Name: Luis Fernando García
Affiliation: Founder of Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales [R3D](Founder of Network in Defense of Digital Rights)
Purpose of the Organization: The defense of human rights in the digital environment
Place of Organization: Mexico
Website Organization: www.r3d.mx
Human Rights Defended by him: Freedom of Expression, Privacy, Data Protection, Acces to Information
Awards: Access Now Heroe Award, recognizing him for his work defending and promoting the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance.
Interview and Photography: Danny Rayman Labrin
Edition: Josefina Caro Magaña
Translation: Jose Luis Gumucio
We would love to know about you and how did you get involved in Human Rights?
I am Luis Fernando García, from México. When I was studying law I wasn´t satisfied with the possible areas, I didn´t want to be a civil lawyer, or a criminal lawyer, or a corporate lawyer, I liked constitutional law in general. The truth is that since I started studying law, I did it thinking in acquiring tools to use them in benefit of others, and when I started to know more about human rights, I liked it a lot.
In the university I had the opportunity to participate in human rights competitions "Mout Courts", learning how the human rights were internationally protected. Fortunately, after one of these competitions, I got an internship in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, acquiring much knowledge about it. There, I learned about how the inter-American system works, but in general how human rights were defended, how States argued about them and how an International Court decided about cases of human rights.
When I came back from the experience of that internship, I arrived absolutely convinced that I wanted to work on human rights issues.
From then on I continued studying, but also working in civil society organizations, trying to learn how to make strategic litigation of human rights, which it was I liked the most. There I started to work in different issues, like environmental, access to information, right to health, access to community radio broadcasting, among others, and so I was practicing and acquiring litigation tools.
Parallel to the above, I always had an interest in topics related to technology, freedom of expression and privacy. I found, neither in school nor in practice, nor did I saw that there were organizations working on those topics by which I could inform myself. So, I started by myself trying to learn more by seeing what organizations in other countries did.
It was so when I had the opportunity to do my postgraduate studies, I decided to do it in Sweden on human rights and intellectual property rights, I took advantage of that instance to study the interaction between the technology, copyright, human rights and also to learn about other subjects. From there, I was convinced that I wanted to apply the tools I had acquired as a lawyer and human rights defender in these matters since I felt that there were relatively unexplored and that there was little work in Mexico in this regard.
After completing my master's degree, I tried to see if there were any organizations in my country that maybe not be working on these issues but that theme could be interested in doing so, but there were not one that was working on that or interested in addressing them in a comprehensive manner.Furthermore, at that time in Mexico there were certain policy discussions where the concerns regarding privacy, freedom of expression on the Internet were not on the radar, I mean particularly to the discussion of the Telecommunications law of Mexico. It was for this reason that with other people we decided to create the organization.
Without money, without a logo and almost no name, we decided to do something and try to influence on the discussion with a fairly modest objective, that these issues were on the discussion agenda of that law because it was and was perceived like an Act very discussed in many subjects. In this way, we made advocacy on the Congress, we heard information on networks, and at the end of the day it was a more or less successful introduction, in the sense that these issues were not only on the agenda but also became one of the most important. There were very substantial changes, not everything that we would have liked was removed or added to the Law, but there was an impact.
That´s how we realized that it was possible to influence, from there we continued working and making the organization grow, well now three and a half years, almost four years of that experience, we are already an established organization with lines of work and with a lot of learning how to do work from civil society.
Many times you have the initiative to do something but doing it is only very difficult, however, promoting an organization or trying to motivate people to generate a project is also difficult. How was for R3D the process of establishment?
Yes, well, of course, it was very important that the people we founded R3D already knew each other. This was after a period of very strong student mobilizations in Mexico, where many of those who founded R3d were involved. Some of us met on the internet giving opinions on issues and recognizing that we had similar points of view and interests, from there we got together and decided to form the organization. I think there is a very important point, and that is to find spaces to interact, recognize each other and make the decision to work together.
