Published Feb 2011
By Asylum Access Ecuador VLA and USF Fellow Ashley Connell
Last November, I had the opportunity to partake in a historical session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights – its 42nd Special Session, and the first ever held in Ecuador. After a serendipitous meeting with a human rights attorney in a yoga class in Quito, I was invited to serve as attaché to Justice Margarette May Macaulay, the Jamaican Judge on the Court. With her quick wit and disarming sense of humor, Justice Macaulay instantly made me feel surprisingly at home amongst her and her peers – people whom, just a year ago in law school, I could have only dreamed of meeting in person.
Although I had little knowledge of what the role of “attaché” entailed when I signed up for the job, I was excited to learn that, much as the French word implies, I would be loosely “attached” to a judge on the highest human rights court in our jurisdiction during her stay in Quito. This meant that in addition to making sure Justice Macaulay had access to all of the information and materials she would need in English (she is the only non-native Spanish speaker on the Court), I was also permitted a front row seat to the Court’s proceedings.
The cases heard ranged from the topic of forced disappearance under the 1970s military dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay, to the rights of Peruvian workers to judicial protection, to a review of the efficacy of provisional measures adopted to relieve overcrowding and improve prisoner treatment in Mendoza, Argentina. The Court finished its session with a seminar on “Present and Future Challenges of the Inter-American System of Protection of Human Rights,” during which it gave the public a chance to ask questions and voice their concerns.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the hearings occurred when Macarena Gelman and her grandfather, Argentine poet Juan Gelman, testified about the pain they suffered and continue to suffer as a result of the forced disappearance of Macarena’s parents (Juan’s son and daughter-in-law) during the Argentine dictatorship. Macarena, now 34, was born in an underground prison in Uruguay and given in a basket to a Uruguayan couple to raise as their own. It was not until 24 years later that her grandfather found her and she learned of her real roots and that her biological parents had allegedly been murdered under the dictatorship. What struck me as I listened to granddaughter and grandfather as they asked only that justice be served, was that although they had waited over three decades for this day, they finally had a chance to tell their story before an international tribunal. Despite the colossal challenges to “serving justice” in such a case, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, every now and then, provides a forum for individuals to exercise their internationally recognized rights and be heard. As we at Asylum Access Ecuador continue to strive to help refugees realize their human rights and contemplate strategic litigation before the Inter-American Court, I am grateful to have had a chance to witness such efforts at the highest level, and to meet the good people in robes who sit behind the bench.