Between 1989 and 2023, more than 350 advocates from nearly 100 countries have attended the program. HRAP participants have ranged from early-career advocates who cut their teeth in very urgent human rights situations to mid-career advocates who have founded organizations. HRAP alumni have served as UN special rapporteurs, in the ministries of their governments, and at leading human rights organizations around the globe. They have been recognized with honors including the Rafto Prize, the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award and the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, the highest acknowledgment from the international human rights community.
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 .
Elvira is Indigenous lawyer from Oaxaca, Mexico. She is part of the Ayuuk Indigenous Peoples. Elvira collaborates with civil society organizations for the defense and promotion of human rights, especially women, youth, and Indigenous Peoples’ rights, on topics related to sexual and reproductive health and rights, violence prevention, political participation and indigenous peoples’ collective rights. She conducts advocacy at the local, national, and international levels. She is part of the National Coordinator of Indigenous Women, the National Network of Indigenous Women Lawyers and the Youth and Children Commission of the Continental Network of Indigenous Women from the Americas. Elvira currently works as the Policy and Member Engagement Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean of Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage.
Executive Member, Grassroot
Joy Pathaw is a Khasi woman from the State of Meghalaya in the North Eastern Region of India. Raised by her mother, Joy is the fifth of six children. She is an executive member of Grassroot, an indigenous people’s rights organization working on issues related to gender, livelihood, and entrepreneurship.
Co-founder and Director, Most Mira
Program Coordinator, National Center for Advocacy Studies
“In the changing socio-economic, political, and cultural context, there is an increasing realization of the need to bridge the gap between grassroots activism and macro-level policy initiatives.”
Constantly seeking new ways to better effect change, Sandeep Pattnaik joined HRAP in 2007 after having served as a member of the National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS) in India seven years. In his role at NCAS, Sandeep focused on promoting a “people-centered policy environment” in which people could feel comfortable advocating for themselves against violations of human rights and social justice. During HRAP, he found that his understanding of human rights activism in a global economy deepened, and he developed contacts with various other organizations who have continued to extend their support and solidarity to the movement that Sandeep is a part of.
Since HRAP, Sandeep has been engaged in an NCAS project called Adivasi Resource Center (ARC), a center dedicated to Indigenous people. His efforts are directed towards closing the information gap between the Adivasi people and governmental issues by building a space for dialogue between them and legislators. He writes: “As an advocate of human rights, I have founded [my] campaigns on two basic tenets in the Indian constitution: the right to life and the right to livelihood.” Sandeep’s struggle for the rights of local populations have also led him into a battle against POSCO, a South Korean company trying to establish a steel plant in the Jagatsinghpur District of Odisha that puts local indigenous peoples at risk of industrial pollution. In order to combat these environmental violations, Sandeep provides strategic support to local organizations, conducts environmental impact assessments and prepares and files petitions to take legal action against the company.
Sandeep leaves human rights advocates at the beginning of their careers with the following advice:
“The process of policy-making… has changed in a paradigm shift due to the techno-economic revolution, the process of globalization and further marginalization of subaltern sections… The changing power equations at all levels of governance require a holistic approach and multiple strategies that can integrate the power of people with the power of information… and alliances to challenge unjust policies and exploitative politics.”
Written by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus in 2016.
Coordinator, Rainbow Community Kampuchea
Ly Pisey is a 2007 graduate of the HRAP from Cambodia. She currently serves as the coordinator of Rainbow Community Kampuchea, the LGBTIQ-led organization that she co-founded and where she served as the director of board in 2009-2017.
Ly has been actively involved in grassroots and social activism for poverty reduction, human rights, women’s development and LGBTIQ rights. In 2004, she joined Women’s Agenda for Change. In 2009, she became a program facilitator with the Social Action for Change and a member of the United Sisterhood Alliance based in Cambodia. Ly has assisted a number of organizations including Women's Network for Unity and the Cambodian Cross-Sector Network for Economic and Development System Analysis. In 2012, she was a core organizing member of Grassroots People's Assembly (AGPA) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a four-day event that brought together over 2000 Cambodian local activists during the ASEAN Summit.
