December is Human Rights Month and we are celebrating by highlighting two of our amazing master’s students for the second installation of “Meet Our Kuadrilla” interview series. Pamela Teutli from México and Claudia Serna from Colombia sat down to talk about their work as human rights lawyers, activists, and educators. We are so lucky to learn from them this year and excited to share it with the Onati community. Enjoy!
Do you work in human rights? Share your work, projects, and research with us so we can share it all month long
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Claudia: Hi, my name is Claudia Serna. I am a lawyer in Colombia. I have worked for 7 years as a human rights lawyer. I worked in an NGO called La Corporacion Juridica Libertad and I founded a community organization call Mesa Interbarrial that works with political and social issues. My work is based out of Medellin with the aim of helping poor people in the community gain access to water, housing, and other public services.
Pamela: I’m Pamela Teutli, from Monterrey, Mexico. My interest in human rights started in law school after I participated in human rights and United Nations moot courts. I worked with the Electoral Tribunal tackling issues related to political rights, specifically women in politics and in a consulting group that specializes in the implementation of Mexico’s new criminal justice system. I’ve also taught courses in my law school (FLDM) related to the Inter-American System of Human Rights after I completed an internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.
Pamela: So how did you get involve in the human rights field?
Claudia: In Medellin, there is a huge problem of inequality in our society. When I was a law school student, I was part of a group that investigated access to drinking water. We visited the poor neighborhoods of Medellin and I started to reflect on how access to drinking water is connected with poverty. In Medellin, there is a public company that handles public services. So, we saw the contrast between the economic capacities of those living in poverty and the availability of services offered to them by the company. At the same time, I was studying constitutional law in school, and I found that access to water needed to be a basic right guaranteed by the state. During this time, I started using the Acción de tutela, a writ for the protection of constitutional rights. I started making local demands on the basis of judgements from the Constitutional Court of Colombia to prove that the state was obligated to provide access to water as a human right.
Pamela: That must have been difficult because it was before the international law recognized it as a human right. You are a rock star!
Claudia: Yes, one of the local demands we made was eventually studied by the Constitutional Court specifically the judgment T717 of 2010. In this judgement, they recognized that access to water for minors is an obligation of the state.
Pamela: But only minors?
Claudia: At the time, yes. But, there were many judgements. After that, we started making more local demands because we already had the precedent from the Constitutional Court.
Pamela: What do you enjoy the most about working in human rights?
Claudia: Traveling all over the world. The fame. The fortune.
Just kidding. My work is not only about the juridical actions but also about raising awareness in society. I like that people can recognize their own rights and fight for themselves.
Pamela: You’ve also told me you like empowering people, too.
Claudia: Yes, there are many problems and lawyers cannot support all of them. With the two organizations I was working with, we were visiting public schools in the neighborhood to teach people about this. We created a study group with the people from the neighborhood so they can learn about their rights and we have taught them how to stay vigilant and make sure they demand the state that their rights are protected. In a sense, this is what I like the most about my job, the experience of working directly with people.
Claudia: What about you?
Pamela: I haven’t worked as directly with the community, as you have, which I think is a marvel, and something everyone should do. But, as a professor, one of the most gratifying experiences is seeing the next generation involved in human rights. I always tell my law students that, it doesn’t matter if you become a human activist or not, as long as you are aware of the function you have as a lawyer. You need to recognize how you are a part of the protection and guarantee of human rights. Every area you will work in has something to do with human rights. If they can understand and embrace that, then I feel like my job is done.
Pamela: You have also taught at your university, how can you tell me about your experience?
Claudia: As a student at the University of Antioquia, I had the opportunity to join the investigative group where students and teachers can learn about the sociology of law and critical legal theories. When I started working as a professor at the law school, I recruited some students to be part of the same community organizations and investigative groups that I had worked with. My hope is that I can engage law students to come together with political science students and community leaders so that they can work together to build the path towards justice.
Interviewee (Emma): What brought you to human rights work?
Pamela: It was one of the reasons I wanted to go to law school…it was similar to Claudia…I saw all the inequality in Mexico and it just didn’t feel right. I know I’m not going to change the world or even my entire country but I must do something, even if it is small. It’s my responsibility as a lawyer and my willing as a Mexican.