This week RWI sat down with Zuzana Zalanova, to talk about how she came to work with human rights, conditionality for democratization and how she stays motivated when working with them. Zalanova is a Programme Officer at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. She has a diverse background, combining four degrees in different disciplines: Political Science, Security Studies and Conflict Prevention, International Relations but also Economics and NGO management. Though this background doesn’t include law, it’s something that cross cuts through all of her academic disciplines, and reflects her professional experience so far. As for practical experience, it includes NGO work, work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Embassy, work with international organisations, including UN agencies, and now a research and academic institution.
What would you say triggered your interest in human rights/how did you come to work with them?
I can’t recall a single event that triggered my interest, but my origin plays a big part in my interest in human rights and democratization. Coming from Slovakia, I was part of the generation of students who was able to take part in Erasmus programs and broadened my horizons though the travel opportunities that were offered to me. This wouldn’t have been possible if my country hadn’t moved towards democratization and moved towards human rights principles to become part of the European Union.
When I was a student in Britain, I wrote a paper on EU Conditionality as a Pre-condition for Democratization of Slovakia and I still truly believe that. I am grateful. I don’t think that we would have the current benefits if our country hadn’t ‘joined the club’ and become more democratic.
When I was studying in Prague, Czech Republic, a friend of mine told me to join the initiative of Václav Havel, an important human rights figure and the symbol of Czechoslovakia’s anti- communist movement. He later became the first democratic president of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic, quite a cool guy! Later, he established a foundation called Forum 2000, organizing conferences where international leaders discussed the state of international affairs, human rights and democratization. I became affiliated with that, starting as a volunteer and helping delegates at the conference. I opened the door for Madeleine Albright for example, and I even have a picture with the Dalai Lama! That was the exposure we had as volunteers. But I think the more important exposure though was from understanding that these people are personalities, they’re fighters and defenders of human rights and democracy. You were able to see why they became the way they are, and there’s a certain legacy to that. The benchmarking I got from the conference made me live up to the standards and investigate what I could do to really support human rights and democratization. It was due to my background and preconditions that I started work with Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. The conference was the first exposure I had to practical human rights and it continued from there.
What would you say is the most exciting project that you’re working on at the moment?
It’s really hard to present our work as exciting. I’m working really hard to present it excitingly. That’s one thing!
Having worked with our Belarus Programme, I’ve come to see that ‘academia’ doesn’t only mean working with professors, researchers or librarians. It also includes students, which is why we should apply a human rights based approach to our engagement with academia, to treat everyone equally. It’s fascinating to be present and observe the dialogue that the students have with their professors. This discourse is something I really enjoy.
I just came back from a workshop with Belarusian students that we held on Saturday, and through this workshop we’re looking to promote gender and law courses. The students came up with a lot of cool, interesting ideas and showed great commitment to the goals we have. Surprisingly, there were many male students engaged in these activities. That was something that was very cool: seeing them really devoted to the topic of gender mainstreaming in academic life.
What do you find the most challenging about what you do?
One challenge is that the notion of human rights is abstract, it’s hard to concretize it. If you google ‘human rights’ you won’t find concrete symbols or definitions like you would if you googled ‘environment’. This links to another challenge which is how to show the results of your work? This is really important, not only for project donors, but also for your own motivation. I believe that it’s about changing people’s mindsets. It requires a lot of work, most of which might not be seen now, it might be seen in one generation, even two generations from now because it’s a behavioral thing. It’s not like building infrastructure. Our challenge is to see whether we are actually going in the right direction: what are the results indicating that there is success to be in the future? That’s why it’s so important to work with young people, they will be the ones who will promote human rights in the future.
Have you ever found yourself demotivated? How do you motivate yourself when you can’t see results?
It’s all about perspective. Many people join human rights work as idealists and end up disappointed.
Recently, I attended a conference in Gwangju, South Korea, where we had a human rights tour. The tour was presented by one of the organisers of the Forum who often referred to the main event of South Korean democracy. He explained that in 1980, students were protesting for human rights. These protests started a huge wave of democratization in the country. Many attendees of the tour asked him whether he was part of the student protests. He answered that he was not, but he had made a commitment to them nevertheless. He said that he was not strong enough to be killed for the cause like a revolutionary, he would be a witness. His words reminded me that there are different roles to be played in the quest for human rights and democracy. Many people get frustrated because they are not front-liners, or they think that it’s hypocritical to be someone who is a “back-liner”, but those who are in the background contribute to change as well. It depends on one’s perspective.
So, yes, I’ve been frustrated, but what helped me was taking the long-term perspective, and focus on enabling environment for change.
What have you got out of working with RWI so far?
I joined this institute saying that I wanted to be part of the discourse about human rights. Often human rights are taken for granted and we don’t discuss them. I have worked with human rights from many perspectives, but I’ve never been part of the discourse where human rights are discussed in depth. I think that’s what academia and research brings in: you have time to stop, think, reflect, look at different perspectives and go deeper. Of course, this can be simplified, but I find this discourse very interesting. At RWI, I have so many intellectually stimulating conversations with my colleagues and being exposed to university environment is very inspiring.
When working in international organisations, at a big policy, strategic level, you often miss out on the contact with beneficiaries of your work. You don’t get to see how you impact and influence with what you are doing. That can also be a source of frustration. For me, an interesting aspect of the conference in South Korea, that I attended recently, was that it was open to the public who came from near and far. I was accidentally introduced to a little girl attending the conference and her grandfather told me their story: the little girl’s mother suffers from schizophrenia and they all came to the Forum to learn about what they can do, and how they can cope with the disability that she has. It was interesting to me, to be able to help, enable this sharing of information and stories, as well as knowledge and awareness, at such a large conference. These moments keep you going, because you are reminded that such young people are exposed to these things. It keeps you pushing because you know that you may not see change tomorrow, but it will come in time. We are helping to build a generation of people who are aware of human rights.
- Education: BA degree in Political Science and MA degree in Security Studies from the Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, a joint (BA and MA) degree in International Relations with a specialisation in Non-Profit Management from the University of Economics, Prague, Czech Republic, Erasmus programme in International politics, University of Reading, United Kingdom.
- Work experience: Project Manager of the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, International Consultant/ Programme Analyst on Human Rights and Justice for UNDP Europe and Central Asia, Programme Coordinator for Central Asia at the International Development Law Organisation, Head of United Nations Volunteers Programme in Ukraine.
- Born: Svidnik, Slovakia
- Currently reading: The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years by Chinghiz Aitmatov