Human Rights Watch, Voices for Justice Dinner
San Francisco, CA

Opening with a film on cluster munitions, the guests at Human Rights Watch’s annual fundraising dinner event (the elite $250-a-plate crowd) ate their pear, spinach and gorgonzola salad slowly at first. As an intern charged with making sure the votive candles made it onto the tables and guests received the customery shwag of t-shirts, bags and pens emblazoned with the Human Rights Watch logo, I was in a unique place to watch the dinner unfold.

The Human Rights Watch Voices for Justice dinner celebrates the work of two individuals working to protect human rights around the world. The year, the defenders included Hollman Morris from Colombia and Sunila Abeysekera from Sri Lanka.

Introducing Morris, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch Americas Director, discussed how Morris’ work goes “beyond what is reported.” He has received death wreathes, had his phone tapped and has had to leave the country on more occasions than one. But he returns, to shed light on the situation in Colombia.

Colombia has the second largest number of internally displaced people in the world, and “to work as a journalist [in Colombia] has become one of the most dangerous professions,” Vivanco said.

Through a translator, Morris spoke to the nearly 600 strong audience in the grand ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel: “If you listen to my government and President Bush, you might think that all is well in Colombia. That is not the whole story.” He went on to say that killings and massacres still persist and 40 congressman are under investigation for working with paramilitary groups. “The few of us who do go out to find the truth face serious risks,” Morris said. Maintaining a strong partnership with Human Rights Watch has allowed Morris to avoid becoming a statistic as just another journalist taken away in the night. A late-night call from Vivanco has already saved Morris’ life once.

“By being here tonight, you too are sending a strong message to the Colombian government,” Morris added. 600 chairs scooted out slightly to stand up in applause of the lone human rights defender on stage.

Fred Abrahams, from Human Rights Watch Emergency division then introduced Abeysekera. Describing the tense situation in Sri Lanka and the not-long-ago reality of 17 Sri Lankan aid workers being shot in the head. Abeysekera’s work has brought optimism to an increasingly disheartening situation. As Abrahams said, “The work of Sunila and others has minimized the suffering of civilians stuck in this war.”

Abeysekera began by describing a monument to those passed away with photos, “the photos on the monument are of people I knew.” With check-points every 250 yards, Abeysekera has combined field skills with advocacy in an attempt to document abuses on all sides of the conflict. Despite the fact that children as young as nine-years old are abducted, Abeysekera has hope for the future of her country. This hope allows the main course to be eaten and to give way to apple strudel with whip cream. Somehow it doesn’t seem right to be eating such a delicious meal as these abuses persist. But the dinner brings in the revenue to help make Human Rights Watch possible.

The auction of three “experiences” complete with Human Rights Watch related photos, guest appearances from Human Rights Watch staff, and gift certificates for dinner at some of San Francisco’s finest restaurants went for between $30,000 to $40,000 per package. Raising more than enough money for me to pay back my college loans, or for an emergency researcher and thousands of pages of Human Right’s Reports to be translated.

Faced with responsibility of clean-up duty; gathering left-over supplies as the dinner came to a close, encouraging center-pieces to be brought home and boxing the candles back up, I also had the privilege of attending the “after-party”. Despite the seriousness of human rights work and the concept, at least in my mind, that human rights work couldn’t possibly be “fun,” per se, the Fairmont’s touristy (and politically incorrect) Tonga room proved otherwise.

The defenders, Morris and Abeysekera, alongside Human Rights Watch staff, family and friends relaxed, danced and drank in a way that can only give hope to the future of human rights. At the end of the day, we all just wanted to enjoy ourselves, and tomorrow we’d continue fighting for human rights around the world.

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