Bearing Witness, Bringing Justice Peter Bouckaert, ’93, and Human Rights Watch Serve as Sentinels to the World

By Sonia Fernandez ’03

peter1Peter Bouckaert, ’93, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch, will receive the UCSB Alumni Association Distinguished Alumni Award at 6 p.m. April 27 at UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion.

Rapes in Guinea. Violence in the Middle East. Killings in Central America. All mass violations of human rights.

All researched and reported by Peter Bouckaert, ’93, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch.

The Belgian-born, California-educated human rights advocate and UC Santa Barbara alumnus gave an all-too brief talk about his life and career at UC Santa Barbara’s Social Science and Media Studies building in November, as students and teachers from the Global and International Studies Department peppered him with question after question.

“I’ve found that the limits we place on ourselves often exist only in our minds,” he said to the audience in the small conference room, where the conversation moved quickly from topic to topic: fact-finding in the world’s most volatile places, the organization’s philosophy on violence, the fall of Libya, the drug cartels in Mexico. It’s Bouckaert’s job to be there in times of conflict, boots on the ground and conducting interviews, sometimes even before the smoke has cleared.

The work is never easy, and it’s dangerous at times for him, his team, even the people they interview. To reach his less accessible subjects he would go undercover, posing as a traveling businessman or some other less conspicuous character. He has conducted interviews at the scene of the crime, in little back rooms of churches and other community meeting places.

peter2And, sometimes, Bouckaert said, the bad guy is close to home, like Donald Rumsfeld, who Bouckaert called a war criminal for his support of the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo. Or the perpetrator may be someone ideologically in line with the International Community, like fighters who allegedly executed Gaddafi supporters en masse in Sirte during the last days of the Libyan revolution... Bouckaert documented the 53 decomposing bodies in the Mahari Hotel garden. Sometimes, he has to confront those who appear to be fighting against human rights abuses.

“They gave a really lame excuse – they said they went out for a couple of hours and when they got back, there were 53 bodies on the lawn,” he said. Eventually, the rebel group became cooperative.

And, all the while, the intention is to bring attention to atrocities, whether a dictatorship crushing its own people, the aftermath of civil unrest or invasion, or rampant violence and torture. So while Bouckaert and his team research, conduct interviews, and try not to get killed, they’re also building what must become a bulletproof case should the international community decide to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity. He has testified before the United States Senate, the Council of Europe, and at the Yugoslav Tribunal in the Hague.

Though his work as an unblinking witness to human rights violations has taken him to a wide range of global settings, it was a different kind of global environment that brought Bouckaert to UC Santa Barbara in 1989 — the ocean. “I loved going for swims in the ocean, it is such a privilege to have a campus right on the most beautiful ocean in the world,” he said. “And I loved how available our professors were to us, in and out of class. UCSB is a really tight-knit community, and that is what college should be like.”

Less exciting for him was the realization that he wasn’t quite as into the major he came to study.

“I came to UCSB to study marine biology, and discovered I liked the marine part but not the biology part,” he said. With that realization, he made a switch to a Black Studies and Law and Society double major, and found a home within Black Studies, with its combination of academics and activism.

The intellectually stimulating environment with the supportive faculty is where Bouckaert received his education in advocacy as he rose within the ranks of his departments as well as on campus in general. His activism and leadership was instrumental in getting then-chancellor Barbara Uehling to step down amid criticism that she was out of touch with the university’s academic needs.

peter3From UC Santa Barbara, Bouckaert went to Stanford for a law degree before starting work with Human Rights Watch. Through his work, he gradually moved the organization’s focus toward more of an active role in preventing human rights violations by stepping into the breach where it can.

Bouckaert’s own admiration goes to the people who stand up for their rights and the rights of others, people who have the courage to come forward, and those who fight. Sister Consuelo of Monterrey, Mexico, is one such woman, he said, a “truly amazing” woman who has championed the little people sandwiched between drug cartels and an unchecked military accused of their own heinous acts. She received the Alison Des Forges Award in November from Human Rights Watch for her bravery and effort.

“I thought Peter was terrific – he inspired my students – and me – and at least one of my soon-to-be-graduates has written him to pursue a position with HRW,” said Richard Appelbaum, professor of Global and International Studies. For those students who may have the desire, but perhaps not yet the fortitude or the ability to be monitoring fragile human rights situations across the globe, Bouckaert advises starting out at home. Even at UC Santa Barbara, he said, there are human rights issues that need attention, like improving diversity on campus.

“I don’t want students to see what I do as extraordinary,” he told Coastlines. “We need leaders for tomorrow, and that means young people have to be willing to step up and lead.”

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