• JUser: :_load: Unable to load user with ID: 165
Log in
A+ A A-

Greek of the Week Features UN Human Rights Expert Elsa Stamatopoulou

New Greek TV's featured Greek of the Week is United Nations Human Rights expert Elsa Stamatopoulou.

Stamatopoulou served over twenty years at the United Nations and was the first Chief of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The native Athenian is also a successful author and Ivy League professor at Columbia University.

Stamatopoulou offered the following interview where she discussed her UN experience, international career, Hellenic roots, human rights concerns in Greece, and more.

Maria Athens: Can you tell us about your Athenian upbringing and higher education?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I was born and raised in Athens. I love this buzzing and complex city, full of people, art, politics, traffic, beauty and ugliness; very human and surprising. I'm always excited when I go downtown in Athens. There's always something to discover.  Both my parents though came from villages in the Peloponnese; Fychtia (which is in Argolida next to Mycenae) and Psari ( which is in Corinthia, in the mountains outside Nemea).

As a child I spent lots of time in those villages with my parents in the summer or other holidays, and I have very strong affinities to those communities. I had my schooling in Athens. I then studied at the Law School of the University of Athens and became member of the Athens Bar.

Maria Athens: What prompted you to dedicate your career to human rights, specifically women's rights and indigenous peoples?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I was always attracted to things international and other cultures, since my youth. I was curious to learn how other people live and think and was fascinated by the idea of being enriched by them, communicating with them in a deep human way.

At law school, international law was one of my favorite subjects, so I focused on it during my doctoral studies in Geneva. My interest in human rights was very much shaped by the repression during the dictatorship in Greece and the struggles for democracy. I am proud to belong to the "genia tou Polytechniou" (the generation of the Polytechnical School), the students and others who rose against the junta in our country.

I was brought up with conservative values in my family and observed things I didn't like in the condition of women. Since I lost my father when I was 9, I saw my mother struggle to raise her three children, facing social stereotypes and legal obstacles around widowhood. Women's rights therefore became a deep interest for me and I made it part of my work later on.

When I started working in the UN Center for Human Rights (later named Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) in Geneva in 1980, I was privileged to experience early on the rise of the international Indigenous Peoples' movement and its interface with the United Nations. I consider this one of the major social movements of our era, one that has in its root the evil of colonialism, a deep injustice imposed on millions of indigenous people around the world and whose impacts continue today, including in the USA.

Indigenous Peoples today are not only struggling for their rights, as proclaimed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but they present to us approaches to philosophy, well-being, sustainable human development, culture, nature and climate change that are precious for the whole humanity, especially in the face of the negative impacts of globalization and of the dominant development paradigm.

Maria Athens: Can you offer us a brief background on your international career?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: After practicing law for a year in Athens and doing graduate studies in Boston and Geneva, I started working at the UN: first in Vienna, in the Division on Narcotic Drugs, then in Geneva, in the Center for Human Rights, and then in New York, where I held various positions.

I worked most years in the New York Office of Human Rights, including ten years as its Chief, and also as Senior Legal Advisor on the administration of justice. In the last eight years of my work at the UN, I was lucky to be able to devote myself fully to Indigenous Peoples' issues, as the first Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), a new high-level body established by the UN.

Maria Athens: What has been your favorite UN post?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: Clearly my last post was my favorite, but let me quickly say that for me, the posts I held were not just a kind of "tasting menu" or ways of "going up the career ladder". They had to be organic to my interests and principles. I do feel very lucky that I was able to work at the United Nations, an organization whose goals are peace, development and human rights. Working with Indigenous Peoples in their struggles since the early 1980s has been a deep learning experience for me, morally, politically, philosophically, spiritually and professionally.

Maria Athens: Can you describe UNPFII advancements under your direction?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: We should first acknowledge that it is the Indigenous Peoples themselves, through their sustained and strategic presence at UN level, that have catalyzed so many victories internationally.  

UNPFII is an extraordinary body that has considerably increased the visibility of indigenous issues at the international level. More than 1400 participants attend its annual sessions: some 1200 indigenous representatives, NGOs and academia, 70 states and 35 inter-governmental organizations. The Inter-Agency Support Group on Indigenous Issues has expanded its membership from fewer than 10 in 2002 to 35 and provided substantive input to UNPFII, pushing for the inclusion of Indigenous Peoples' issues in policies and programs.

UNPFII has managed to increasingly mainstream indigenous issues through advocacy. Examples include the adoption of the first ever resolution on indigenous women in 2005 by the Commission on the Status of Women; inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the UNESCO Convention on the protection of Cultural Expressions.

UNPFII is the foremost body for dialogue between Indigenous Peoples, states and UN agencies.  UNPFII has created a space for cooperation with the UN system through its comprehensive recommendations in all the areas of its mandate.  Governments invite meetings of the UNPFII in various regions (for example Greenland and Denmark, Russia, China, Bolivia and others).

UNPFII became a platform and catalyst for challenging and emerging issues, including data collection and disaggregation; free, prior and informed consent; the Millennium Development Goals; climate change; and development with culture and identity.

