Ila (left) served as a research fellow at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamshala, India. She is pictured here with the Centre’s Director, Tsering Tsomo (right).
In Fall 2019, I hesitated as I packed my bags for Dharamshala, India. Would I need dress shoes or rubber wellies? A sunhat, or a down parka? I had been lucky enough to forge contact with The Forgotten International, who organized a research fellowship for me at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamshala (TCHRD). A series of internships at stale government agencies and corporate-like NGOs had led me to believe a human rights research career was doomed to be bureaucratic and dull. Then, this fellowship offered a chance to learn about human rights monitoring firsthand while leveraging my academic background. I didn’t know what to expect (or what to pack), but I was excited.
When I arrived, the Director of TCHRD assigned three significant projects. I was already intimidated by the first task: draft a letter that TCHRD would deliver to all the foreign embassies based in New Delhi. Certain UN member states are trying to limit NGO influence in human rights mechanisms; I had to learn how to form a diplomatic, careful yet confident argument condemning their threats to human rights advocates and whistleblowers.
My second project was the TCHRD 2019 annual report. For months, I pawed through every possible online source for information about the human rights situation of Tibetans. The project taught me the tricky methodology of gathering reliable data in a context with strict censorship and no freedom-of-speech.
Finally, my last project was to edit a report on state cooperation with human rights treaty bodies. The treaty bodies monitor state implementation of the international human rights treaties, but many of their recommendations are ignored. To strengthen the work of the Treaty Bodies, TCHRD will publish a report analyzing the most common recommendations made by various treaty bodies on Tibet and other minority rights. The report will also include a list of recommendations on ways and means to improve compliance with human rights obligations and enhance the capacity of treaty bodies to better monitor state parties’ obligations. The report, which will be submitted to all the ten treaty bodies committees and the UN permanent missions in Geneva, taught me about the inner-workings of human rights mechanisms and how to advocate for them.
Never mind the challenging and exciting projects; working at TCHRD was life-changing because of the people I met. The office is 100% Tibetan. So, each staff member has experienced human rights abuses themselves or through close friends and family. Drawing on their lived experiences, they taught me more about human rights monitoring and campaigning than any class. Those lessons included leading by example in attitude and perspective. Despite being personally affected by the human rights violations on which they work, they demonstrate how to alchemize frustration, anger, and depression into strength and optimism.
I recommend this fellowship to anyone with a legal or research background and a desire to learn why human rights matter. The fellowship teaches that international politics have real-life effects on individuals and communities, and you’ll learn about strengthening paths to justice for victims of torture, censorship, arbitrary imprisonment, and other illegal human rights violations. The people you will work with will provide a window into the way that human rights advocates conduct their work, their real-life struggles and challenges, the diversity of tools and strategies they employ, and, ultimately, their courage and persistence in advancing human rights.