As you said, alone you can´t do much, you have to find allies to make efforts and projects that seek to influence the public interest.
And well, after that it was a period of many learnings, mistakes, and successes as well. Above all we intuited well, we knew that there was a need that was not covered. There was also an honesty to recognize what tools we had, to know what to use and search to acquire them.
I think that at the personal level and also at the institutional level when we have seen that there is a problem that we do not understand perfectly, we have dedicated ourselves to study it and make sure we understand it in all its edges. And once this is solved comes the intervention.
In general, with any topic, and especially with those that involve technology, sometimes we can feel excluded or that understanding can be very complicated. Despite this, I think the important thing is to realize that it is not so difficult and that it is worth going to look for the knowledge that is missing to understand a problem or to understand a way to solve it.
And it is what we have done, we do not assume that we know everything and that we are experts in absolutely any issue that has to do with technology and human rights but, on the contrary, we were learning and we have always been very open to discussion, debate, dialogue, to research, to study and to learn. I think that learning is something that can not be lost because if you lose it you get left behind. Especially in subjects that move so fast.
Going back to what you said, what is it that motivates you to take these issues forward? In spite of all the obstacles that there were in the beginning and that continue to exist, where does that personal motivation come from, is there any particular event that has made you take the initiative?
In general, I have always been interested in what happens around me and in a certain way I have felt responsible for doing what I can so that what happens around will be the best for me and for others.
I do not know if there was a specific moment in which I said I want this, but I did realize at some moment that I had certain skills that I could put at the service of causes and so I have been able to do so.
When I started to work as a human rights lawyer, I dedicated myself to the more traditional work, from violations of the human rights base, which unfortunately occur in my country very often, to other issues. I had a thought to see how very serious violations occurred in my country because there are torture, forced disappearances, executions, etc. In addition to knowing and seeing that there were many people like me who were interested in those issues and in human rights.
That's how I realized that there were a vacuum and an opportunity, there were issues that were not being treated, and technology offered very important opportunities for the exercise of human rights to ensure that these technologies effectively maximize the exercise of rights, as well as ensuring to minimize its dangers.
I also realized that the transfer of information, of knowledge, is vital to transform in a fundamental way the situation of Mexico and the situation of the world. I felt that we could and can be documenting and seeking justice for human rights violations for centuries, and we must do it, but at a certain point, I questioned myself what we could do to transform the basic circumstances that are enabling human rights violations. For me, it is also to derive an own experience of how I have felt that the access to the Internet and other digital technologies have improved my life and have improved my capacity to learn, to know, to form an identity and a way of thinking. I am convinced that while more people have access to more knowledge, people will be able to process and build much more solidarity, much more progressive realities in the sense of not being pigeonholed in the same conflicts.
I am a believer that if we make knowledge, science and culture more accessible through technology (which today offers us that unusual opportunity in the history of humanity, in which there is an impressive number of people who can access an amount of knowledge that was not possible before) has a transformative potential, which I can not even imagine but I feel that it could be a more definitive solution to the problems of violence, of inequality that in the end are the ones that generate the violations of human rights, violence, economic, social and political injustice.
Anyway, I do not explain in a clear way the answer to the question because it is not so clear to me either, but there is a feeling in me that working, searching and making technology, knowledge, culture, and science are available to a greater number of people has a transforming potential for the exercise of rights, very broad and that can also transform very painful realities that are happening in the world and in my country.
Although you did mention of it, could you tell us about how was it to emerge in a society that had different priorities on issues of human rights? How was the collaboration with respect to other human rights organizations? Was there mutual support?
I think that, particularly in Mexico, when we started to talk about these issues there were many people who did not understand their relevance, and, above all, in the face of the emergency, violence, the human rights crisis that the country was going through, talking about Internet may seem secondary, but I believe that over time and with work, which we have done deliberately, we have managed to build relationships with traditional human rights organizations and with other types of human rights defenders. And to build together an understanding of the importance that these technologies have for the exercise of all rights, I believe that the circumstances were also making it more evident.
