Growing up, my dad told me a parable about a frog that looked up at the sky from a well, smugly satisfied that it knew what the sky looked like. But when the frog emerged from the well, it realized the sky was vast and never-ending. I have had two moments in my life when I felt like that frog emerging from the well. The first occurred when I stepped foot onto my college campus. The second, almost 20 years later, was on a rare week-long trip this March as a volunteer attorney with The Advocates for Human Rights to the United Nations in Geneva.
Like with most volunteer activities that start out with intentions of wanting to give and share your time and energy, you end up getting back more than you give. This trip was no different. Indeed, on day one, as I nervously looked out at this multinational body at work, I gave my first oral statement to the Human Rights Council about atrocities in Eritrea, which was later followed by another about domestic violence in Moldova. I quickly learned that each speaker only has two minutes to speak, and so as “The Advocates for Human Rights” was called to the floor, I quickly threw down my translation ear piece, turned on the microphone button, and sped through my statements in an effort to pack as much information into the UN record as possible.
The oral statements, however, were just the beginning. I had the opportunity to lobby delegates of member-states around the world, explaining to them issues relating to the death penalty in Bahrain, domestic violence in Poland, Morocco and Tunisia, religious freedom in India, and discrimination in South Africa. Given my time spent as a volunteer with The Advocates on a fact-finding mission to Montenegro through a pro bono opportunity at my law firm, I had the honor of sitting on a panel with relentless and passionate human rights activists regarding issues of domestic violence in Serbia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Montenegro. I had dinner with human rights defenders and leaders from around the globe, who were both extraordinary and majestically ordinary at the same time. I spoke with a woman whose brother was killed and her sister in law mutilated by ISIS, who somehow was applauding me for merely passing out fliers on domestic violence. I heard the moving and sometimes quivering voices of activists on the ground explaining the situations in Western Sahara, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia, and I could not help but be overwhelmed.
While watching the representatives from countries around the world speak, I realized the fragility of every country and the pressure this multi-national system is under, particularly when so many of the six billion people around the world cannot live a life free from violence or starvation. To some extent, in just a few short days, I saw how on a macro level, each nation was clamoring for what we inherently want on an individual micro level: acceptance, to be cool in front of our friends, and to be heard. Sometimes they spoke; other times, there was baffling silence. But nothing can prepare you for the moment when you finally have the palpable realization that human rights today are genuinely under attack, and there is so much to be done.
Accordingly, we must support NGOs around the world—like The Advocates for Human Rights—that are not only changing laws but genuinely changing lives. It is imperative that we use our skills and resources to support those who are defending the most basic rights around the world so that people can live a life of dignity.
Thank you to The Advocates, its partners, and my travel buddies for giving me this opportunity. And through you, I know that a small group of people can really make a difference if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
By Attorney Angela Liu, volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights. Liu practices law with Dechert LLP in its Chicago office. There, she specializes in securities litigation, litigation, white collar, and complex commercial litigation.