by Eliana Kaimowitz, The Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia), Bogotá, Colombia
Imagine you are a human rights activist from a small town in South America who is trying to stop a European mining company from continuing to pollute your community’s drinking water. You recently heard that a human rights activist in Africa was able to stop the same company from polluting her town’s water source. Ideally you could connect with this person, call them, email them or better yet, meet them in person. There is nothing like a personal connection to facilitate information sharing.
You would think that if two activists want to get together to have an in-depth and personal exchange they can just hop on a plane, meet their counterpart and brainstorm ideas. That may be true if they’re from North America and Europe, but it is not so true for persons from the Global South.
Surprisingly, in this era of globalization and infinite information sources, having two people from the Global South meet in person requires so much time, money, and effort spent on bureaucratic processes that they can become insurmountable obstacles. Even when the cost of their travel is covered, people of the Global South need visas to transit through the North, since most flight paths are through Europe and the US, as well as a visa to enter Colombia. For them, the sign on the information highway which says “visa required” might as well say “do not enter.”
As researchers at Dejusticia, a human rights think tank based in Bogotá, Colombia, we have learned this the hard way. Our Global Human Rights Leadership project seeks to open up more spaces for South-South exchanges, and while we have had some success, our efforts have at times been frustrated by the cruelty of visa processes that do not consider the time, money, and emotional cost of filling out forms, traveling, and spending hours waiting for permission to contribute to the global exchange of information. It is clear that when it comes to in person exchanges there is no level playing field between North-North and South-South exchanges.
A successful judicial exchange between Kenyan and Colombian constitutional court judges that took place in Bogotá in February 2013 showed us just how enriching South-South experiences can be. This exchange was fruitful because both of these Global South countries share similar histories of violence, ethnic and political turmoil, and entrenched poverty. Jurists from the United States and Colombia, for example, could not have the same conversation. Yet, an American judge can take a direct flight from Miami to Bogotá, and if, let’s say, on his way the plane stops in Panama he does not need transit visa. The Kenyan judges had to travel either through the European Union and/or the US and were required to have a transit pass through both places.
More recently, Dejusticia organized a weeklong workshop for young human rights activists from the Global South who work on extractive industries to come to Colombia and meet with sociologists to improve their research and communication skills. After an extensive and highly selective application process, sixteen participants from South America, Africa, and Asia where chosen to participate. But before they could come to our workshop, they had to pass through numerous visa mazes. We had the participant from Uganda who needed a Colombian visa and ended up applying in London because there is no Colombian Embassy in Uganda and she happened to already have a visa for the UK. Our participant from Papua New Guinea had to fly to his country’s capital city where he obtained an Australian visa, so he could fly to Sydney and apply for his Colombian visa and his US transit visa, to then fly for more than 24 hours to get to Colombia via New York. Clearly, governments and airlines have not fully understood the importance of South-South exchanges!
What happens when Global South organizations lack the time, money, or skills to navigate the minefields of visas and airline flight paths? What type of information sharing do these global processes impede? Both the North and the South need to begin seriously considering these questions. The North should begin by getting rid of transit visas to facilitate information sharing. The South needs to begin thinking collectively about how we can break down these barriers between us and the rest of the world to allow a free flow of information and people. A first step would be to stop requiring visas between countries of the Global South or at least make an exception for activists and researchers. Otherwise we all miss out on great opportunities to learn and share with people from around the world who may just have solutions to our national problems.