Bringing People Together through Human Rights

Human rights
Research centres and institutes

By University of Ottawa

Human Rights Research and Education Centre, HRREC

Bringing People Together through Human Rights
To say that Emilie Di Grazia, a graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Conflict Studies and Human Rights (B. Sc. Soc. 2017) and a long-time member of the University of Ottawa's Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC), has a passion for human rights is no understatement!

An Early Vocation

"I was five years old when I explained to my parents, after seeing a blue helmet on TV, that what I wanted to do was to help people in the world!" she confides right away. To this early vocation for humanitarian work was added a passion for history. “From high school onwards, I was fascinated by the events of the 20th century," she explains, "and this naturally led me to study international politics with a focus on conflicts.”

An Early Vocation
1) OSCE-facilitated Collection of Ballots operation in Kosovo for the Serbian elections (2020); 2) Emilie (right) - Official page photo (2013); 3) Aga Khan Foundation, Tanzania (2019).

From Political Science to Transitional Justice

At the beginning of her studies at the University of Ottawa, Emilie was selected, along with 40 other brilliant students from across Canada, to participate in the highly selective federal House of Commons Page Program.

She continued her studies working partially at the Canadian War and History Museums. In 2016 she knocked on the door of the HRREC. Initially as a volunteer, she participated in the development of a new database on International Human Rights and Canada, an initiative developed by the Centre’s Human Rights Clinic. Thereafter she became the (paid!) coordinator of an innovative summer course. Her commitment to human rights at HRREC, coupled with a good dose of determination, naturally led Emilie to the prestigious Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights where she obtained a Master of Advanced Studies (MAS) in Transitional Justice, Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

On Mission with an International Organization

To have been able to turn her passion into a real job is a source of pride for the young Canadian. She began in Tanzania, where she was an advisor on gender equality and human rights for the Agha Khan Foundation and is now working as a representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Kosovo. Created during the Cold War, the OSCE seeks to ensure the political and military stability of the region, now comprising 57 participating States, including Canada.

Working in the Kosovo mission as the organization's Human Rights Officer since October 2019, Emilie is part of the ''communities'' section in one of the five regions of Kosovo under protection of the United Nations pursuant to the adoption in 1999 of Security Council Resolution 1244. Based in the capital Pristina, she works on the ground with minority communities of the former Yugoslavia, including notably Serbians, Albanians and Roma.

Fostering Human Rights through Cooperation

In addition to her role as field officer and reporter for the mission's headquarters and member states in Vienna, Emilie coordinates and supports capacity-building projects for local municipalities and institutions in areas such as education, access to services, women's inclusion, language rights and transportation, with a focus on including civil society organizations related to communities in Kosovo.

The Experience at HRREC Leads to Kosovo

"My work today in Kosovo is very much a continuation of what I did as coordinator of the HRREC Summer School on Arts and Human Rights, under the theme of Indigenous Arts and Culture," says the University of Ottawa graduate.

The course addressed human rights issues and reconciliation in Canada through the lens of cultural relations between Indigenous peoples and people of mainly European descent. "Connecting people from different communities, facilitating exchanges and identifying commonalities, in order to learn from these connections in a reconciliatory manner, are responsibilities that are integral to the mission I am carrying out today, with the Serbian and Albanian communities in Kosovo.”

The Experience at HRREC Leads to Kosovo
1) Initial training in Vienna, OSCE (2019); 2) Communities Committee Meeting in Lipjan/Lipljan (2021); 3) First day of the 2017 edition of the HRREC Summer School on Arts + Human Rights.

An Innovative and Exemplary Course

For Emilie, the strength of the HRREC course undeniably laid in its ability to offer participants the opportunity to combine the ideas and fields of art and law, often considered light years apart, to connect people with a heavy historical baggage.

“This experience was a model of its kind," she points out, "because in addition to offering students from all faculties access to multidisciplinary seminars with specialists in politics, law, documentary filmmakers or artists, the course offered them field activities focused on discovering the other through his or her culture, as when we visited the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve. So, the impact and benefits of this course on my current mission are undeniable," attests the young professional.

Today, immersed in more difficult contexts where populations live marked by the memory of the collective traumas they suffered during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, Emilie continues to advocate the use of a common denominator such as art to bring communities together in genuine dialogue despite a persistent latent conflict.

A Turning Point

While the HRREC provided the idealist student with learning opportunities and lasting tools for her professional development, it proved a turning point in her career. "For me, coming from a working-class family and the first to go to university, getting closer to the HRREC helped me to overcome an invisible barrier", she admits, evoking a certain class prejudice that would tend to associate anything related to the sphere of law with something elitist and inaccessible.

"I really encourage students in the humanities and political science who are wondering whether they should get involved in the Centre to go without hesitation", she says.

— Karine Fossou