The following is an excerpt from the published interview with James Cavallaro. To see the full interview, please click on the link to download the article above or below.
Q: Only one year after graduating law school, you opened a joint office for Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Rio de Janeiro. What made you decide to go there? What other options were you considering? Did it seem risky at the time? Did you have pre-existing connections there?
What made me go to Rio de Janeiro was my interest and experience in Latin America and Brazil, in particular. I had lived for a few years already in Latin America and was fluent in Portuguese. I had been to Brazil several times and had worked with Human Rights Watch and the Center for Justice and International Law to develop funding proposals to support a joint office. So there was a certain progression and I had the support of two institutions. But the entire project was risky; there were certainly no guarantees of success. And I was largely on my own in Brazil. In retrospect, I’m not sure that I really knew enough to take on a project of that magnitude, but what I lacked in knowledge I compensated for in energy, hard work, and stubbornness. I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall, trying to figure things out, develop contacts, hire staff, comply with regulations—all while contributing to human rights campaigns and cases. Sometimes, it can be an advantage not to know what an uphill battle you are facing. Maybe had I known what I found out afterward, I might not have opted to take on the joint office project. The other options I was considering involved death penalty litigation and public defender work. In retrospect, I’m very glad I decided to open the joint Brazil office for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Brazil is where I met my wife and where my daughter was born.
Q: About five years after opening the joint HRW-CEJIL Office, you founded the Global Justice Center. Can you tell us what you did at the GJC? Why did you decide to open it? What made it different from the office you had opened before? What did you do to make sure it would continue to thrive after you left?
The idea of the Global Justice Center was to create a Brazilian human rights NGO with an international focus, rather than the Brazilian office of an international organization. In my time with HRW and CEJIL I came to see how U.S.- and European-based organizations dominated access to international fora, whether universal (UN bodies) or regional (those in the inter-American system of the OAS), and the international media. In part because of language (Portuguese is spoken only in Brazil in the Americas), the Brazilian human rights community was largely isolated and had very little access to international oversight mechanisms and international media. We created Global Justice to amplify the voices of Brazilian rights activists at the international level. To give you one example, in the mid- and late-1990s, HRW did not consider economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights to be a core element of its mandate. So whenever I spoke to media sources on behalf of HRW to discuss the main or principal areas of rights abuse and concern in Brazil, I would reference civil and political rights only. Domestic rights activists, by contrast, saw ESC rights as essential to the human rights situation in Brazil. That made perfect sense in a country that had been ranked as the most unequal in terms of distribution of wealth. But HRW and Amnesty International wouldn’t address ESC rights issues, and HRW and Amnesty dominated access to the international community.
We set up Global Justice with one small grant and started working to train Brazilian activists to use international mechanisms. We developed seminars that we would hold throughout the country. And we brought in activists from around Brazil both to spend time with us at our office in Rio de Janeiro and to travel abroad to learn to use UN and OAS mechanisms. Global Justice has grown significantly, along with other internationally focused NGOs in Brazil. Today, Brazilian groups have much more access to international fora. They make much more and better use of oversight bodies and international media. And Global Justice, I think, has been central to that process. In many ways, Global Justice has become much more successful since I left. That’s something of which I am enormously proud. Global Justice’s success is due in large part to the good fortune that I had in being able to identify outstanding, committed rights activists and to bring them on board in the organization’s first years. These activists are now national leaders in Brazil and very well respected internationally. Global Justice is a Brazilian organization, with an international focus, run primarily by Brazilians but with a diverse, international staff, as it should be.
Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing human rights work? What about students who are interested in opening brand new offices, much like you did? What were the biggest challenges you faced, and how would you recommend overcoming them?
The advice that I give to students interested in pursuing human rights work is that they should do just that, work in human rights. It’s hard to get started, hard to find jobs or funding or fellowships, but if you’re persistent, things turn up. I encourage students to go somewhere that they might want to work and to be prepared to spend time there learning the ropes. Not a few weeks or months, but years. That’s what it takes. To be successful, you have to be part of the local human rights community, you have to understand the local culture, language, norms, and so forth. They say that all politics is local. Well, at some level, so is all human rights work. Or at least all good human rights work. It may have an international component, but it has to have the local component. And being effective locally is what separates good, grounded, and successful advocates from those who parachute in and expect instant results. So my advice for those who want to work in human rights, particularly if they want to set up some sort of organization or structure, is to be patient. To learn how things work. To engage local actors, to partner with them, to learn from them. To respect their agency. To be humble and not to impose themselves. And not to give in and do something else, like, say, work for a law firm just because it seems easier.