Juan E. Méndez is a well-known Argentinian human rights activist. His stellar life and career includes representing political prisoners, protecting migrant worker’s rights, enduring torture and administrative detention, being adopted by Amnesty International as a “Prisoner of Conscience,” and being expelled from Argentina.He launched the Human Rights Watch’s Americas Program, was the director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame, worked at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), an international human rights NGO, served as the Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute of Costa Rica and is a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Always one to share his knowledge to further the human rights cause, he has taught Human Rights Law at American University’s Washington College of Law, Georgetown Law School, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and University of Oxford.
So, it was only fitting for current American University colleagues, faculty, students and friends from far and wide to come together on October 26, 2011 to listen to him speak at an event titled Human Rights Defender: A Conversation with Professor Juan Mendez, as part of the American University’s Washington College of Law’s International Week’s Human Rights Defender Speaker Series and then to celebrate him later at a reception and book signing in honor of the recent book he wrote with Marjory Wentworth titled Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights, during which he was also presented with an award.
The event which was hosted at the Law School’s Dean’s Suite by Dean Claudio Grossman was the Washington DC stop of his book launch tour to promote the book. Some of what this very modest man with much empathy for the underserved shared with attendees is below.
The title of the book is Taking A Stand and the subtitle is The Evolution of Human Rights. I wrote the book as a reflection of the impact human rights has had on my life, to reflect not only on the growth, but also to acknowledge the challenges.
Mario Yacub, one of the 120 lawyers who disappeared in Argentina was one of the people who positively influenced me in my life and career. The late Emilio Mignone was also one of my human rights mentors in Argentina. His son in law, Mario del Carril, wrote his biography titled, La Vida de Emilio Mignone, "Justicia, Catolicisno y derechos Humanos." Through him I learnt what we as a society owe to the victims of human rights violations.
As we celebrate the transition to democracy, we must remember that things haven't always been this way and join in the struggle for institutional reform, which has progressed immensely to the point that organizations are now able to do what they couldn't previously, including people working on human rights reports in the middle of danger zones. Now this is standard procedure.
Bob Goldman was another source of inspiration and well-founded information to me, again in the area of how to fight impunity for human rights crimes, and also on how to apply the laws of war to all parties to an armed conflict. When writing the book, I drew on my personal experiences as a victim and my professional experiences as a lawyer and professor to show that there are lessons to be drawn from the past and that there parallels to current real life human rights situations.
The book is a way to illustrate and enable people to understand how far we've come to make the international human rights groups diverse in their composition, effective in their procedures to uncover outstanding occurrences for organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and sufficiently equipped with the ability to create effective policies and rules. The fact that they can do all these things now is an achievement.
I end the book on a note of hope and challenge because blatant offenses against human dignity like torture haven't disappeared, and subtle but equally brutal punishments such as solitary confinement are now being more broadly used. My book is a social reflection on how we as a global community can work to successfully forge ahead in the path of human rights.
Author’s Note: My personal view of the book is that it is a must have for anyone interested in human rights from a personal or professional perspective. To attest to the quality of the book’s content, copies were sold out at the reception. The book is available everywhere including www.amazon.com. Pick up your copy to learn about the work of this great human rights activist.
Read more on Juan E. Méndez at Wikipedia.