In an environment in which there were very frequent restrictions on the exercise of various rights in Mexico such as protest, freedom of expression, where there were intentions of very strong media control, where civil society organizations in Mexico were becoming very important actors, with more influence and practically the most important opposition to a government that was not acting in a very democratic way.
I remember talking to journalists or human rights defenders, about surveillance and privacy, and they dismissed it at first, but they became aware of its importance. From, for example, the documentation we have done of surveillance cases to journalists defending human rights, more and more people related to these areas, realize how important is the defense of these tools. For example, when traditional information vehicles were closed in Mexico, the internet became the place where people could learn more freely, and despite all the government's attempts to control traditional media using advertising official or even from other governments, using violence, the Internet has managed to break that barrier, that information fence and has made these strategies not successful.
So I think there is much more awareness in Mexican society, and particularly in civil society and the media, of how important it is to defend these tools. Defend them as much as a vehicle for the exercise of the right and freedom of expression as well as surveillance attacks such as those we have documented.
I think that from there it is built and we continue to build more common narratives. Today, fortunately, we are an organization that is very closely linked to a lot of organizations in Mexico and the world, not only on digital rights issues but also with organizations that work on other issues and that are already recognizing their importance. Well, they see in the work that we do a service to the country and the public interest but they also see it as a service to them that count on us, with someone who defends them and who defends them well.
There is a lot of solidarity, it has been built and I believe that these processes are very important, so those of us working on digital rights or the internet should not work in isolation from the rest.
Also, in Mexico it does not make sense in the context of the human rights crisis that exists, to try to do advocacy work without seeing and without deliberately trying to link it with that context, because it would not be very successful. So I think it has been something that we have been building along with other actors of civil society in a very deliberate, very gradual, very natural and very organic way.
Do you consider yourself an activist?
I define myself more as a defender of human rights. I do not like the term activist because it suggests that there are certain citizens who decide or who can influence and I believe that any person can be without the need to be institutionalized or in an organization.
But regardless of the label, I do conceive myself as a person who is interested in what happens and is interested in being an actor that contributes to improving things for everyone, for the majority.
How do you define your activity in the defense and promotion of human rights?
We conceive what we do in a very multidisciplinary way and with many strategies. We always say that we do research because it is important to know the problems. If we do not investigate the problems that exist or are not well researched we do not have all the facts, it is a continuous process, you have to be constantly researching to be able to update and know very well the phenomena that you are dealing with. Starting from the knowledge of the problems and the analysis to develop strategies to influence and change it, we do a series of things, not only do we directly influence the decision-makers in the Congress, Government, Judicial Power or other international bodies, we also do litigation, we use legal tools that we have at our disposal to have an impact. We also carry out communication and education campaigns for the general public and also for target groups.
Understanding that the changes, in general, happen from a planned strategic permanent work, that is oriented to create a narrative. At the end of the day they are cultural disputes and when you win, it is when you manage to build a narrative that manages to influence the culture in general.
This takes time, effort and that is why we dedicate a lot of resources to talk with both civil society and people because civil society cannot talk to the decision makers. We inform, educate and make people interested in the subject because at the moment we seek to mobilize them, they will not mobilize if they do not understand the problems and how they affect them.
While we speak to all, young people, children, adults, seniors, we understand that there is a generation of people who have a different sensitivity to the importance of digital technologies in their lives and in the exercise of their rights than perhaps other generations do not understand so much. In this sense, we see an opportunity to exploit the fact that many of us grew up using digital technologies and recognizing the impact it has on our lives, and therefore, we must build a narrative where to attack the possibilities of these technologies is also to attempt against your own generational identity. We want to take advantage of that, that generation that we experienced.
But we had to get these technologies, start using them and start to see the change that has occurred in our lives. This generation is key in defending these interests and these technologies as tools to expand the exercise of rights.
