Today saw the EU study abroad program traveling to both the Human Rights Watch office in Brussels and to the Brussels Regional Parliament. We started off the day right after lunch by reuniting with Dr. Markley. We were all anticipating her return, ready for further discussions about human rights and the impact of European integration on this timely subject. Many members of the 2018 EU study abroad cohort have an interest in the subject of human rights, making both Dr. Markley’s return and the visit to Human Rights Watch an anticipated event.
We began the visit by entering the unassuming lobby of the office building, just a five minute walk from the main European Institutions. Similar to Google Europe, we all perceived a different feeling in this non-governmental organization compared to traditional political and governmental bodies that we had visited. Our presenter, in hiking pants and an untucked button down shirt, greeted us by setting a very comfortable and open atmosphere. He started the conversation by discussing the structure of Human Rights Watch (HRW) and some of the ways that they conduct their work.
He broke down the work of HRW into two main categories: investigating human rights abuses and advocating to stop these abuses. He then explained how the workload in HRW is divided among these two roles. Researchers work to investigate the abuses by going into the field, collecting evidence, interviewing witness, and analyzing information channels. After researchers publish their report, which often exceeds 300 pages, the advocacy and communication teams step in. First off, advocacy work involves trying to directly stop the abuse that is occurring in a certain country. This can occur by sitting down and trying to directly influence governments by meeting with officials and making efforts to change policy. However, if governments refuse to meet or act in an aggressive, obstructive behavior, HRW can conduct public information campaigns that bring light and shame to governments for the abuses that are occurring under their watch. The communication team within HRW focuses on developing these campaigns, and they also focus on making 300 page reports more accessible and appealing to a wider audience for a greater ultimate impact. Additionally, our speaker touched upon the fundraising aspects of HRW and non-governmental organizations in general. He highlighted how important a diverse source of funding is to keeping an organization non-governmental and as an objective third party. Core funding represents their main funding sources as opposed to project funding, therefore they have options in how their money is spent and where the funding sources focus on.
After he explained the general background on HRW, he opened the floor to questions. In this section students asked about EU advocacy, the relationship with China, and more specific questions about HRW work on the ground. In terms of EU relations, he explained how HRW directly interacts with EU institutions with MEPs in the Parliament and members of the Commission. Moving on from the EU advocacy, he expounded upon some of the dynamics with economics and human rights in regards with China. He believed that the creation of a separate dialogue on human rights took away some of the incentive to include human rights conditions in traditional trade discussions between the EU and China. They already have a separate forum, therefore, they do not need to discuss human rights in the key trade discussions. Finally, he discussed some of the positive directions that human rights was going in, one country would be Uzbekistan where HRW researchers are now allowed to work and the government is more receptive to advocacy efforts.
Ultimately, hearing from an NGO perspective was incredibly insightful for the entire group. This organization places real men and women on the ground to talk to people who suffer from human rights abuses and to influence governments to adhere to human rights laws. In this meeting we learned about such details like digital and personal security for these researchers. One of the main takeaways from the meeting was that human rights work is a tangible, dangerous endeavor. There are real stakes at play. It is not just international accords and governmental discussions. Real people suffer from human rights abuses and real people risk their lives to stop these abuses. It was a powerful message to hear that this work progresses everyday no matter the political rhetoric that flies around through the media. There are real steps moving towards the respect of human rights in the world.
Following HRW, we travelled to the Brussels Regional Parliament and met with the President of the Francophone Brussels Parliament. This visit began with a tour of the Parliament building, which was originally the palace of the governor of Brussels. In 1995, Brussels was given its own regional status and therefore needed a home for the Parliament, the current building became that home. The building complex itself blended three centuries worth of architecture into one unified parliament structure.
Moving through the building we encountered a variety of symbolic art installations that spoke to the values that the Brussels parliament embodies. One commission room featured a large image of Erasmus and Manneken Pis. This spoke to the support of constant development of mankind towards progress, shown in Erasmus, and the Brussels sense of humor in the Manneken Pis. In the center of the room, a large metal cube dangled from a thin wire thread. This was intended to represent the weight and importance of democracy, but the wire represented the fragility of the ideals and the project of democracy itself. In another commission room, we viewed a work by an artist who placed potato peels in the form of Arabic script, a controversial piece, but also a powerful work to place in the Brussels Parliament. Brussels has a significant Turkish and Moroccan population. This contemporary art hosted in the actual working rooms of the parliament is a testament to the parliament’s attention to their region and looking into the future to make things better for their citizens.
After viewing the working rooms of the parliament, we had a Q and A session that explored everything from the actual inner workings of the regional parliament to what democracy means to us and our own thoughts on US foreign policy. Throughout the tour, we felt a sense of politics for the people on a regional level.
These politicians work with everyday people, for example, they open the main parliament building once a month to an audience of 100 citizens of Brussels to have a discussions about issues facing the citizens. Ultimately, the fruits of these discussions are turned into real policy proposals. We were all incredibly grateful for the time given to us and discussions that we had about the intricacies of European integration, regional politics, and the future of the transatlantic relationship. We also were able to share soda and chips in the office of the President of the Brussels Francophone Parliament! The conversation travelled to discussions about our own goals and aspirations for the future of Europe and US relations. We all took away a sense of politics working for the people and hope for the future in the uncertain times that we currently live in. It was a wonderful second to last day in Brussels before heading to The Hague.