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Jonathan Eoloff

2001/2004 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Fellowship site: Center for Justice and International Law, San Jose, Costa Rica

By Pat McGroarty
August 2, 2004



1. What sparked your passion for human rights? What sparked your passion for law, and how did the two come together for you?

“I was fortunate to have grown up with a progressive and politically active family. As a child I recall being told by my parents that my mother was going to climb the fence at Honeywell in opposition to their manufacture of nuclear parts and that she most likely would be incarcerated. In addition to my parents’ acts of civil disobedience, my family hosted Central American refugees in our home. In the 1980’s, they were fleeing the violence perpetrated against them during the U.S. sponsored counter-insurgency wars in their respective countries. In 1998 my parents adopted Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli nuclear whistleblower who, in 1986, revealed to the world through the London Sunday Times that Israel did indeed have nuclear weaponry and was subsequently sentenced to prison for 18 years, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. Thus, throughout my life, I have been exposed to the injustices that people have confronted, often at the hands of U.S. foreign policy. My subsequent undergraduate studies in international relations, with a concentration on Latin America, bolstered my interest in human rights and provided the intellectual basis for my understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the region.”

“I decided to pursue the study of law not because I wanted to be an attorney, but because I wanted to be an advocate. More specifically, I wanted to pursue a career in international human rights law and law school seemed to be the most conducive way to pursue that. Beyond the traditional curriculum, law school provides the unique opportunity to study international human rights law and related courses while at the same time allowing students to advocate on behalf of disadvantaged clients in law clinics.”

2. What experience have you had working with human rights issues in the past, and how did that lead you to pursue this fellowship?

“After graduating from college, I spent a year in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala which has a sister-city relationship with Minnesota. In San Lucas, I taught in a village school for the entire school year in addition to working on development projects, in an orphanage for children whose parents had disappeared, and in a nutrition center for malnourished children. My time in Guatemala had a profound impact on me. I lived and worked alongside Guatemalans who suffered human rights violations from the counter-insurgency war and who faced abject poverty on a daily basis.”

“I subsequently returned to Guatemala where I worked with Witness for Peace for two and one-half years. The mission of Witness for Peace is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing United States’ policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. During my tenure with Witness for Peace I was principal researcher and writer of the published A Crude Awakening, a 1998 report examining a World Bank project to construct an oil pipeline in an internationally recognized ecosystem of rainforests and wetlands in northern Guatemala. In hosting delegates from the United States to Guatemala, I also developed delegation pedagogy and curriculum that provided insight and knowledge to delegates about central issues such as World Bank reform, anti-sweatshop campaigns and peace accord implementation. I was also responsible for planning and facilitating the delegations as well as interpreting for U.S. citizens as we met with diverse groups including labor, human rights, and peasant organizations and governmental entities.”

“Prior to enrolling in law school, I worked with Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights’ local partner in Mexico. As a fellow in Mexico for three months, I developed the advocacy initiative for the Global Child Survival Project which sought to promote children’s right to survival. Operating out of both Mexico City and Oaxaca City, I assisted the local partner in conducting workshops related to child survival as a human right with rural and indigenous communities. In addition, we trained community leaders how to access the legal system by filing “denunicas” (legal complaints) in court, as a means for community members to enforce a child’s right to survive as a fundamental right.”

“During my tenure as a law student, I worked with Sandra Babcock, Director of the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, a program established by the Government of Mexico to protect the rights of Mexican nationals facing the death penalty throughout the United States. In January of 2003, Mexico initiated proceedings against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice in The Hague, alleging that the U.S. has systematically violated the consular notification provisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) in the cases of Mexican nationals facing the death penalty. For the memorial submitted in June 2003, and the oral arguments in December 2003, I conducted legal research, addressing issues including the vulnerability of foreign nationals during interrogations and foreign jurisprudence involving national decisions on VCCR claims.”

“I decided to pursue an Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellowship because I received a legal internship with CEJIL, the Center for Justice and International Law, in San Jose, Costa Rica for the summer of 2004.”

3. What issues central to the mission of CEJIL intrigued you?

“CEJIL is a non-governmental, non-profit organization with consultative status before the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations. CEJIL’s principal objective is to achieve the full implementation of international human rights norms in the member states of the OAS through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. CEJIL is the first organization to offer an integrated program of defense, free legal counseling, education, and oversight of the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights.”

“As a legal intern with CEJIL, I drafted a brief for a death penalty case against Guatemala to be submitted before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, also located in San Jose, Costa Rica. In addition, I conducted research for hearings before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a case against Guatemala involving the political extra-judicial killings of a journalist and presidential candidate. I also assisted in the preparation of witnesses for hearings on this case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as well as attended the Court hearings on the merits and reparations for this case. Finally, I conducted Inter-American system research and drafted a memo for a case against Nicaragua involving the exclusion of indigenous communities from the political process.”

4. What were your expectations before leaving for Costa Rica, and how has your experience compared to those expectations?

“I am not sure what I expectations I entertained prior to departing for Costa Rica, but any concerns I had about working with CEJIL were quickly dispelled as I have been fortunate to have had such an invaluable learning experience with them. In addition to having been exposed to the Inter-American system and its procedural aspects, I have assumed a substantive role in the investigation and drafting of legal documentation in support of cases that CEJIL has brought both before the Inter-American Commission and the Court. The CEJIL attorneys entrusted me with a lot of responsibility in the work they delegated to me and I am incredibly fortunate to have had such a rewarding experience with them.”

5. Can you see the results of your work in the community around you?

“I have grown both personally and professionally from my experience working with CEJIL this summer. In terms of results, I have been amazed at how quickly the Inter-American Court has applied provisional measures protecting the victims represented by CEJIL. In addition, CEJIL has been at the forefront in opening the dialogue with governments who have committed human rights violations in working to ensure that resolution in these cases could impact the implementation of international human rights norms be it through its effect on the areas of law, domestic practices, individual cases or state policies. Moreover, CEJIL has been instrumental in ensuring that victims receive the reparations required to guarantee that justice prevails. On a personal level, it was both shocking and fulfilling to witness during the Court hearings Guatemala accept responsibility for human rights violations the State had perpetrated against its citizens.”

6. How do you think your experiences will effect or change your goals or actions upon return to Minnesota? Do you think things that you have learned in Costa Rica will be of use to your work in the Minnesota community?

“My experience working with CEJIL this summer has confirmed my desire and passion to work in international human rights arena upon graduation from law school. I have the opportunity to familiarize myself with the Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights and I would like to further expand my working knowledge of such system. I think as citizens of the world it has been rewarding to know that there is hope and possibility for change amidst the violence, suffering and oppression that continue to pervade the global community.”

7. What does “human rights” mean to you?

“‘Human rights’ means not going to bed hungry, to have appropriate health care, to be free from oppression and discrimination, the ability to live life, the most inalienable right, to its fullest without fear of persecution or retaliation. Human rights means the ability to participate in the political process and life-sustaining activities.”

8. What responsibility do we have as citizens and as people to the protection and promotion of human rights?

“As global citizens, we are morally obligated to ensure that all peoples’ human rights are protected. Perhaps more important is recognizing that international law provides the mechanisms for overseeing and enforcing the protection of human rights when domestic laws fail to do so or when a nation’s own laws for protecting its citizens are relegated to the back burner. The instruments are there, but the will and infrastructure to respect such instruments are essential.”

9. What advice do you have for those interested pursuing a career in human rights?

“Be patient, perseverant and steadfast. Have hope and be receptive to continually learning along the process.”

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