Ly believes in collective voice and power that thrives for social justice and equality. She co-founded the Cambodian Women’s Movement for Social Justice (CWMSJ) among other women activists, which raises concerns about the status of women’s rights. As the core organizer members of CWMSJ, Ly was responsible for developing CWMSJ’s advocacy strategies and community mobilization efforts. This movement was sparked by Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s defamatory comments to Mu Sochua, a female Member of Parliament. In response to his comments, Sochua sued the Prime Minister only to be faced with possible imprisonment. Due to CWMSJ’s advocacy campaign, Sochua was only required to pay the civil compensation to the Prime Minister.
In describing CWMSJ’s landmark campaign, Ly explains: “We embarked on this campaign not because she's a Member of Parliament but she is one of the few female political leaders who took a risk to advocate for women's rights and gender equality. We decided to take action on her behalf despite the risks we faced for speaking out about the equal and fair treatment of women in all sectors, including judicial and political sectors.”
When asked about the greatest benefit of HRAP, she writes that the program helped her to develop various competencies: fundraising skills, human rights principles, and advocacy strategies, as well as support her dream of making the equal and just society.
- Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, March 2013, updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, July 2019
Founder and Chief Executive Director, Health Governance Initiative
Jia Ping, a 2005 graduate of the Human Rights Advocate Program from China, states “HRAP provided me with a true understanding of human rights work.” He adds that the knowledge and skills gained from HRAP helped him carry out his work as the Founder and Chief Executive Director of the Health Governance Initiative (formally known as the China Global Fund Watch Initiative). The Health Governance Initiative (HGI) is an independent non-profit organization and civic think tank that undertakes public health policy research in areas such as anti-discrimination, LGBT and human rights, drug policy and food safety issues.
One of the many benefits of the Human Rights Advocates Program at Columbia University is the networking opportunities. Every year, Advocates participate in a networking and advocacy trip to Washington DC to meet with organizations, government agencies, and foundations that pertain to their specific needs and interests. Ping maintained relationships with the organizations that he met with during his advocacy trip in Washington D.C. in 2005. Since 2007, he successfully re-connected with these organizations in Washington. D.C. and received financial support for his organization.
Ping, a leading human rights lawyer and researcher on HIV/AIDS in China advocates for the rights of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS in China. He has published numerous papers and books on various topics such as law, government transparency on health governance and drug policies. He recently co-authored the blood transfusion compensation plan for PLHIV community in China. The compensation plan and related report was also submitted to China Ministry of Health and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
Since HRAP, Ping has gone on to achieve notable professional accomplishments. In 2008, Ping was named an Asia Society’s Asia 21 Leader Fellow. In 2009, he was selected as the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader. Young Global Leaders represent the future of leadership, coming from all regions of the world and representing business, government, civil society, arts, academia and media, as well as social entrepreneurs. Ping was named a member of the Sino-European Platform on Biomedical Research Ethics (SPERE) in 2011. Since 2013, he has served as an Advisory Group member for a project entitled Governance of Multilateral Grant-Making Institutions (GMGI) by Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs).
—Article composed by Allison Tamer, Program Assistant, April 2013
When Anna Penido participated in HRAP in 1998, she was working in Bahia with the Odebrecht Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing youth and adolescents with life skills. Her passion to improve education in Brazil continues to evolve and motivate her successes to this day.
Penido reports that HRAP gave her fundamental tools which have guided throughout her career: “HRAP was a turning point not only in my career, but also in my personal life. The time I spent at Columbia University opened my eyes, my heart, my horizons and my connections to a much broader world. Not only did I learn about more effective ways to advocate for human rights, but I also had a chance to interact with initiatives and specialists involved in youth rights movements.”
The experience that Penido gained at HRAP was so influential that she was motivated to put it to work in a tangible way: “As soon as I got back to Brazil, the knowledge, experiences and connections I gained from HRAP inspired me to create a non-governmental organization whose mission is to empower young people to use communication strategies and tools to advocate for their own rights…Years later, the classes and materials on international human rights I got from HRAP were very supportive to my work as the chief of the UNICEF field office in São Paulo.”
Penido’s founding of the CIPO initiative to teach young people about media professions and to provide them with the skills to succeed led her to chosen as an Ashoka Fellow in 2001.
