WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
3 Nov 2010

Promoting Human Rights, Democracy and Social Justice in Latin America

WOLA's commitment to promoting human rights, democracy and social justice is as strong today as it was when we were founded in 1974. But the challenges have changed and our work must change to meet those challenges.

An internet campaign criticizing WOLA's work has started up again. In the digital age, such criticisms, however unfounded, can take on a life of their own.  We at WOLA are proud of what we do and we take attacks on our reputation and independence seriously.

WOLA's commitment to promoting human rights, democracy and social justice is as strong today as it was when we were founded in 1974.  But the challenges have changed and our work must change to meet those challenges.

WOLA believes in independence, engagement, and dialogue as part of the process to achieve change–accompanied of course by research, analysis, critique, concrete policy proposals, input from partners in the region, and activism. This is not new. We talk with people we don't necessarily agree with–and, I can assure you, often don't agree with us.  Engagement is not endorsement.   

Consider our work to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.  We have worked hard to engage a broad range of civil society, business, and political actors who want change in U.S. policy for different reasons.  We believe it is important to gather as wide a coalition as possible to bring about a change in U.S.-Cuba relations that is so long overdue. Partnership makes our voice louder and more effective–but it doesn't mean we compromise our independence.

We also believe that change happens when policymakers begin to understand what is happening with issues on the ground. We do this kind of work literally every day, supporting local organizations from all over Latin America, getting their voices heard in political arenas and by the media.

For example, last week we accompanied AFRODES, a long-time partner who works to defend the rights of Afro-Colombians, here in Washington.  Along with AFRODES and others, our work on human rights and the displaced in Colombia earned us three death threats in the last six months. Again, just last week this kind of work included local partners from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. 

We also engage governments, or people in government, who we think can help bring about change.  For the past three years we have been sponsoring informal inter-governmental drug policy dialogues in Latin America.  These dialogues provide a space where high ranking Latin American government officials and independent analysts sit together and attempt to hammer out alternatives to failed and punitive drug policies.

We engage with the U.S. Congress and the State Department, but our critiques of U.S. policy are strong and clear; like our opposition to recent human rights certifications on aid to Mexico and Colombia; our longstanding commitment to changing U.S. drug policy; our clear opposition to the coup in Honduras; and our work to get the U.S. government to stop encouraging the use of militaries for policing (there will be a new publication out on this next week).

WOLA talks to the military as well.  Our staff will be attending the meeting of the hemisphere's defense ministers later this month along with NGO colleagues and policy experts from Latin America.  We are promoting a regularized mechanism for making defense information public, including weapons purchases–a new kind of transparency to reduce the potential for future conflict. These kinds of initiatives likely wouldn't happen without the pressure of NGOs like WOLA.

Everyone recognizes that violence is one of the most serious problems in Latin America today–and that preventing violence is a public good. So, yes, in addition to engaging governments and local community organizations, WOLA will be reaching out to the business community, too. If we truly want to see change, we have to bring as many actors into the process as possible.

Engagement paired with unwavering political and analytical independence is central to WOLA's values and effectiveness.  No donor gift, gala participant, threat from a paramilitary group, or spurious attack on the internet will derail our commitment to social justice.  We want to be relevant enough to be where the critical decisions are made–and able to affect them–without ever giving up who we are or what we believe.  We think that's the right place to be.

Joy Olson, Executive Director