Fedora Bernard (left) with Right Livelihood Laureate Mozn Hassan (right).

The art of advocacy: bringing Laureates’ causes to the international arena

News 22.05.2023

Three times a year, the Human Rights Council is convened in Geneva, Switzerland. Right Livelihood has a strong presence at this United Nations body, aiming to highlight Laureates’ work and situations. What causes are selected, when, and how they are prepared to be presented to the Council is defined by Right Livelihood’s Advocacy team.

With intense sessions in March, June and September, the perfect moment to meet and talk about this with the Advocacy Officer was right now, so that’s what we did!

In an interview with Advocacy Officer Fedora Bernard, we discussed the importance of advocating for and with Laureates, and the impact of this work in the international community.

Q: There is a team at Right Livelihood called Advocacy. And it’s practically the reason why Right Livelihood has an office in Geneva. Among many activities you carry on, you participate in the Human Rights Council. How does it relate to the Laureates and their causes?

Fedora Bernard: Geneva is actually one of the epicentres of international cooperation, and all the work relating to human rights. And, as such, our presence here really allows us to work with and for Laureates, about their situations and their causes, and to bring them to high level fora. We work very closely with them to issue sets of calls and recommendations both to states and UN mechanisms to then be able to improve their work environment and advance their causes.

The Human Rights Council is actually one of the main avenues that we use for our advocacy work. And during the sessions, our engagement occurs on different levels. The first level is at the plenary debates. We support laureates to directly address the Council or address it ourselves to highlight their causes. This allows us to shed light over their situations and publicly call for actions. A second way that we engage with the Council is by organising side events, for instance, where we will maybe unite more than one Laureate to discuss one issue, highlighting different situations that could be interconnected, and that are very much linked to the work of the Council.

We then provide input also to states about Laureates’ situations or about the issues that they are working on, in order to inform states of what is really happening on the ground ahead of their negotiations. What we have heard from diplomats is thanking us and the Laureates, of course, for being able to bring them closer to the field and to the situation in which they work in. This is extremely important, because sitting here in Geneva and talking about a situation is one thing, but actually hearing what’s happening from the people who are living a situation in first person is much more important.

Q: Can you think of a Laureate who was here and who made a really impactful and powerful statement? 

FB: I think of the case of Aminatou Haidar, a Sahrawi activist who has come here a few times and whose situation and mission, that is the right to self-determination of the Sahrawi, we have highlighted multiple times. It’s an issue that is often overlooked internationally. Western Sahara is still today an occupied territory. And her coming here, being able to raise and speak about her situation to the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and to the Council is fundamental for progress to be made.

Q: COVID have changed the way the Human Rights Council worked for some time. How did you cope with those changes? And what did they imply in terms of advocacy?

FB: Yes, COVID was a very interesting time. I mean, for me personally, it was also right after I joined Right Livelihood. So it was interesting to see how my work had to evolve from the start and adapt to such a time of history, actually. In terms of advocacy, and especially access to the UN and the Human Rights Council, what it meant was that Laureates could address the Council by video in a much easier way than they could before, because hybrid or video participation became the rule. In that sense, I feel that during the Council sessions, for example, we were able to bring many more Laureates to speak to the Council than we could in the past. And this is why it is fundamental, as we are transitioning out, or we almost completely transitioned out this time, that avenues such as the Human Rights Council remain accessible via video. These things are under discussion right now. And for us, it’s fundamental to ensure that many Laureates can directly address the Council without having to travel and come to Geneva, which in some situations is just not possible.

Q: Is there a way to see the impact of Advocacy work at the UN? What do Laureates say about the consequences of that institutional presence on their daily lives and local contexts?

FB: That is a tricky question. One has to think of advocacy, international processes and diplomacy as something very slow. I always say, try to put 20 people in a room and make them take a decision on something and see how long it takes for it to happen. Well, when you have 193, it gets even harder. So, one has to realise that sometimes just bringing an issue into the discussion, just highlighting a problem is already a step forward toward addressing that issue. I believe that when it comes to the impact of advocacy sometimes, it’s easily measurable. It’s easily measurable because it’s about freeing someone from prison, for instance.

Other times, especially when it’s related to Laureates’ working environment more broadly or their causes, there can be few steps or enabling steps. For example, resolutions mentioning a particular issue that then can be brought back to the home government and holding them accountable, because UN resolutions are non-binding documents, but show that they actually committed on paper to achieving one thing that should then be translated into practice. So I think the impact of advocacy work really varies case by case.

We have seen, for example, big progress when it comes to Nicaragua. The Council recently passed a resolution to extend the mandate of the group of experts analysing the situation of human rights in Nicaragua. And the text of the resolution now heavily includes indigenous peoples, which is something that we’ve been bringing to the Council, along with a lot of other partner NGOs, for quite some time. And seeing it mentioned in the text will mean that the group of experts will probably pay more attention to the issue of indigenous peoples in Nicaragua for the next report. And this can then inform further resolutions or more state actions to improve their situation.

Q: What do you like the most about your job?

FB: The part that I like the most about my job is engaging with the Laureates.

Laureates, especially those working in repressive environments, are facing extremely complicated daily situations and just engaging with them and learning from them is not only inspiring; from a professional perspective it has no price really. It’s very enriching. From a personal point of view, I feel that we learn so much from them every day.

And then I would say that the second thing I  like the most is that we work on a wide variety of issues, depending on which Laureates we focus on or work with,. One week, I could be working on women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa region with Mozn Hassan. And then a week later, I could be working on the issue of the Yanomami people in Brazil. This wide variety of topics makes the work extremely exciting and engaging.

You know Fedora if you know that…

She joined Right Livelihood in January 2020, first as Programme Officer and then as Advocacy Officer. In 2022, she was given the task of coordinating our engagement with the Human Rights Council at the United Nations.

Fedora was born in Belgium and raised in Italy. She found a home in Geneva after moving there for her Master’s Degree in International Affairs at the Geneva Graduate Institute. She speaks French, English and Italian. Fedora loves cooking and is not shy to experiment with meals from all around the world, from Korean to Peruvian dishes in the same week! Friends and colleagues are thankful for her frequent dinner invitations.

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