Between 1989 and 2017, a total of 324 human rights advocates from 90 countries attended HRAP. In recent years, advocates have ranged from early career advocates who have cut their teeth in very urgent human rights situations to mid-career advocates who have founded organizations.
Below are the biographies of current Advocates and descriptions by select alumni as to why they became human rights advocates.
To see a list of additional past Advocates click here.
To read about more about the work of our Advocates click here .
Executive Director, Voice of People with Disability Ghana (VOICE Ghana)
Francis Bichnord Komla Asong is one of the founding members of Voice of People with Disability Ghana (VOICE Ghana). Over the past 18 years, Francis has contributed to the organization’s development into one of Ghana’s leading organizations dedicated to persons with disabilities. Serving all regions of Ghana, with a particular focus on the Volta and Oti regions, VOICE Ghana has been forming and training grassroots cross-disability self-help groups and building a collective voice for persons with disabilities for greater representation and participation. The organization has also been advocating for the rights and needs of persons with disabilities and engaging local government officials, traditional authorities, and private enterprises on their statutory responsibilities to persons with disabilities in view of the United Nations - Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and Ghana’s Disability Policy and Legislative Framework. Under Francis’s leadership, VOICE Ghana is transforming into a disability research, rights, and advocacy think tank with a mission to advance inclusive development and social justice for persons with disabilities in Africa, particularly Ghana, through research, policy, advocacy, and public consultations.
Francis serves on the boards of several civil society organisations including the STAR Ghana Foundation, Ghana Integrity Initiatives, and AccessAid Ghana. He serves on the Finance Committee of the Ghana Federation of Disability Organisations.
Founder, Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities
I am from a country that has been characterized by a history of violence, human rights violations and genocide. Growing up in such a country, I personally experienced and witnessed a lot of human rights abuses. These experiences made me want to contribute to human rights advocacy and peace building, hoping to diminish and/or prevent human rights violations and violent conflict from happening again.
What I loved most about HRAP are the workshops and networking meetings that I attended. Attending these workshops with the other Advocates helped me understand human rights issues with a broader view. For example, hearing from my fellow Advocates and visiting organizations that support LGBT and indigenous peoples’ rights inspired me and helped me start thinking about how I can expand my work to include these groups. Also visiting potential funding organizations helped me learn that human rights and peace building work is not just one organization’s work--there can always be a way of partnering and complementing each other.
Through the HRAP workshops I learned a lot of skills and new ideas from both my colleagues and trainers. I have been in this work for the last 10 years, and I have always been giving myself to others and ignoring my own well-being. Through the Stress, Trauma and Resilience in Human Rights Work workshop, I was again reminded of the importance of taking care of myself before I take care of others. Once I get back home, I am going to develop a regular routine that will help me make my work less stressful. I visited many organizations, and I met with many important people who might be potential partners to work with in the future. I am going to try to keep the connections going. I plan to use the skills I learned from both the trainings and classes to improve my work. For example, I’m going to use Google Calendar [which HRAP uses to organize the schedules of participants] to organize my daily work. I plan to teach it to my co-workers and other friends who do not know about it because I think it’s a very important tool. The fundraising skills I learned will help me write clear proposals based on what interests the donor. Before, I didn't know that it’s very important to know what the interests of the donor are before writing a proposal. I also learned the importance of doing research, writing, and reporting about issues before you start doing anything, so as I think of expanding my work to other groups, I’m going to do a lot of research to know exactly what the problem is, and what are the solutions and actions that should be taken. I am not going to keep all these new skills to myself. As soon as I get back home, I will start sharing all the skills with my co-workers and other organizations that do similar work as well because I believe that there should be no competition in human rights and peace building work. We should collaborate and support each other.
Bizimana was the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Fund Advocate in the 2014 HRAP.
South Sudan, 2013
Executive Director, South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy
In addition to maintaining his role as Executive Director of the South Sudan Human Rights Society for Advocacy (SSHURSA), 2013 HRAP alum Biel Boutros Biel recently received his Master of Laws Degree (LLM) from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He wrote his thesis on Transitional Justice, a concentration which stemmed directly from his studies with Professor Graeme Simpson at Columbia Law during his participation in HRAP. He writes that Mr. Simpson’s course on Transitional Justice “has changed my outlook for good. It has now turned into one of my subjects of expertise.”
