I have travelled a long way from the blood-red sands and rocky outcrops of the central desert regions of Australia in the past six years. Working there as a lawyer for the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement I witnessed forgotten indigenous desert communities struggle to enjoy fundamental rights such as education, access to justice and basic health services.
Inspired to keep working for justice, I embarked on a journey that has taken me around the world, from isolated indigenous communities in southern Mexico to the House of Lords in London. A journey in large part thanks to and because of Peace Brigades International.
In 2006, after travelling through Mexico and Central America I contacted the Peace Brigades International (PBI) Mexico Project. PBI was not new to me. I had visited the PBI International office in London in the late 1990s and although I was impressed by the organisation, I chose to finish my studies. However, I never forgot PBI. In late 2006, after a rigorous selection process that culminated in a weeklong training in Portugal, I was chosen to become a protective accompaniment volunteer in the Guerrero team of the PBI Mexico Project.
Justice beyond the courtroom
As a PBI volunteer in Guerrero I was privileged enough to work side by side with Mexican human rights defenders who work relentlessly in their struggle for justice – despite death threats, constant surveillance, attacks, and in some tragic cases, the assassination of their colleagues. Inspirational people who have taught me that the battle for justice should not be confined to the local courtroom.
They have shown me that justice must be demanded on all fronts: from the mud-bricked halls of isolated indigenous communities to the sky-scraping offices of federal authorities; from protests on the streets to internet activism; from the local prosecutors office to the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in Costa Rica, from town halls to the marble-floored offices of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. As a member of PBI I have stood alongside these human rights defenders as they carry out their struggle for justice, and by doing so, we have reminded their opponents that the international community is watching and will not permit their rights to be violated.
Thanks to PBI I have come to know many extraordinary Mexicans. I have been touched and inspired by their relentless struggle to defend and promote human rights, their resilience in the face of repression and their steadfast decision to never give up.
The highs and lows of volunteering
There have been moments of great elation and unfortunately, devastating setbacks. In 2008 I stood by Abel Barrera, director of the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre as he told Louise Arbour, then the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the great inequalities faced by indigenous people in the Montaña region of Guerrero state. A few days afterwards Lorenzo Fernández, a member of the Organisation of the Mephaa Indigenous People was found tortured and assassinated.
In early 2009 I was present at the prison gates when the Cerezo brothers were released after seven and a half years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Raúl Hernández, another prisoner of conscience, was released recently after two years awaiting trial. His crime: standing up for the rights of his indigenous community. Indigenous leaders Manuel Ponce and Raúl Lucas were also punished for promoting indigenous rights. They were tortured and murdered in February 2009. Their case remains unresolved despite the vast national and international pressure demanding justice.
After my year as an accompaniment volunteer in Guerrero, I moved to the PBI Mexico City office where I currently work as the legal representative of the project. My job description has changed as I now focus almost entirely on advocacy and lobbying, but there has been no change in my belief in the importance of the work of PBI.
Supporting human rights defenders
In November 2009, Tita Radilla and I were invited by PBI UK to conduct high-level meetings with Lords, MPs, lawyers and judges in London. Over many years PBI UK and other PBI country groups have worked incredibly hard to develop a broad network of diverse individuals and organisations around the world who are prepared to do everything in their power to support threatened human rights defenders like Tita. There in London, we were a long way from the tropical town of Atoyac, theatre of the Mexican 'Dirty War' of the 70s, where in 2007 I would regularly accompany Tita in her daily struggle for justice.
Tita's father Rosendo Radilla was forcibly disappeared at a military checkpoint in Atoyac in 1974. PBI has accompanied Tita for close to a decade, as she has bravely sought to achieve justice, not only for her father but also for the 1,200 individuals forcibly disappeared during the Dirty War. Thanks largely to groups like PBI UK, Tita's case has become one of international interest and importance.
Our responsibility in the struggle for justice
Shortly after our speaking tour in London, Tita's persistence was rewarded by a favourable judgement from the Inter-American Court, holding the Mexican government responsible for a series of human rights violations related to her father's disappearance. It is expected that this binding judgement will serve to ensure that the Mexican state commits to discovering the whereabouts of Rosendo Radilla and punishing those responsible for his disappearance 36 years ago. However, at the time of writing, Tita and her supporters are still waiting to see the Court's judgement fulfilled.
Achievements like the Radilla judgement and the release of Raúl Hernández help to remind me that, despite the obstacles, justice is a right that must never be relinquished. If there is one thing that PBI has taught me since I left the Pitjantjatjara Lands in the Australian desert it is that while the struggle for justice is the responsibility of each and every one of us, it is most effective when shared by many.