all called to be human rights defenders

Colectivos, usually modified vintage vans, run routes to rural Mexican communities too small to support a 'chicken' bus, those often caricatured ancient recycled school buses where passengers ride to market towns straddling sacks of corn next to a seatmat

Colectivos, usually modified vintage vans, run routes to rural Mexican communities too small to support a ‘chicken’ bus, those often caricatured ancient recycled school buses where passengers ride to market towns straddling sacks of corn next to a seatmate holding live poultry in their lap.

Colectivos also carry everything and anybody able to afford the couple of peso fare and capable of being stuffed in. Last Wednesday two international volunteer teams of two people each left the picturesque Mexican colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in colectivos.

The three women and one man were members of the Brigadas Civiles de Observación (Civil Observation Brigades) program of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Centre or Frayba as it is popularly known headquartered in San Cristobal. They would take one or two colectivos as far as they went along rutted back roads. There they then would likely be met by a villager at a trail head possibly with a horse to carry their backpacks to an village further up and away in the pine clad hills of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

On 15 day rotations the volunteer ‘brigadistas’ would be well off the grid in all senses. No electricity obviously but also no visibility. These villages and the people farming in and around them live largely anonymous lives. For literally millennia indigenous peoples from the broad Mayan family have quietly raised their families off what the land provided for them. Centuries of exploitation, though, crippled their opportunities to chart a culturally appropriate path forward for themselves.

In 1994 the Zapatista uprising there sparked an awareness of and the movement towards reclaiming fundamental human rights among the villagers of Chiapas. Former economic and political masters, however, surrender their power and advantages reluctantly. Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, continues to experience low-intensity conflict as the struggle for human rights continues.

As a response the former Catholic bishop of San Cristobal, Samuel Ruíz García, put out an international call 15 years ago for volunteer human rights observers. Bishop Ruíz believed that indigenous communities on the front lines of this struggle would benefited from the presence of national and international observers. These ‘brigadistas’ could help maintain the civil space needed to sustain the hope and dignity required to reknit the social weave of the communities in a culturally appropriate way. Their presence as well might prevent violence and serve as an information source for Frayba to assist with longer range efforts to improve the human rights situation in the region.

My son Liam is one of those ‘brigadistas’ who went out this week. Some of you may remember him as an ice dancer. He is the highest ranking figure skater at the national and international level to have yet come out of the Yukon. On his last ice show tour with Le Patin Libre last spring he remarked in the program notes that after the tour ended he would be “heading to a country with no ice.” He made good on his pledge.

Today is Human Rights Day. It commemorates the proclamation by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on this day in 1948. The theme this year is “human rights defenders who act to end discrimination.” United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website ( characterizes human rights defenders as those individuals who “speak out against abuse and violations including discrimination, exclusion, oppression and violence. They advocate justice and seek to protect the victims of human rights violations. They demand accountability for perpetrators and transparency in government action.”

Some human rights defenders have the chance to be a ‘brigadistas’ like my son but most do not. Some are famous like this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, most are not. We all have the opportunity and the obligation in our workplaces and in our communities, though, to be human rights defenders.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact

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