Liliana Ortega is pioneering a human rights advocacy and education model that defines a set of core values and then holds public institutions accountable to them.
The New Idea
Liliana is working to make human rights part of the fabric of everyday life in Venezuela by advocating for legislative and judicial reform at the same time that she works on grassroots prevention. Liliana's Committee for the Relatives and Victims of the Events of February and March of 1989, or COFAVIC, targets institutions and officials that play a role in ensuring human rights, from Venezuela's new constitutional assembly to front-line prison guards and police. She also works with young people to teach tolerance. Her goal is to educate fellow Venezuelans about the need to protect and ensure human rights in order to strengthen the democratic roots of Latin America's longest established democracy. When Liliana started her work in 1989, most political leaders in Venezuela did not talk about or acknowledge human rights abuse as a problem. Now, more than 60 percent of politicians include human rights reform as a priority agenda item, and there is a greater awareness among most Venezuelans about what "human rights" are.
After decades of riches reaped from the high price of oil drilled off Venezuela's coast, the 1990s brought a severe economic downturn. Thanks to the structural adjustment program instituted in the late 1980s, massive banking scandals, lower oil prices, and an economic crisis in 1996, the country that for decades was the model Latin American democracy is now suffering through a financial and political "dark night."
Despite its reputation as Latin America's oldest democracy, Venezuela's justice system has lost credibility with its citizenry after years of corruption and the impunity that has characterized past investigations into abuse, assassination, torture, unlawful detention, extra judicial execution, and inhuman treatment. According to Liliana's organization, COFAVIC, 80 percent of all investigations never go beyond the initial stage because those in charge of administering justice are able to impede due process with impunity. Moreover, there has been no adoption of national laws to mirror and honor international human rights conventions.
Aggravating the situation is the marked rise of violence and crime throughout the country. Venezuelans do not feel safe in their communities, and feel that they cannot turn to the justice system for answers.
Liliana is building a culture of respect for human rights along three strategic lines by: bringing precedent-setting cases to the national courts and, failing resolution, to international human rights commissions; running workshops and training for a highly influential target audience of police officials and prison administrators; and offering programs through the schools to build awareness and tolerance among Venezuela's next generation.
Liliana's training course for police commanders includes presentations by civil society organizations on how to work in the community, oral and video presentations by family members of victims of abuses, role-playing exercises to simulate real-life situations, and lectures by well-known figures in the justice system, such as supreme court justices. The program has already reached five hundred police officers. Several of them have gone on to implement workshops in their own departments, fulfilling one of Liliana's goals of turning them into multipliers of the idea. Since the program started, cases of abuse have gone down by 13 percent. COFAVIC has also instituted human rights training workshops with prison guards and officials. This has led to the installation of several Human Rights Units that deal with complaints within the prison system.
Liliana's youth work has focused on building a campaign against discrimination and intolerance in the schools through newsletters, radio programs, and the engagement of popular rock bands. She has worked in twenty schools (with sixty to one hundred students in each) and sees this aspect of her work as a key element in her long-term goal of building a culture of respect for human rights in Venezuela.
Liliana combines her grassroots program work with high level legal representation, bringing key human rights abuse cases to the courts to battle the culture of impunity that has evolved in law enforcement circles in Venezuela. She only takes on six legal advocacy cases per year - paradigm cases that can have an effect on moving the human rights agenda forward. In 1997, in a case where she represented the family of one of the victims of the 1989 police crackdown, Liliana won a settlement, brokered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, that paid thirty thousand dollars to the mothers of the victim. She currently has three cases before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.
Liliana is working to make the military justice system in Venezuela (the Code of Military Justice), adopt international standards. She wants to shift more cases to the responsibility of civil courts. The recently formed Constitutional Assembly has already incorporated an article on military reform. This was accomplished in large part by COFAVIC's aggressive media campaigns and political lobbying. Over the past ten years of their work, they have established their credibility and become an information source for journalists, members of the constitutional assembly, and other mass media. The work of COFAVIC has been reported in hundreds of newspaper accounts, radio interviews, and television spots. In addition, Liliana writes a weekly column for Quinta Dia, whose target audience is business executives and thought leaders.
COFAVIC is now building collective action and promoting a coalition to protect human rights that includes eighteen members. Over the next five to ten years, Liliana hopes to be able to influence police and prison guard academies to include her workshops and human rights training as a required part of the curriculum. She hopes to be able to replace the current culture of impunity with a culture that understands basic human rights. She will continue to spread her model through the training that she gives to community organizations and to build her documentation center on human rights cases and best practices into a national reference.
Liliana grew up in a privileged middle class family where she had opportunities to travel and study abroad in England. She went to law school to study corporate law, but became focused on human rights when, while she was still a law student, there was a police crackdown in Caracas that left hundreds dead, following widespread rioting. She volunteered to compile the testimonies of the victims of this disproportionate use of violence. Her contact with more than one hundred families affected by these human rights abuses, the majority of whom came from disadvantaged sectors of the city, had a tremendous impact on her. She decided to change her professional focus and dedicate her legal career to the defense of these cases.
Liliana spent the next few years investigating the deaths (thus the name of her organization) and narrowed down, from five hundred cases, to focus on forty-four. At the time, the only other human rights organization that existed was fighting for economic and social rights, not civil and political rights. She brought together a team to form a new model based on legal advocacy and grassroots prevention. Over the years, she has built her organization from a group of law student volunteers to a professional staff of fourteen people (seven of them from the families of the victims she set out to represent). At age thirty-four, Liliana has garnered a reputation for integrity and perseverance. She has been invited to Nicaragua and Guatemala to advise on programs established on the COFAVIC model, and she regularly is invited to testify before national and international bodies. As a testament to her personal stature, she was asked to give a presentation to the National War Council, composed of Venezuela's top military leaders. But Liliana is careful to preserve this hard-won reputation. As she notes, it only takes one unfavorable or misrepresentative story to ruin many years of work. This year she has been an active participant in Venezuela's historic re-drafting of the National Constitution under the new leadership of President Chavez. In May of 1999, she was recognized by Time Magazine as one of Latin America's Leaders for the New Millennium.