Human Rights Internship in Costa Rica
Image: At the top left corner of the photo is Tiffany Ancey with the rest of the CEJIL office staff in December 2018, celebrating the release of Imelda Cortez in El Salvador, charged with attempted murder under severe anti-abortion laws after giving birth to her abuser's baby.
Costa Rica for 6 months? Count me in! I always wanted to live in Latin America, so when I found out about the internship opportunity at CEJIL (Centre for Justice and International Law) in San José Costa Rica, I didn’t hesitate to apply.
CEJIL is an NGO that protects human rights in the Americas by bringing cases of violations before the Inter-American Human Rights System. With offices across the continent in San José, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Washington DC, CEJIL selected me as part of their legal internship programme in Costa Rica. The office there works in Spanish and supervises human rights violations across Central America, from Mexico south to Panama.
After studying Law for five years at the universities of Glasgow and Leiden developing a particular interest in International Human Rights Law, I was eager to learn and understand how Human Rights work in practice. As a legal intern, I worked closely with the lawyers at the office on cases pending, on precautionary measures before the Inter-American Commission and State compliance of judgments rendered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. My tasks were varied, with work like researching case backgrounds and precedents, writing legal memorandums, and updating case folders concerning individuals and groups of victims.
What was most fascinating for me was the insight into Strategic Human Rights Litigation: the deadlines which the office has to respect for filing a request before the Inter-American Commission, the constant back and forth of communications between the State and the representatives of the victims (CEJIL), and making sure judgments are complied with once the Inter-American Court has rendered its decision. The experience taught me a lot about the Inter-American Human Rights System and the Human Rights situation in Central America as a whole.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights based in San José was a five-minute walk from the office. I lived 15 minutes away, in the East End near the University of Costa Rica. The capital is busy and unattractive. Tourists always flee to the rest of the country, where the nature is breath-taking. Costa Rica has it all, jungles, volcanoes, waterfalls, and beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. The food is also delicious. The basic diet consists of rice and beans ‘arroz y frijoles’ which are served with meat or fish, vegetables, and my personal favourite, plantains (a variety of cooking bananas). Every Sunday I would also go to the market and buy all sorts of exotic fruits.
I faced a few challenges during my time there. The language barrier was one of them. Although I spoke fluent Spanish (improved by my Erasmus year in Spain at the University of Granada), I wasn’t familiar with Latin American Spanish. The first month I struggled with finding my words and understanding what was going on around me. I was surrounded not only by Costa Ricans at the office but also colleagues from Mexico, Guatemala, Chili, Uruguay, Panama. The different accents and the vocabulary were difficult for me to grasp at first.
But perhaps the biggest challenge was what I call the ‘Privileges Crisis’. Every day at work, I was aware of my privileges as someone born somewhere safe, in the French Caribbean and raised in France, with a good education and the financial means to support myself. Each time I read about the crisis in Nicaragua, or indigenous communities fighting for their lands, or human rights defenders being persecuted and assassinated, I felt a huge weight on my chest. I spoke to one of the lawyers I was working with about it. He told me: ‘Tiffany, you should not feel responsible for the privileges you were born with. The most important thing is that you realise you were born with them, and that you have chosen to use them to improve the lives of others.’
I felt empowered doing what I do: assisting at CEJIL, surrounded by brilliant people who work tirelessly to restore justice within this world in such need of it. Perhaps my watershed moment came during a hearing at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the State of Nicaragua where CEJIL was representing Miskito Indigenous peoples. It was then that I realised I was part of something incredibly special: to defend and work for human rights victims is an honour.
Another highlight was the trip I made to Manuel Antonio on the Pacific Coast with my Mexican friend who was also interning at CEJIL. There, facing the Ocean, we both lifted our hands to the sky and said: ‘Gracias Universo’ (Thank you Universe). We felt blessed to be living this experience.
In short, my internship at CEJIL helped me grow on a professional level, but more importantly on a personal one. I met incredible people from whom I not only learnt a lot, but whose kindness and dedication to Human Rights restored my confidence in our ability to help humanity.
~ Tiffany Ancey
Tiffany Ancey graduated from the University of Glasgow in 2017 with an LLB in ‘Law with Spanish Language’. She just completed an LLM in Public International Law at the University of Leiden and is presently working as an intern in Human Rights.