Claudia Samayoa’s remarks, upon her award
Translated and condensed from No Tan Lejos del Horizonte Special Edition, November 2016. On November 3, 2016, Claudia Samayoa, Catholic and Maryknoll Affiliate of the Guatemalan Chapter, received the Myrna Mack Chang Order from Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge De León Duque on November 3, 2016. He established the Order in 2014 to honor Myrna Mack Chang, a Guatemalan anthropologist murdered by Guatemalan military forces for her investigative work and commitment to the population displaced by the Internal Armed Conflict in Guatemala. Recognizing Claudia as an activist who raises her voice to defend the human rights of Guatemalans, Duque praised Claudia’s concern for her fellow man and her placing her academic training at the service of the cause of human rights. He said, “Today is an auspicious day to deliver this recognition because attacks on human rights defenders have increased. And today there is also an inappropriate use of criminal law to imprison defenders. Being a human rights advocate is a high-risk job.”
Claudia Samayoa’s remarks:
Human rights have always been part of my being. I had a problem with the dogma that only Christians are saved; If God created us all equal in dignity, we should all be recognized as equal and respected. I did not accept the terrible reality in which I grew up: the exiles of my parents’ friends, the murders of doctors known to my father, images of massacres collected in Amnesty International magazines and surreptitiously shared with my father by the priest of Chimaltenango.
Before adulthood, I was already looking for how to help. I worked with children orphaned in war, and I knew of the mission of what we now call human rights defenders, then referred to as guerrillas. How many of them were killed?
My first passion was education, to form women with their own criteria and with autonomous thinking capacity. Women who did not embrace dogmas (right or left), but could observe reality, analyze it, and discover it within. Women who knew human rights not as a set of norms to be memorized but as axioms of life: a moral paradigm of performance that perfectly describes the mandate of God to “love your neighbor as yourself.” On that road I met Myrna Mack Chang and her brave daughter. There I met other women who today are the present and the future of Guatemala, of whom I am very proud.
These women made me see that I could not stay in Human Rights education, that I had to contribute more. And the call to go out into the world arose; in 1995 my human rights work began, and I had the privilege of being part of the process of building peace and initiatives for change. Also, I began to observe how the same injustice that moved me at age 13 was still there: racism, sexism, homophobia, egocentrism, the model of extraction and plundering. For years I used my skills to investigate, develop initiatives, lobby for changes solely at the service of Guatemala. With my colleagues, we fought for transparent processes for decision-making by magistrates, formed the National Reparation Program, and the story continues.
But along the way, I bet on women and men, communities and groups that, like me, believe in the possibility of change, cannot remain silent before the injustices, and have a deep need to support change for themselves, their neighbors, and even people they do not know. For the last 16 years, I have dedicated my time, my intelligence, my creativity, my passion, and my love to looking for ways that these human rights people and communities can do what they do. I am convinced that without them, neither Guatemala nor the world has a future. Without people who make their efforts to protect girls who are raped and mistreated; without organizations that defend women against gender-based violence; without defense of the right to sexual diversity; without the promotion of secular and humanistic education; without defenders of a free and public health system; without the defense of prompt, complete, and independent justice; without the defense of the rights of people detained and tortured arbitrarily; without the defense of a healthy environment, we do not have a future.
That is why I have given my life and health to the defense of defenders of human rights and to making their causes and their excellent work visible.
I have faced the powers that do not want to change, not with aggression but with respect. I have invited the public to change politicians, businessmen, and civil servants in a thousand ways. I have mourned the death of defenders who paid with their lives for their desire for change; comforted families suffering the pain of death, exile, or prison. I have used all my indignation to stop patterns of violence. I have not been alone in these years of service; I have the unconditional support of my family who have shared and lost me for the common good. Related minds helped create an organization for advocates throughout the region. It is the effort of all who have been part of the team, those now present, those who have left, and even those who have wanted to do harm.
But we do what the state allows to advance human rights. And after visiting many parts of the world, I have to admit that without a Human Rights Ombudsman, a Human Rights Section in the Prosecutor’s Office, and other committed ministers, we could not achieve the coordination needed to stop this violence against the people who defend human rights.
That is why I am deeply grateful for this award: it is the recognition of hundreds of people who work for human rights, inspired by the vision that we share with Jorge and with Myrna Mack, for whom the prize is named. Announcing the award makes hundreds of people aware that the work of protecting human rights defenders is very necessary; the work needs to be recognized so that it can continue to protect others. The prize and the recognition of those here today, and of the hundreds of people from all over the world who in social networks have expressed their support, strengthen me and my team to continue looking for ways to serve the cause of human rights defenders. Thanks to you and your team for this and for the joint work we do.