Biel founded SSHURSA with his colleagues at the Makerere Law Development Centre (LDC), Kampala, Uganda in 2007. They began operating out of South Sudan in 2009. The organization works to ‘monitor, document and publish human rights status in South Sudan and to train general public on importance of human rights, fundamental freedoms of an individual, rule of law, transitional justice and democracy. All meant to creating an informed, responsible, justice and good governance oriented nation.” Their target beneficiaries include IDPS and refugees, women’s groups, youth, traditional authorities, and persons with disabilities.
Reflecting on his participation in HRAP, Biel notes that the program helped him to gain skills in research, advocacy strategies and dealing with the media, as well as important methods for stress management. He also values staying in touch with his friends from the program. Although Biel has faced daunting challenges in his advocacy work, he remains steadfastly committed to his organization and its mandate: “Though I am now in exile in East Africa after the current South Sudan government destroyed my home and sent me into exile, still I have my heart in human rights. We set up a SSHURSA office in East Africa and now conducting community dialogues on Transitional Justice, constitution, rule of law and human rights among the South Sudanese refugees.”
-Article composed by Caroline Doenmez
Grants Coordinator, Fondo de Acción Urgente de América Latina y el Caribe Hispanohablante
Though forced migration, rape and domestic violence are part of Colombia’s everyday life, Nadia Juliana Bazán Londoño maintains that “there is also hope and willingness to improve our situation.”
Bazán Londoño says that her mother’s example motivated her to work in human rights. “I learned about inequalities [when I was] very young,” she says, “[by] attending political meetings at the university where my mother was studying.” In high school, she joined a group of conscientious objectors to military conscription. Through this group she first facilitated non-violent workshops for young people with the goal of changing their mindsets from war and violence to dialogue and non-violent strategies. Nadia then discovered the world of women’s funds and found her niche in supporting the impactful work of grassroots women’s organizations by securing financial resources for women’s rights.
She admits that in spite of the many challenges she faces in her human rights career, including stress and sometimes fear, she remains “strengthened by hope—the hope for transforming inequalities, the hope for clean water, and the hope for access to education, among other basic human needs. If everyone realizes that everything can be shared, then fulfilling rights will allow us to grow and develop as a nation. I have the sense of the right path and that in collaborating with others, you know you’re not alone and can find strength.”
April 2017 Update: Bazán Londoño is now a part of Women For Peace (Mujeres por la Paz) where she has been working to protect the rights of those affected by armed conflict in Colombia. This past year, her efforts were instrumental to allowing peace talks to come to fruition, eventually resulting in a permanent signed agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla.
Updated by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2017.
President, Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights
Elvis Mbembe Binda contributed to the creation of Assez! in 1997, an organization that advocates for the rights of children, especially those experiencing domestic abuse. Binda also co-founded a platform called Forum d’Echanges pour la Cohésion Sociale to offer all persons facing identity issues based on immigration and national identity an opportunity to share their frustration and experiences as a way to find personal relief and mutual support. Binda served for three years as the Deputy Coordinator of the Access to Justice and Human Rights Education Project and later became the President at another organization that he co-founded, Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights.
For Binda , human rights is not an abstract topic, but a powerful force that can change the world: “People may know human rights exist, but change can only happen when human rights are lived and promoted.”
Professor of Law, Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh
Saifuddin Bantasyam left war-torn Aceh, Indonesia to participate in the Human Rights Advocates Program in 2002. He writes, “It was difficult to leave Aceh because there was so much human rights work to do.” Before participating in HRAP, Bantasyam co-founded and served as the Executive Director of Care Human Rights Foundation (CHRF), a non-governmental organization that documented human rights abuses and provided social tolerance trainings to the youth in Aceh, Indonesia.
The Human Rights Advocates Program is a four-month capacity-building program based in New York City. HRAP provides courses and trainings to provide advocates with an advanced knowledge in human rights as well as practical skills. HRAP builds on the skills of experienced human rights advocates that grapple with complex human rights issues. In reflecting on his experience at HRAP, Bantasyam writes, “HRAP provided me with the knowledge and tools to advance my human rights work at the CHRF and beyond.”
After graduating from HRAP in 2002, Bantasyam was eager to continue his work at Care Human Rights Foundation (CHRF). Within 9 months of his return, the Indonesian government under President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared a state of emergency and martial law in Aceh. Under the declared state of emergency, CHRF was forced to put a hold on its projects in the Aceh region. Then, the tsunami hit Aceh in December of 2004. Bantasyam and his family survived, but were left with nothing. A close colleague at CHRF and his wife and children were missing. A year after the devastating tsunami, he and his colleagues established the Aceh Recovery Forum to advocate for disaster survivors and help recover and rebuild communities in Aceh.