UNPFII promotes integration of indigenous issues in the UN's operational activities in the field. For example, in 2008 the UN adopted Guidelines on Indigenous Peoples Issues for all UN operations in the field, based on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Maria Athens: You are also an established author, what is your proudest publication?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: In 2007 I published a book, Cultural Rights in International Law: Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Beyond (Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Leiden-Boston). This was the first time a book was published on such a neglected and highly political and controversial topic, which, however, is of profound significance for the human dignity both of individuals and of groups, as well as for peace and the well-being of societies. Cultural human rights are especially significant in terms of creating pluricultural democracies in today's world.

Maria Athens: You currently serve as the Director of the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University and Adjunct Professor with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Department of Anthropology, can you touch upon that?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I joined Columbia University in 2011. I teach Indigenous peoples' rights and cultural rights. As Director of the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program, my philosophy is that a major university, such as Columbia, with a strong and prestigious tradition in the field of human rights, has an important role to play both in academia and beyond in promoting awareness and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples' issues and rights.

The Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program has a strong international focus and is committed to promoting inter-culturality, i.e. dialogue among cultures on the basis of equality. This requires two core elements in terms of approach: a) Indigenous Peoples should not be relegated to the past, as history gone forever, or as art that belongs only in and to museums. Indigenous issues should also be taught to demonstrate the continuing existence, importance and contributions of Indigenous Peoples, including through their own traditional knowledge and governance systems. b) There should be cross-fertilization of conventional academic thought via collaboration with Indigenous Peoples themselves, contributing their knowledge and perspectives.

This means, on the one hand, facilitating access of indigenous scholars, experts and practitioners to our University and, on the other hand, creating opportunities for Columbia's community of students and teachers to spend time in academic institutions and with organizations in indigenous parts of the world. There cannot be a meaningful Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program at Columbia without the voices of Indigenous Peoples themselves being heard.

The goals of the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Program are: a) to develop capacity in human rights, including Indigenous Peoples' rights, of the student body at Columbia, and of indigenous human rights advocates; b) to promote exchange among academics and experts, both indigenous and non-indigenous, through the organization of international conferences and workshops on cutting edge indigenous issues; and c) to promote multidisciplinary research, much of which has broad public policy implications.

Maria Athens: Do you work with any civil society organizations in Greece?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I am a member of human rights and other non-governmental organizations in Greece: Member of the Human Rights Defense Center (Κέντρο Προάσπισης Ανθρωπίνων Δικαιωμάτων) and the Hellenic League for Human Rights (Ελληνική Ένωση για τα Δικαιώματα του Ανθρώπου), Member of the Elliniki Etairia/Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage (Ελληνική Εταιρεία Περιβάλλοντος και Πολιτισμού), and Member of the Hellenic Society of International Law and International Relations (Ελληνική Εταιρεία Διεθνούς Δικαίουκαι Διεθνών Σχέσεων).

I am also involved in community work in my late father's village Psari, as Member of the Cultural Association of Psariotes, Psari Corinthias, (Πολιτιστικός Σύλλογος των Απανταχού Ψαριωτών) and of the Adelfotis Psarioton (Αδελφότης Ψαριωτών).

Maria Athens: What is your best advice for citizens of the world who want a UN career?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: It is hard to work at the United Nations, but totally worth it. It's hard because the problems you are asked to solve are extremely complex, such that no other organization can be tasked with them, and because it's an organization that is trying to build bridges, in terms of norms and operations, among all the countries of the world.

The UN has lofty goals for the good of humanity and as a worker, one is privileged and lucky to put his or her energies under such an umbrella. It is meaningful and interesting work and it is also inspiring to see how the UN galvanizes action by people and governments around the world. You have to keep in mind the long-term vision in order to sustain the difficulties on the way.

Maria Athens: What are Greece's largest concerns, regarding human rights?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: There are various human rights concerns in Greece and the crisis has certainly not reduced them. Let me mention just two areas. One is the mistreatment of detainees by the police (amounting to torture, degrading or inhuman treatment), especially of migrants; sustained training of the police in human rights standards is required.

The other has to do with extreme poverty, which is now affecting millions of Greek people, especially the most vulnerable populations, the children and the elderly. Extreme poverty is a human rights issue indeed, it is a matter of human dignity. The responsibility for this is born both by the government and by the international actors, namely the Troika, who impose the measures undermining a humane standard of living.

Maria Athens: How often do you go home to Greece? What do you miss most about your homeland?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I go to Greece two to three times a year. This is my way of beating nostalgia! I try to "routinize" my returns to Greece, but can't keep being excited every time I land in Athens. What I miss most is family and friends there, speaking my language and also Psari, my late father's village, where I have rebuilt the little family stone house, with the vegetable garden, the fruit trees and the vineyards.

I feel lucky I can visit so often, but there is always a lingering feeling in me that there's an ungraspable poetry about my country, an elusive part of my culture that will always escape me and which, I think, is the fate of those who leave.

Maria Athens: What are you most proud of in your personal life?

Elsa Stamatopoulou: I am married and have two children I am very proud of-Sophia and Andreas. They honour our heritage and speak wonderful Greek.

Last modified onFriday, 28 November 2014 22:12