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Tony Fernandes

1992 Upper Midwest Human Rights Fellow
Site: South African Council of Churches, Johannesburg, South Africa

By Pat McGroarty
July 28, 2004


1. Where did your passion for human rights work originate? Why is working for human rights advocacy important to you?

“My passion for human rights began at Boston College. I was always interested in people and history. Studying political science made me aware of the foundations of our ideas regarding human rights, and that in many places in the world human rights were unknown principles. Human rights are still very important in my career. I am a U.S. Diplomat working at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. Every day I serve as a representative of American ideals and principles. A bedrock foundation of U.S. foreign policy is human rights. I hope to have a positive influence on Russians as they struggle with the issue of what human rights are and how they should be protected.”

2. What brought you from Boston College to the University of Minnesota’s law school?

“The main attraction to Minnesota was the Human Rights Center. I had met a student, Hitoshi Hasegawa, who was a Human Rights Fellow the previous year and worked in Geneva. Once I heard from him the great time he had working in Geneva and with the Human Rights Center I was set on attending Minnesota. I have to admit I had never visited the Midwest and actually had my sights set on a law school in warmer climes than Minneapolis, but I just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to work with David Weissbrodt and Kristi Rudelius-Palmer at the Human Rights Center.”

3. How did the Human Rights Center play a role in your law school career?

“The Human Rights Center played an important role in steering my career toward the international arena. My experiences with the Human Rights Center and as a fellow were so positive that after graduation I wanted to seek out additional international work. I was lucky enough to work with the National Democratic Institute in Ghana and with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Nigeria on two electoral projects. Those doors were opened because I was a former Human Rights Fellow.”

4. How did you learn about the Council of South African Churches? Why did a fellowship working with that organization and in South Africa appeal to you?

“I learned about the South African Council of Churches (SACC) through Kristi Rudelius-Palmer. She had a very good contact, Thekiso Tlhacoane, who was working with the SACC. He made arrangements for me to work with the SACC. I was interested in the SACC because they were on the frontlines of the war against apartheid. When I arrived in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had just been released from jail. The society I stepped into believed that a household pet had more human rights than a black South African citizen. The idea that Nelson Mandela would someday be president was as ridiculous to the average South African as the idea that Frodo of “Lord of the Rings” fame could be president of the United States. South Africa was an upside down society where the worst human excesses were legal and sanctioned by the government. In my opinion, there was no better place in the world to work on human rights issues than in South Africa.”

5. What was your role at the Council in South Africa? What were you able to accomplish in your time there, and how did the experience compare to your expectations?

“I had several different roles. First I documented the numerous and continuous violations of the human rights of non-white South Africans. Second, I recommended courses of action in response to human rights violations. For example, seeking redress via the court system. The experience was great and well worth the hardships.”

6. What did you take away from your fellowship? How did it affect your studies, your personal perspective, and your career after your return?

“The fellowship encouraged me to pursue a career in international affairs.”

7. What work do you do now? How does human rights advocacy play a role in your career, and how did your Fellowship affect that role?

“I am Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State. I have been involved with human rights issues in China, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa and now in Russia.”

8. What does the term “human rights” mean to you?

“‘Human rights’ means that each individual should be treated with respect, dignity and equality.”

9. What inspires you to continue working and advocating for human rights?

“Working on issues that help better the lives of people around the world gets me up in the morning and ready to attack many of the problems facing our generation.”

10. What advice would you have for someone interested in pursuing a career in human rights?

“My best advice is to follow your heart. If you are interested in human rights go to the places where the action is and see if that is what you want to do with yourself. I have worked with NGOs and the government and from those experiences advise you to be open-minded to what opportunities are out there and be patient.”

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