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Many obstacles to human rights work in Latin America, says HRW director

Never easy, human rights work in Latin America is especially difficult now, according to José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. Speaking at Duke as part of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies’ Burning Issues series, Vivanco cited crime, political polarization, corruption, and lack of US leadership as current obstacles to progress in human rights.
José Miguel Vivanco talks to students in Robin Kirk's Duke Immerse Human Rights class
Vivanco in Robin Kirk's Duke Immerse Human Rights class
José Miguel Vivanco talks to students in Robin Kirk's Duke Immerse Human Rights class.

“The most serious problem we have in the region is organized crime—mafias, cartels, gangs,” noted Vivanco, who holds a degree in international law from Harvard University. “The challenge this level of violence and crime has created for our political establishment is usually addressed through iron fist policies.” The need to confront organized crime presents “tremendous obstacles to develop consensus over the need to protect fundamental rights…It’s similar to the environment in the United States after 9/11.” Consensus on basic rights is also difficult to achieve because Latin America is “ideologically very polarized,” added Vivanco, who has headed HRW’s Americas Division for more than two decades.

Corruption, a topic at the center of several key political struggles in the region, most notably in Brazil, is increasingly seen more as a root problem than an unpleasant but tolerable issue in Latin America, and Vivanco supports this trend. “I hope that we can do serious work and develop a record in both corruption and human rights abuses…which are two sides of the same coin.” Corruption and widespread impunity for human rights violations are closely linked, he explained, noting that the dual problems are especially severe in Mexico. Finally, Vivanco lamented that President Donald Trump’s “claim to be on the side of human rights is not credible.” Without strong support from the US government, Vivanco said, “it is very difficult to accomplish anything” in a hemisphere experiencing violence and turmoil.

Despite the challenging terrain, Vivanco said, Human Rights Watch will continue its pursuit of strategies that make a difference and “use the legal system, even with all its limitations, to protect people from persecution.”

Vivanco’s appearance was co-sponsored by the Duke Human Rights Center and the International Human Rights Clinic and Center for International and Comparative Law at Duke Law School, with support from the Office of Global Affairs and the Hanscom Endowment.