-Special Human Rights Guest -
Today I interview a multi-lingual woman who is a lawyer, human rights legal adviser and now a Civil Affairs Officer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) - Chrysoula Vlachou.
Welcome, Chrysoula ...
WHAT’S YOUR CURRENT JOB?
I’m a Civil Affairs Officer with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). UNMISS is a peacekeeping mission that was established after the independence of South Sudan, in July 2011. It has a mandate to consolidate peace, protect civilians and build the institutions of the new country. South Sudan is the newest country in the world and has some of the worst indexes in education, health, economy and infrastructure.
I'm in a refugee camp with displaced children after the aerial bombing and ground fighting along the undemarcated and disputed Sudanese/South Sudanese border.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HUMAN RIGHTS?
I come from Greece, the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, theatre… It’s a small country in the Mediterranean Sea that greatly influenced the Western civilizations. However, the Golden era passed some 2.500 years ago. My parents’ generation suffered a lot. They were born during the occupation of Greece from the Germans and they survived the civil war. Most of them didn’t have the chance to continue with university studies. When the country recovered, it was the dream of each Greek family to see their children studying at Universities and become Doctors, Lawyers or Engineers. Nothing less was acceptable! This is why I gave up my passion for French language and literature and chose the Law School. I had to fulfil my parents’ dreams. But I don’t regret, because the Law School brought me closer to Human Rights.
HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS? WAS IT ONE PARTICULAR INCIDENT? ANY PERSONAL INVOLVEMENTS?
When finishing my Master’s Degree in International Law, a voluntary experience in a refugee/IDP in Southern Serbia was a catalyst. That year, I sacrificed my leave and summer holidays to take part in a work camp and support internally displaced persons from Kosovo, and refugees from Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia. They had survived the bloody wars in the Balkans in the -90s, and they had to start their life from the scratch. In this old hotel in a remote village close to the border with Bulgaria, families were accommodated for years in a small room not exceeding 10sqm. It was there that I met children who have lost everything, had nothing, but were very generous and with a constant smile on their face. It was the first time I realized that in my country we have everything but we always complain, while these people have nothing but are happy. Happiness can be found in the simplest things.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HUMAN RIGHTS?
Let’s avoid to copy-paste of the definitions included in conventions or the definitions given by distinguished scholars. To put it in simple words that everyone easily understands, a life with no human rights is not a life worth living. People should be born equal. They should have the same chances to live, not just to survive, and adequate means to develop their personality, without being afraid that they will face unfair sanctions.
DO YOU DO ‘PRO-BONO’ WORK IN HUMAN RIGHTS CASES?
Let’s be frank! You can’t be totally indifferent towards money, as with no money you can’t even have food and survive. However, financial gain is not the only thing you have to take into consideration when deciding to do something. I’ve done it repeatedly in the past and I’m still volunteering my time and expertise in order to make the difference, help those in need and be the inspiration in action.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES IN THE WORLD AS YOU SEE THEM?
Depending on the continent, country and region there are different challenges in the field of human rights. Africa is not Switzerland and Norway is not Latin America. I don’t want to generalize and give a list with some top priorities, as this can be misleading. A top priority in a part of the world has already been addressed in another. I just want to recommend Human Rights experts and activists and ordinary people to be extra vigilant, keep their eyes and mind open and discover the greatest human rights concerns in their environment that require immediate action.
A woman presenting the conclusions of group work during a workshop to empower women participation in peacebuilding.
HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE HELP, OR BECOME INVOLVED?
Each and every one of us can be involved in the human rights field and help in the promotion and protection of human rights. There is no need for specialized knowledge or special skills. Men and women, children, youth and elder, rich and poor can share their concerns. They can engage in constructive dialogue and think of solutions. They just need to have faith in themselves, respect the others and try to achieve what they really deserve as human beings.
HOW CAN WRITERS AND AUTHORS HELP?
Writers and authors can have a great influence on people. They can raise awareness on human rights concerns, sensitize people and also direct them in certain paths. Their voice is always stronger and this multiplies the effect of their intervention.
DO YOU BECOME FRUSTRATED BY THE LACK OF POLITICAL WILL REGARDING HUMAN RIGHTS?
In the modern life, it’s all about politics. Decisions are taken after the examination of the eventual political implications. Of course, the lack of political will is a major obstacle for the promotion and protection of human rights. Individual action should be taken, but we cannot change the situation if we stand alone. We should stand together, unite our voices and pass a strong message to all violators of human rights. Violations must stop and the perpetrators must be accountable and suffer the consequences of their actions.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST VICTORY?
I don’t like talking about significant personal achievements. The biggest victory for me is the smile that I see on the face of the most vulnerable people on earth. The smile proving that these people are grateful towards my decision to leave behind a comfortable life and my humble efforts to make a positive change in their life.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE SADDEST MOMENT IN YOUR WORK?
It’s always with deep sadness that I hear every now and then the news on human rights and humanitarian colleagues who have been targeted, killed, injured or detained. It’s a horrendous crime against generous people who make major sacrifices and serve those in need. It’s totally unacceptable and it should be condemned by those whose voice counts.
