios, 20, worked hard to learn all they could to prepare for the real-life cases they will be handling back home. For Palacios, one of the most helpful things was learning about the clinical legal education component of the U’s program. Though law school students in the United States engage in clinical legal education—practicing law hands-on by providing free legal services to the poor while in school—that kind of training doesn’t happen in Colombia, where legal education tends to emphasize the technical aspects of the law rather than its application.

Currently, students in Minnesota and Colombia are working jointly on two legal issues. The first involves the court-ordered displacement of residents living in poor barrios along the Picacha River in Medellín, and the second is the drafting of a report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child calling attention to plight of impoverished girls and displaced families in the Antioquia regions.

The La Picacha case was originally cast as an environmental lawsuit. The river, which flows through Medellín, overflows it banks frequently, destroying slums where the poor live. Some residents have died in the flooding. The Medellín government wants to build dams or levies to control the river and stop the flooding, and the local court has ordered the forced eviction and relocation of nearly 200 families living in the flood zone.

Students from the Universidad de Medellín have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the affected families to stop the evictions because the government’s relocation plans put residents in a dangerous area controlled by a rival criminal gang. Working with Velez and Palacios, University law students have drafted an amicus brief in support of the residents arguing for an alternative relocation plan on human rights grounds. “The University has been helping us see the case’s larger human rights perspective,” Velez says, noting that the people living in the flood zone don’t have adequate housing.

Seeing how their work fits into the larger arena of international human rights is one of the biggest lessons Velez and Palacios have learned. “Here, when you’re working with a human rights issue, it’s collaborative,” Velez says. “I think that’s fundamental because when you work in a group you are more strong. You have more strategies, more contacts, more ways to make the problem visible.”

Changing Lives Through Advocacy

Like Velez, Palacios, who is halfway through law school at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín, hopes to use what he learns at the University to better help people back home. Even one person can change things, Palacios says, adding that he was inspired to pursue law by his father, who taught him to think critically and to look at situations from multiple perspectives.

Being exposed to so many new perspectives and ways of thinking about human rights has already had a significant impact on the way Palacios views human rights in his country. For example, in the past he had little sympathy for the FARC. Instead, he favored former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s policy of “democratic security” that targeted guerilla groups while being supported by billions of dollars in aid.


Although Uribe’s democratic security policy did make some parts of Colombia safer, reducing the number of homicides, kidnappings, and terror attacks, it escalated the human rights crisis. Like many others in Colombia, Palacios says he believed the harsh measures were necessary to combat the guerillas and that he didn’t fully understand the negative impact of Uribe’s policy. Looking back with the benefit of his human rights training, he no longer views the guerillas as the enemy.

Such a broad collaboration between law schools is unprecedented, not just in Colombia but in the United States as well, Frey says. That collaboration has been especially important for Palacios. He is the only law student in his school interested in working on the La Picacha case; many of his peers have never even been to the court building in Medellín because it’s located in a dangerous area of the city. Many of his classmates graduate without ever having attended a legal hearing, he says.

Working on La Picacha with students from the Universidad de Antioquia has made the law come alive, Palacios says. “Before, I know all the rules about the process, but when you see and meet the people, have the practical experience, it is very different,” he says. “This has changed my life, my way to see the world, my way to see the law.”

J. Trout Lowen (B.A. ’89) is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.


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