We continue with our programme “PBI Coffee Break”; today we are with Moira Birss, PBI Colombia’s representative in the USA and Canada for the last five years, and the person responsible for carrying political advocacy in North America.
PBI: Tell us a bit about yourself and what your personal and professional trajectory has been.
Moira Birss: I came to this role after a working a lot with communities on issues of human rights, social justice and protecting the environment. I started out very young, getting involved in the Amnesty International group that we had in our school, and then I started studying Spanish. After I finished my political science degree which focused on Latin America, I went to work for another accompaniment organisation called FOR, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which also has a project accompanying defenders in Colombia. So for two years I accompanied defenders in Colombia and then I moved on to work with PBI in the US doing political advocacy.
PBI: Tell us about how you work on advocacy in the US, with whom to you meet and how you reach out to them?
MB: Advocacy work in the US and Canada is very varied. My days include meeting with staff from congressional offices, and the preparation and follow up which that involves. There are also meetings with State Department officials, White House advisers, other NGOs that work on human rights and Latin America. And all the work that goes into having those meetings, preparing our statements and a lot of follow up work. One of the advocacy tools that we use are letters from members of Congress to the Colombian Government, when there is an emergency or an issue of public policy on human rights we can ask members of Congress to write a letter to the Colombian Government to address a specific situation.
PBI: How do you get the attention of advocacy targets in the US; why should they be interested in Colombia and take action to change things?
MB: That is one of the parts that I like the most; I see it partly as a translating, both literally and figuratively. Of course in the US people speak English and most people I talk to don’t speak Spanish, so it’s an actual translation, but I also have to translate a reality that is very different to what happens in the US. It is a reality that they can come to understand if I relate it to what is important to them, for example by linking it to already-existing policies or to first hand experiences that people have had.
For example, one congressman who has always supported the issues we work on is someone who used to be a member of the Peace Corps many years ago, so he has that link to Colombia, and we try to bring what we do back to his experience. Others have been in Central America, and can relate that experience to what is happening in Colombia.
PBI: In current context of relations between the US and Colombia, how do you see those relations and how do they affect PBI’s advocacy work?
MB: That’s a good question, as we know that the US and Colombia have had a very close relationship for years, with the US giving a lot of political and financial support, and a lot of attention to that relationship from within Colombia. That continues to be the case, albeit with some changes, but the US remains an important influence on Colombia, as seen in the negotiations with the FARC.
At first the US didn’t make any public statements or get overtly involved, but when the US government saw that the negotiations were making progress, it became more vocal in terms of what it should do, as did Congress, until the White House sent a special envoy to the Havana talks, Bernie Aronson, who’s been in the position for two years. It has been covered by the media and other sources and this role is acknowledged to have played an important part in the progress of the negotiations with the FARC. We are also waiting to see what happens with the pending negotiations with the ELN.
Thinking ahead to the future implementation of the agreements with the different guerrilla groups, the US has committed itself to giving a lot of resources to its implementation, and it is important to understand that it isn’t just resources that are important, but also the political influence they imply. Having a presence in the US gives us the capacity to do advocacy, to exert influence to try to ensure more support for human rights or on issues affecting family farmer, Afro-Colombian or indigenous communities, and others. This close relationship is why it is so important to have an advocacy position in the US, to help influence what happens in that relationship.
PBI: One of the representative’s tasks is accompanying defenders when they come to Washington DC for meetings. Tell us a little on how you prepare for the defender’s visit.
MB: The speaking tours are very interesting, and can even be a fun part of my job in the US. Yes, they’re a lot of work, but I enjoy it because it’s a different space to share with the defenders that PBI accompanies, very different from the reality they experience in Colombia, where many of the people we accompany are under serious threat. They can’t go out and have a beer at an outdoor patio because of the risks that entails. In the US they’re much more relaxed, they don’t have to keep looking over their shoulder to see if someone is following them.
So it is great to be able to share these more relaxed environments with them, but it involves a lot work. They sometimes complain of the rhythm when they’re visiting, because they only have two days, four or five days, and we try to fill them with meetings because they are crucial moments for advocacy. I do the work of figurative translating as I mentioned earlier, but the message has much more impact when the people themselves speak, those who have experienced the human rights violations, or who work directly with the communities. It is more interesting for our contacts in the US to listen to them, than to me.
The preparation involves setting up lots of meetings and planning a workable agenda that gives us enough time to go from one venue to another. It involves preparing the defender for the meetings, because sometimes they’re people with years of experience of doing advocacy in the US, and other times they don’t have experience, and you have to explain what it is like in the meetings, who the people are that they will be meeting with, what is the context, what are the things they do or don’t know about Colombia. Often the contact will have a portfolio that covers the whole region so they don’t have very detailed knowledge of the situation. So we help them to understand these dynamics.
PBI: PBI is present on the ground in other countries in the world, and has offices in different parts of Europe that also do advocacy work. How does your work in the US relate to the other parts of PBI?
MB: Yes, that’s a good question. Although my role is, above all, to represent the Colombia Project in the US and Canada, a good part of it, and a very important part of the work, is coordinating and collaborating with other PBI entities. For example, to give feedback to the United Nations or Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or on different countries’ national plans on business and human rights, because we know that PBI has a unique and important perspective on protecting human rights defenders. There aren’t many organisations that work on human rights which have that focus and expertise on protection and presence in the field. So PBI’s work on an international level is a lot about contributing to the debate and processes taking place internationally to protect human rights defenders.
To give an example, last year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for contributions to a study and report they were doing on the right to the freedom of association, the right to join organisations that work on issues of extractive industries and human rights. So as PBI, we coordinated among the four different projects in Latin America: In Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, and with some of the PBI Country Groups in presenting an extensive report on emblematic cases in countries where we work in Latin America, which also set out analysis and recommendations to the Member States to protect defenders in the region who work on those issues.
PBI: On a more personal level, you’ve been working with PBI Colombia for five years, how do you feel that the process has changed you, what have you learned and how has your experience with PBI influenced you?
MB: The PBI experience has been amazing in many ways, a lot of work, sometimes a lot of stress, but above all I learned from the people we accompany, their dedication, their experiences, their love for what they do, and that inspires me. PBI is a horizontal organisation, which takes decisions through consensus, so the process of strengthening the organisation from within has been very positive, and I think that I have also learned to think of organisational processes in a very different way. I know that when I leave PBI, wherever I work after that, I will take with me a love for Colombia and the people and organisations that we accompany, and also for the organisation that PBI is.
PBI: Thanks very much Moira for telling us about your experience of advocacy work and for sharing how it unfolds.
MB: Of course, it’s been a pleasure; thanks!