In 2005, things began to improve in the region as a peace deal between the Government of Indonesia and Free Aceh Movement was brokered. In August, the two factions signed the Aceh peace agreement “Memorandum of Understanding” in Helsinki, Finland. Bantasyam took on an important role in improving the relations between the two groups and helping the country to move forward. He was appointed as Vice Dean for Cooperation Affairs at Syiah Kuala University. In this role, he led a team of Professors that drafted the new governing law of Aceh. Additionally, he served as an expert to the Provincial Parliament, overseeing the final draft of the Law of Governance and helping draft a provision on human rights. The Indonesian parliament passed the new Aceh governing law, giving the province greater autonomy and control over its resources, along with the much desired permission to form provincial political parties.
Presently, Bantasyam is a law professor at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, teaching international human rights law. In 2011, he became the Director of Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies of University of Syiah Kuala in Banda Aceh. As Director, he is responsible for managing the Center and overseeing the department’s thematic research as well as organizing academic workshops, seminars and courses. In 2008, he helped facilitate a student exchange program with Osaka University, Hiroshima University, Meio University, and Nagasaki University in Japan. In 2012, the Center started an exchange student program in the area of peace and human security.
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
Presiding Judge, Municipal Trial Court of Sariaya
2002 Advocate Francelyn G. Begonia is Presiding Judge of the Municipal Trial Court of Sariaya in Quezon Province in the Philippines.
She reflects that HRAP workshops provided an opportunity to broaden her perspectives on human rights issues by exploring diverse cases of human rights violations. She states, “Opportunities to apply my HRAP training in my current work are very limited because I preside over a first-level court which has no jurisdiction over most human rights… However, I was a government prosecutor for almost four years prior to my judicial appointment and I investigated, filed and prosecuted criminal indictments for human trafficking, child and spousal abuse. What I took from HRAP was a specialized training that forced me to go beyond my traditional training as a lawyer when investigating cases, assessing evidence and arguing cases.”
HRAP program provides various academic resources such as reading materials, books, and articles reinforcing advocates’ motivation for human rights issues. Begonia states, “I took home so many reading materials that I would not have had access to because of limitations in my country. I still use the red book, 25 Human Rights Documents, when I lecture on human rights. Some of these materials became a part of the library of our NGO and were very useful resources in our policy research.”
After HRAP, Begonia returned to her home non-profit organization, the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center, Inc., and utilized the network of contacts she gained through HRAP for fundraising, advocacy and campaign work. She also earned the Master of Laws degree in Public Service Law from the New York University School of Law in 2003. She says that HRAP taught her inter-personal communication and negotiation skills by giving her the space to discuss human rights issues with other advocates coming from different cultures and belief systems.
“Advocates must not only have the heart for human rights; more basic is having the heart for another advocate. Although the HRAP schedule was brutal, every moment was worth it.”
—Article composed by Junghwa Lee, Program Coordinator, June 2011
Masters in Sociology of Law Candidate, International Institute of Sociology of Law
In 2013, 1996 Advocate Chitra Balakrishnan received a Masters in the Sociology of Law from the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Onati, Spain. She serves as a consultant on human rights issues to numerous non-governmental organizations and academic institutions.
After HRAP, Balakrishnan co-founded the Alternative Law Forum, a pro-bono human rights law practice based in Bangalore with a group of lawyers to respond to issues of social and economic injustice.
Shortly after, she was named a “Scholar of Peace fellow” by the Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP). This prestigious fellowship encourages innovative research on gender, security and conflict issues. The Foundation of Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama provided her with financial support to publish a monograph entitled, “Research to Evolve Gender-Sensitive and Culture-Specific Models of Alternative Dispute Resolution” in the WISCOMP Perspectives in 2003.
In 2004, Balakrishnan was named a mid-career Chevening scholar in Peace and Conflict Studies by the British Council at the University in Ulster in Northern Ireland.
She writes that the opportunity to meet a diverse group of committed individuals in the field of human rights is one of the greatest benefits of HRAP. Balakrishnan still remains in touch with her fellow advocates in the program such as Dr. Aurora Parong, Philippines, Maria Beatriz Sinisgalli, Brazil, Shiva Hari Dahal, Nepal.
February 2017 Update: Balakrishnan is currently working with the Centre for Social Justice in Ahmedabad.