Rotary Peace Fellow tells her story
Kelly Nicholls joins a march in memory of the victims of the conflict in Colombia. Photo courtesy of Kelly Nicholls
I was in a taxi on the way to testify before Congress on the situation facing Colombia’s human rights defenders, the first time I was to appear before a congressional hearing, and I had the jitters.
I turned to my Colombian colleague – a human rights lawyer with two decades of experience backing the victims of Colombia's 40-year war – and asked if he felt anxious too.
“What makes me nervous is the thought of returning to Colombia after these hearings and what could follow,” he responded.
In that moment, he summed up the challenge of my job as executive director of the independent U.S. Office on Colombia and as an advocate in Washington, D.C., defending human rights workers. None of it would have been possible without the Rotary Peace Fellowship I was awarded for 2005-07.
I’d just returned from working with indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon and Chiapas, Mexico, and wanted to promote peace and conflict resolution, but had no idea how to move forward without a master’s degree. Then a person I met while volunteering for Oxfam told me about the Rotary Peace Centers program. Being Australian, I contacted the Rotary Club of Roseville Chase, in a suburb of Sydney, and a few months later, I was selected as one of 50 fellowship recipients.
The program brought me to the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom to study international conflict resolution where I focused on mediation and politics. I developed friendships with other fellows – two of them came to Australia for my wedding. I was able to research human rights, regional politics in Latin America and Africa, internal displacement, religion, and conflict resolution.
I was fortunate to do my applied field experience – a requirement of the Rotary Peace Fellowship – with the United Nations independent expert on minority issues. I examined human rights abuses against Afro-Colombians, who have been disproportionally affected by conflict, especially by forced displacement.
Now, three years after graduating, I’ve met with young women who have shown me their wedding photos, much like my own. The difference is that their husbands are dead, murdered by the armed forces and later dressed up to look like enemy guerrillas killed in combat. Between January 2007 and July 2008, nearly one person a day was murdered by the armed forces.
Efforts to bring international attention to this have forced the government to purge some officers and officials. In my position at the U.S. Office on Colombia, I have met with senior Obama administration officials and members of Congress to urge them to pressure Colombian leaders to end the lethal abuse of power. We’ve been able to reduce the number of “extrajudicial executions.” We’ve also helped persuade the country’s government to rid the armed forces of over 50 rogue officers and senior officials, and to establish an armywide human rights curriculum.
Doing what I do takes commitment, but it also requires training. That’s where my Rotary Peace Fellowship kicked in. I learned so much from my two years at Bradford that I’ve been able to put to use. Without that preparation, I’m not sure I would have been able to make any headway at all in a country with such complex and entrenched conflict.
After the congressional hearing, my Colombian colleague said to me, “Do you have any idea how important the work is that your organization is doing to allow us to continue to help Colombian victims?” In this line of work, it’s hard to measure success, and calculating numbers doesn’t seem all that relevant. Saving one person makes it worthwhile.
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