Professor Shelton, Others Secure Historic Human Rights Settlements with Paraguayan Government
In Paraguay, Professor Shelton and the Commission's efforts to
promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples in the
region helped, in part, to persuade the Paraguayan government
to address the problem of restoring lands to its indigenous
Kelynmagategma community. The government bought more
than half of the ancestral lands in question and returned them to
the community during a ceremony attended by Professor Shelton,
Commissioner Orozco-Henríquez, and the Paraguayan minister
of foreign affairs.
The woman had waited 36 years to learn how and why her husband had mysteriously disappeared while in police custody, and to hear her government acknowledge that it had been responsible for leaving her children fatherless.
That day finally came during proceedings in Asunción, Paraguay, where the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, with Professor Dinah Shelton as president, negotiated significant human rights victories for victims and their families. Professor Shelton participated in historic efforts to mediate human rights claims that culminated with the government of Paraguay agreeing to provide reparations to victims of the 35-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner.
Professor Shelton, Manatt/Ahn Professor of International Law, recalled the emotional signing ceremony on August 5, which involved the now-elderly woman and her adult children.
“The table was U-shaped, with us at the top, the government and victims on each side,” she said. “The first family came in, a widow of about 70, two grown sons and a daughter-in-law, all petitioners regarding their husband-father who disappeared in 1975.
“When the family entered, they put a white lace cloth on the table, and on it they placed a large photo of the man, with a small white candle that was lit for the ceremony.”
The government confessed that it had been responsible for the man’s disappearance, and it agreed to make public the settlement, pay money to the family, and build a memorial to honor his memory.
“At the end of the ceremony, one of them spoke up for all the disappeared,” Professor Shelton said. “Then, the family members and the government representatives hugged each other and gave thanks.”
The day marked an extraordinary victory for human rights, not only in Paraguay, but also globally, noted Dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law Paul Schiff Berman.
“Dinah’s success and her work with the Commission prove that the efforts of our faculty, students, and alumni reach far beyond the walls of our classrooms to bring about change in the world,” said Dean Berman, whose own scholarly work focuses on globalization and its effect on the interaction of legal systems. “The GW Law community celebrates this milestone victory.”
Professor Shelton and Commissioner José de Jesús Orozco-Henríquez also worked on settling petitions filed by the families of two boys, ages 13 and 17, who were forced into the Paraguayan army. Both died under suspicious circumstances, leaving their loved ones in the dark for more than a decade.
The lost boys’ mothers were present to hear the details of the settlement agreements: a confession of responsibility, which will be published in local newspapers; pensions; compensation; and a memorial. Perhaps most importantly, a street will be named in their sons’ honor.
“The government has been willing to tackle the hard issues from the Stroessner dictatorship and build a better society,” Professor Shelton said. “This makes the work of the Commission all worthwhile.”
During a previous trip to Paraguay, Professor Shelton and
colleagues visited with and listened to the indigenous
Kelynmagategma community. These site visits are part of
her responsibilities as a Commissioner as well as the IACHR's
Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
During the same visit to Paraguay, her efforts to promote and protect the rights of indigenous peoples in the region helped, in part, to persuade the Paraguayan government to address the problem of restoring lands to its indigenous Kelynmagategma community. The government bought more than half of the ancestral lands in question and returned them to the community during a ceremony attended by Professor Shelton, Commissioner Orozco-Henríquez, and the Paraguayan minister of foreign affairs.
As the Commission’s rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Professor Shelton continues working on the final resolution of the remaining claims of the community for reparations and access to other lands where cemeteries and other sacred sites are located.
“This is a victory for the rights of indigenous peoples in particular and for compliance with human rights obligations in general,” she said. “The government and the petitioners have shown enormous good will.”
Professor Shelton’s work also has given GW Law students a front-row seat to the evolution of human rights law. She reports on Commission proceedings and victories and invites students to watch law in action during Commission hearings held, just a few blocks from campus.
“Attending the Commission’s hearings provided me with a more tangible understanding of the theory behind what goes on there,” said Alexandra Sanchez, a student who took Professor Shelton’s Regional Protection of Human Rights class. “We not only got the benefit of seeing the Commission in action two blocks away from school, applying principles we learned in the classroom to human rights issues in Latin America, but we also got the perspective of a Commissioner herself and a more nuanced understanding of the processes and the law.”
Click the image above to learn more about Professor Shelton's work on the IACHR and how
GW Law students have benefited from her experience and the Commission's work.