WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

In the years leading up to the brutal military coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, a number of faith based organizations had been watching with alarm the growing number of military coups occurring in Latin America, and the accompanying human rights violations that inevitably followed. Protestant and Catholic Church organizations based in the United States were receiving reports from “the field” about atrocities being committed by governments in the region—de facto military juntas—that enjoyed the support of officials in Washington.

The coup in Chile was a catalytic event for major religious institutions in the United States, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Churches.

In 1974, church leaders founded WOLA.

WOLA’s unique mission was to connect policy-makers in Washington to those with first-hand knowledge of the thousands of deaths, disappearances, cases of torture, and unjust imprisonment occurring under the dictatorships of that era.

WOLA’s role was not to “represent” Latin Americans but to give them access in the United States to those making the policies that had such a profound impact on their lives. This vital collaboration with partners in the region became the hallmark of WOLA’s work.

Over the decades, the challenges in Latin America have changed. Democracies have replaced dictatorships. New issues dominate the news—such as the U.S.-backed war on drugs, the rise of organized crime, increasing rates of violence, and concerns about migration and border security. WOLA’s partners now involve a broad range of people throughout the region who bring courage, commitment and new approaches to emerging issues.

Today, WOLA is a leading research and advocacy organization advancing human rights in the Americas. We envision a future where public policies protect human rights and recognize human dignity, and where justice overcomes violence. WOLA tackles problems that transcend borders and demand cross-border solutions. We create strategic partnerships with courageous people making social change—advocacy organizations, academics, religious and business leaders, artists, and government officials. Together, we advocate for more just societies in the Americas.

1970s: WOLA stands against dictatorships in South America

  • WOLA sheds light onto the human rights violations taking place in South America during the military dictatorships.
  • WOLA brings a human rights focus to U.S. policy toward the region.
  • WOLA helps draft the landmark Harkin Amendment, prohibiting U.S. military aid to governments that abuse human rights.
  • WOLA facilitates the presentation to the Organization of American States (OAS) of thousands of new cases rising from the repressive regimes in the region.

1980s: WOLA plays key role in ending conflicts in Central America

  • WOLA is an active voice denouncing the death squads and devastation of the civil wars.
  • WOLA issues the first major report documenting human rights abuses by the Nicaraguan Contras in the mid-1980s.
  • WOLA provides essential support for peace accords in El Salvador.

1990s: WOLA supports transitions to democracy

  • WOLA offers advocacy training and helps local communities gain a wider voice in policy-making with government and multilateral agencies.
  • WOLA plays a critical role helping civil society groups in Central America gain unprecedented input in reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Mitch.
  • WOLA is among the first to warn about the dangers to democracy of the escalating U.S.-backed war on drugs and document the need for alternative approaches.
  • WOLA is a key actor in ending the food and medicine ban to Cuba.
  • WOLA, working with a coalition of organizations in Peru, helps to expose the human rights abuses and corruption of the Fujimori regime.

2000s: WOLA takes on new human rights agendas

  • WOLA helps to found the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the first organization of its kind, bringing UN support to the creation of an independent agency with special powers to investigate and prosecute organized criminal groups and high profile cases.
  • WOLA organizes a congressional delegation and helps develop a campaign to investigate and prevent violence against women along the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • WOLA works to shift U.S. aid for Colombia, Mexico, and Central America away from military assistance and toward economic and social development programs.

WOLA Today:

WOLA continues to be at the center of every major policy debate about human rights in Latin America. To learn more about WOLA’s work and trajectory, see the video below.