A local child at the site of the future UN camp.
WHAT ARE YOUR BIGGEST FRUSTRATIONS?
You can have a great vision to change things, but you realize that your plans cannot be implemented. Financial constraints, lack of interest of the beneficiaries, or simply the dominant political dynamics can undermine your work and vision.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
Over the last few months I’ve been concentrating my efforts on the consolidation of peace in the newest country in the world, South Sudan. It’s a difficult task, as the country emerged from a long civil war and there are still open issues and great needs. However it’s a very rewarding experience. I usually compare the building of new countries with the bringing-up of a child.
WHAT ORGANISATIONS ARE YOU A PART OF? WHY?
I support all organizations that try to make our world a better place provided they are transparent and accountable. I definitely don’t support any “charitable” organization that is used by some people for their personal gain.
DO YOU WORK ON OTHER CASES, BESIDES HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES?
In my current job I have to establish and maintain close contacts with Governmental officials. I have to mentor, monitor and advise them on best practices but I always try to identify and deal with human rights concerns related to their activities.
DO YOU BELIEVE THAT SOME GOOD THINGS ARE BEING ACHIEVED IN HUMAN RIGHTS?
History showed that there is so much blood sacrificed for human rights over the centuries. It’s absolutely true that things cannot change overnight. The process of changing is very slow and demanding, but good things come to those who wait and best to those that never give up.
WHO OR WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST OBSTACLES?
The list of obstacles in the promotion of human rights is endless. Impediments can appear from where you can’t logically expect. However, I‘d like to underline among the major obstacles the restrictive, totalitarian regimes, the lack of political willingness, the games of interests, and also the financial constraints that are spreading all over the world.
ARE WESTERN GOVERNMENTS PROACTIVE OR REACTIVE?
Western governments have put their fingerprints in hundreds of Conventions, Covenants, Declarations, Charters and Final Acts for the promotion and protection of human rights. They have also established monitoring mechanisms, but sometimes they are themselves in the first line of violators. The essence is not in the quantity of binding documents in force. It is in the commitment to guarantee the implementation of the rights granted.
ANY ADVICE FOR A LAWYER CONSIDERING HUMAN RIGHTS LAW?
I definitely recommend it as a specialization. It’s a very rewarding and diverse field. You’ll never regret to have chosen it.
IF YOU HAD AN OPPORTUNITY TO ADDRESS ALL WORLD LEADERS, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
Let’s leave aside all our differences and work together for a better future of the humanity. Let’s believe in people and let’s offer everybody a decent environment to live and develop his/her personality. Let’s prioritize the needs, let’s channel available assistance properly. Let’s make the change!
WHO HAVE YOU WORKED FOR IN THE PAST?
I have spent most of professional life working in an international, multicultural environment, interacting everyday with people from all over the world. As a European, I’m proud to have colleagues that became my good friends from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
WHAT’S YOUR GREATEST DREAM?
My greatest dream is to achieve a world of real equality, not equality in papers. A world where poverty is eradicated, all people have the chance to be educated and have access to health care.
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY?
The key is to start your day as early as possible and interact with many people of different background. I like getting up early and have a walk while the dark disappears, the birds sing and the sun rises. Then, I go to the office preferably to prepare a field trip, outreach to the local communities. I interact with the local people, taste local food and return in the evening. Then, I read some pages of a book to relax, and I spend some time with friends. My perfect day is limited to simple things that give me happiness.
Signature of the post-migration agreement
between the local Dinka and the nomadic Rizeigat tribe.
between the local Dinka and the nomadic Rizeigat tribe.
WHAT ARE YOUR FIVE MOST FAVOURITE BOOKS?
I like reading a lot. Almost each afternoon/evening, I have to go through some pages of my favourite books. Some of my favourite books that I’ve recently or repeatedly read are the following:
1. Albert Camus: L’etranger. I first read it when I finished school, while I appreciated it’s re-reading in Algiers.
2. Ivo Andric: The days of the consuls. I read it in the scene of the events, Travnik, Bosnia & Herzegovina.
3. Honore de Balzac: La Grenadiere.
4. Oscar Wilde: The picture of Dorian Gray.
5. Nikos Aliagas: Allez-vous faites voire chez les Grecs: La mythologie, ou l’ecole de vie.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE?
Challenges are still present. Things have progressed, but there is still a lot of work to be done. With coordinated efforts we can accelerate the process of change and achieve earlier the wished results.
ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Live a life worth living. Be able to look back in your life and don’t regret. Be confident that you did your part for a better world.
More photographs relating to Chrysoula's work:
Shaking hands with the displaced
children that have surrounded
Eating local food with
colleagues and counterparts.
colleagues and counterparts.
Difficulties when on field trips.
Our car stuck in the mud.
Our car stuck in the mud.
A caravan of camels
close to Dajla refugee camp.
Dajla: Tea in the Sahara Desert.
With the elderly displaced persons from Kosovo.
Playing domino with one of the children.
Return (3 years later) to the Collective Centre
on a private visit to see the children that became my friends.
Clancy's comment: I have often wondered where the world would be without people like Chrysoula, battling against the odds to do good work for the underprivileged.