Today, Penido is the director of Inspirare, a family institute dedicated to inspiring innovation in public policies and initiatives to improve the quality of education in her home country of Brazil. Inspirare’s programs are guided by “Innovative Holistic Education,” an idea that Penido describes as the following: “In today’s world, younger generations see things very differently to those that preceded them. Technology has changed the world and climate threats have shown that global society’s model of organization and operation is no longer viable. However, our current model of education does not address these questions and demands. Inspirare believes we must develop a new concept of education. The main aims of Innovative Holistic Education are the development of the student in all facets of life and answering the demands of today’s world and the interests of children, teenagers and young people of the 21st century.”
Even though she attended HRAP nearly 20 years ago, she writes that she still feels its impact: “At my current job, HRAP still influences the way I advocate for public policies aimed at ensuring every and each Brazilian student to have access to good schools and education.” Her vastly impressive experience in promoting education as a fundamental human right has given her important insights on how to be successful in this field. She leaves human rights advocates at the start of their careers with the following words of wisdom: “Be resilient… the journey is full of obstacles and detours.” And, perhaps even more importantly: “Give voice and power to those you serve! Never forget they are the true agents of change.”
-Article composed by Gabrielle Isabelle Hernaiz-De Jesus, November 2016
Director, Amnesty International - Philippines
Aurora Parong began her career as a medical doctor by training community health workers in marginalized villages in the Philippines where few had access to health services. This decision led her to a life mainly outside clinics and hospitals. Due to her work in far-flung villages, she was accused of providing health services to rebels for which she was held in solitary confinement for several months and arbitrarily detained for one and a half years when her country was under a dictatorship.
An alumna of the 1996 Human Rights Advocates Program, Parong became one of the early advocates for economic, social, and cultural rights in her country by contributing to the development of modules on the right to health, the right to housing, the right to water, the right to food as well as on health consequences of nuclear war. “HRAP helped me better understand the broader human rights work,” she says, “to include promotion, protection, and fulfillment of economic, social, and cultural rights by deepening my knowledge about the universality and indivisibility of various human rights.”
Parong has worked in health, human rights and justice institutions including the Medical Action Group, Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, Amnesty International and the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court. Parong has acted as resource person in the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and Europe in addition to her home country on various human rights topics including torture, reproductive and health rights, gender justice, transitional and international justice, indigenous peoples’ rights, UN and ASEAN human rights mechanisms, and rights-based approaches to development, among others. Parong is repeatedly referred to on human rights issues because of her experience, professional work, and education. When asked how the education from HRAP has assisted her, Parong says, “It was at HRAP that I got a clearer idea on the work of UN human rights bodies as well as truth and reconciliation bodies,” and “HRAP enhanced and strengthened my human rights advocacy work.”
HRAP acts as a multi-dimensional training program bringing together human rights advocates from around the world. For Parong, “The debates about various human rights concepts encouraged me to further read and study human rights principles and practice in various contexts. The sharing on the human rights situations of various countries by co-students widened my world.” Since HRAP, she has gone on to receive special certificates, some of which include a Diploma on International Humanitarian Law, Certificate on Forensic Sciences in Human Rights Investigations, and Gender Justice at the International Criminal Court.
She co-wrote and co-edited “Breaking the Silence, Seeking Justice for Victims of Violence in Intimate Relationships” for the Women Working Together to Stop Violence Against Women, “Uphold the Sanctity of Life, Enhancing Remedies for Victims of Extrajudicial Executions and Enforced Disappearances” and “Women Strategizing Justice, Women’s Resource Book on Gender Justice” published by the Philippine Coalition for the International Criminal Court, among others.
After receiving special recognition in 2005 from Task Force Detainees of the Philippines for her service as executive director for nine years, Parong moved on to serve as director of Amnesty International Philippines ensuring that strategic plans, priorities, and projects create positive changes in the lives of people in various parts of the world. She has led in the campaigns for health and human rights laws and policies not only in the Philippines but for other countries.
Her work with Amnesty International Philippines was cut short by her appointment in 2014 by the Philippine President as one of the nine (9) members of the Human Rights Victims' Claims Board (HRVCB). The HRVCB was a quasi-judicial body tasked to evaluate claims and provide recognition and reparation to victims of human rights violations during martial law under the Marcos regime in the Philippines. They evaluated 75, 749 claims then recognized and provided monetary reparations to at least 11, 103 victims. She said that, “The HRVCB played a key role in transitional justice within the Philippines, but can have an impact on other countries especially in Asia facing transitional justice issues in the future.” She led the Working Group on Non-monetary reparations which are additional services to victims of serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian laws. Currently, she assists in training teachers and professors of history to ensure the integration of the valuable lessons learned by the Filipino people in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship and helps collect stories and materials that will help shape a future Freedom Memorial Museum and library in honor of those who suffered and fought against the dictatorship in the Philippines.