Then we understand that all the work we do in research, advocacy, communication and litigation is also aimed at strengthening that winning narrative that these technologies and their democratic governance are very important to ensure that they serve to free us and empower us, make us better, to exercise more and better rights, and in a better way and not the other way around, in which these tools are used against us or by preventing the use of these tools because of the disruptive potential they may have.
We know that each country has different situations and realities, and because of it, it is important to know the experience that you have had in relation to threats. Have you ever had any threat or felt threatened in any particular situation? How have you managed to overcome that?
We have not received direct threats, but like anyone who works on issues of public interest in Mexico, we have to be aware of the risks that this may entail. Unfortunately, in my country, there are attacks on journalists and human rights defenders very frequently.
Whoever works in civil society can affect interests in government or other actors, so you have to take certain precautions about the things you do, the information you handle and the way in which you carry out your work. We take it very seriously and do everything possible to have protocols and mitigate risks, at the end the risks cannot be eliminated. But if mitigate, to be able to respond adequately when they materialize. So even though we have not received a threat because of our work, we know that it is particularly frequent.
That yes, something that is very important is the communication, the team, to offer spaces and tools to mitigate the effects of the real or perceived threat, because in the end even if you are not a threat you know that it can come or that it can happen without threats, without being warned. The uncertainty, the nervousness regarding the possibility of threats or aggression against me or the people I work with, can generate some anxiety, some concern. I have felt it and I am ashamed to feel it, but the way in which that is processed is from not minimizing those feelings and risks, we must try to address them and mitigate them.
There are many collective and also personal ways, there are several strategies that are adopted as digital security tools, training and even questions of self-care. How to make sure you have a network, a social network around that understands these circumstances and that accompanies you. This is very important, in our team we have built that social network, we also give space to be able to process those concerns. In addition, on a personal level, we all have people with whom you have to talk, which have to be aware of what you are going through, in a way that we can take care of each other. I believe that communication is very important and not minimize the risks, not minimize how the perception of risks feels.
Finally, giving a closing. Would you like to send a message to people who want to do things but still do not dare to do it, either because they feel they lack the support of other people or to become an organization? What is your message for people who want to do activism?
No doubt we were very lucky, fortunately, our project has been successful and could be consolidated. There was a lot of uncertainty at the time of launching the project, we didn't know what was going to happen. Fortunately, we had the chance to try. The consequences of it not being successful were not so serious. However, what I do believe and share is that it is worth trying, this work is difficult but not impossible. It is not so difficult to get an advocacy project to succeed. You have to be patient, honest, you have to study and work every day to improve and to learn what is not yet known.
In our society, we have often tried to say that in order to do things you have to fulfill certain hierarchies. I think there are a lot of insecurities of young people who believe that they can not have an impact like the bigger people, with more knowledge and experiences. And this is a mistake, young people have much to contribute, and yes, we must accept when we do not know something, we must be humble. But you also have to have a certain self-confidence and certain confidence in ourselves that sometimes, if it's up to us, we are in a better position to do certain things than others, because they do not understand the subject.
My advice is that if a person feels that they have a vocation or an interest in making an impact, in changing the things that happen around them, they have to try to do it and if there is something that gets in the way of that desire can be remedied it, if knowledge or experience is lacking, well it has to be acquired.
My recommendation is that it is worthwhile, it is a job that gives you much more than the satisfaction of material needs because it feeds the soul and the intellect to dedicate itself to something in what you believe and in what you have your heart set. It is not necessary to think too much.
I cannot guarantee that everyone who wants to work from civil society can grow as fast and have as much impact as we have had. But I do not think we're too special for anyone other than us to do it.
When I started this project I had no idea of many things, along the way I have been learning and I have also found other people who are initiating projects with which I share my experience and knowledge so that they can anticipate the things that will be found. For me it was also like that, many people in many moments of the project shared their knowledge about how to be more effective, how to build an institution, how to strengthen it and that helped us a lot.
What activist would you recommend for an upcoming interview?
I recommend Rami Raoof.
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