University of Minnesota law school teams up with Colombian universities to fight for human rights

While studying law at the University of Medellín in Antioquia, Colombia, Juliana Velez worked on a human rights case about a flooding river — called La Picacha — that displaced families living near the water.

Now, Velez is collaborating with University of Minnesota law students to further her work on the case as part of a partnership between the University’s Human Rights Program and four Colombian universities in the
Antioquia region.

Velez and Martin Palacio, another visiting Colombian law student, will spend six weeks going to law classes at the University and visiting human rights centers around the Twin Cities.

The students will also participate in law clinics — simulations with clients who need legal advice — to broaden their human rights advocacy and litigation skills, said Diana Quintero, a director of the project.

The partnership began in 2012 as a means for University faculty members to share strategies with human rights defenders at the four Colombian universities. University and Antioquia faculty members and students will have several more exchanges in the
next two years.

“We have [a] very different context in which human rights are discussed,” said visiting professor Sandra Gomez, who teaches human rights at the clinics of the four universities that are part of the partnership.

While in Minnesota, Gomez and five other Colombian professors will complete internships.

Colombia has experienced ongoing armed conflict between its government and different guerrilla and paramilitary groups since the late 1950s, in addition to other social and political violence, Gomez said.

Human rights defenders have been killed over the years, Gomez said, which is “a huge issue.”

Palacio said it’s OK to say you’re a human rights defender in the U.S., but that isn’t always allowed in Colombia.

“It’s so different working in human rights,” he said.

Palacio and Velez will teach students in the University’s human rights clinic about the Picacha flooding case and collaborate with them on relocating displaced families.

To begin, students will write a letter to the city of Medellín about how the floods are a human rights issue, Velez said, and the University clinic will write legal statements supporting the students’ case.

“It’s a good job because we are working together,” Velez said.

When Velez returns to Colombia, she said she wants to work on environmental and human rights issues. She said she hopes to bring back a greater capacity to understand differences and welcome people.

Palacio said he hopes his time at the University will help him think more internationally about human rights issues since the approach in Colombia is more locally focused.

The Colombian visitors’ time in Minnesota will be great for building an interdisciplinary network in human rights, Gomez said, something that’s less established in Colombian legal education.

“It’s a very contrasting experience,” she said, “and we’ve been learning a lot.”

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