Parong was one of the leaders in the campaign for the ratification by the Philippines of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court but the Philippines withdrew membership at the international court after being a State Party for eight years. The Philippine coalition, which she co-chairs, assists families of victims of killings in the Philippine government’s “war on drugs” in their efforts to seek justice at the court of last resort prior to the country’s withdrawal from the court.
Parong has received recognition for her work, with a Distinguished Physician Award given by the Medical Association for the Prevention of War- Australia and Outstanding in Community Service and Public Health Award for 2016 from the University of the Philippines Medical Alumni Society, among others.
- Article composed by Andrew Richardson, Program Assistant, June 2010; Updated by Chiora Taktakishvili, Fulbright Exchange Visitor, July 2019
Secretary and General Counsel, Media Development Investment Fund, Inc.
1995 Advocate Elena Popovic is currently serving as Secretary and General Counsel at Media Development Investment Fund, Inc. (MDIF) in New York, which is formerly known as the Media Development Loan Fund. MDIF is an investment fund that provides affordable financing and business management training to professional and independent news media companies in emerging democracies. She is responsible for the legal oversight of operations as well as program coordination, evaluation, and analysis of financial and management needs.
When asked about how HRAP assisted in her work of human rights advocacy, she highlights that HRAP provides opportunities to explore academic topics on human rights issues as well as practical skills for human rights advocates. She states, “HRAP helped systemize my knowledge of human rights and international human rights protections. The program also improved my fundraising and report-writing skills.”
After HRAP, she was nominated for the 1995 Reebok Human Rights Award and completed her master’s degree in International Law from New York University School of Law, prior to being admitted to the New York State Bar. When asked about the greatest benefit of HRAP, she replies, “My classmates! Although my classmates lived and worked in very different environments, the pattern of human rights violations proved similar to what I saw in my country, the former Yugoslavia. So we could share experiences and learn from each other.”
—Article composed by Junghwa Lee, Program Coordinator, June 2011
CEO, Polo Consultoria
Luis Felipe Polo is a 1993 Advocate. When asked about his experience in HRAP, Polo wrote: “My participation in HRAP benefited me greatly because I was able to apply the knowledge I gained from the program to my work in defending human rights. It also helped my professional growth and empowered me to influence others to advocate for human rights.
Since leaving HRAP, Polo has been involved in international development, human rights, public policy, and education. Polo has several publications, including "Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights" (2000, 2010, and 2013). In 2001, Polo was appointed as Rector at the Universidad Rafael Landívar-Quetzaltenango Campus. He managed the university’s 11 undergraduate and graduate programs, which included 5,000 students and 350 faculty and personnel staff. Polo introduced human rights courses to the university. In 2005, he left academia to serve as the Principal Advisor to Dr. Eduardo Stein Barillas, the Vice-President of the Republic of Guatemala.
Polo has also worked for institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization of American States, and UNICEF. He served as the Executive Director at the Latin American Office for Human Rights of Journalists. As Executive Director, he defended journalists accused of political crimes in Latin America and helped free several journalists from prison. He was a candidate for the Reebook Prize for Human Rights in 2004. Polo was the Chief of the Tax and Customs Development Institute, which is part of SUNAT, the tax and customs body in Peru. In 2015, he served as adviser to the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in Peru.
Over the years, Polo has strengthened his knowledge base and professional skill set through his management coursework at the University of Michigan and Harvard University. He also enrolled in post-graduate studies at both the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and the University of Havana. The French Government and the Congress of the Republic of Ecuador have recognized him for his academic and professional achievements. He was awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa by the Continental University in Peru for his social and human rights work.
He has taught courses including Constitutional and Human Rights Law, Techniques of Negotiation, International Public Law, and Conflict Resolution at the UPC University, Catholic University, Pacific University, and Continental University in Peru.
—Submitted by Luis Felipe Polo, January 2016.
—Updated by Claire Kozik, Program Assistant, Summer 2018.