Ana María Mondragón Duque

Ana María Mondragón Duque is a Deputy Judge (Magistrada Auxiliar) at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Bogotá, Colombia, in charge of judging the crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict and contributes to guaranteeing the rights to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition of the victims. She has worked as legal officer at the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism (MICI), which is the accountability mechanism of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), in Washington DC. There she investigated the Bank in cases of non-compliance with social and environmental safeguards where communities had been harmed by development projects financed by the Bank. She has also served as an attorney at the Human Rights and the Environment Program of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) and at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Costa Rica and was Visiting Professional at the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR). Ana María is a Colombian lawyer from the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and holds an LL.M. from Harvard Law School where she was a Fulbright Scholar.  At Harvard, she was recipient of the Henigson Human Rights Fellowship and the Gary Bellow Public Service Award. Follow Ana Maria @anammondragon.

Ana Maria’s profile was edited by Sareta Ashraph (@SaretaAshraph), an international criminal lawyer and co-founder of ATLAS.


What drew you to working in international law? And what were your first steps?

My family comes from Trujillo, a small town harshly affected by the violence of the Colombian armed conflict. As a child visiting my grandmother’s house, I heard stories of the infamous Trujillo Massacre, accounts that later formed part of the first report of the National Group of Historical Memory and are now part of a series of reports that represent what the war meant to our people. This marked my childhood and later, my approach to the practice of law. As a law student I felt strongly that, as Colombian lawyers, we had a social responsibility to try to transform our reality and support the transition to peace. In a way, I felt that we couldn’t be neutral, we had to take sides.

I knew that my “call” was to work in human rights, but I was trying to figure out the best way to start my career. I applied twice to work in one of the most representative human rights NGOs that played a key role in building the human rights movement in Colombia. Both applications were denied. During that time, I was still a law student and Colombia was extremely polarized because the former president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, was trying to pursue a second re-election. His presidential period was one of the most violent of the last decades; however, he had -and still has- huge support from many sectors of the country. In that context, together with a group of friends, I decided to create a small NGO called “Spirit of the Constitution of 1991” - named after the student movement that helped to give birth to our current Constitution. We used it as a platform to create legal and advocacy strategies to oppose the re-election and to represent victims of the armed conflict in the countryside. That was a turning point for me and was the moment when I decided to work in international law.

I witnessed firsthand how domestic institutions failed to protect more than a hundred campesino families forcibly displaced by paramilitary groups and whose lands were – and are still today- in the hands of well-known palm oil companies. This experience demonstrated to me that behind the conflict in Colombia, there is a structural problem in which disputes for land and natural resources are still unresolved and where the power imbalances run so deep that domestic institutions are unable or unwilling to resolve these cases successfully and protect the rights of the affected communities. Working on this case showed me how the media and state institutions were co-opted by private actors who hold the political, economic and symbolic resources. I understood that it was crucial to combine domestic strategies with international strategies in order to advance this and thousands of other cases, and to ensure that these actors were held accountable.

This understanding turned my attention to the Inter-American System of Human Rights. In 2012 I worked in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights as a Visiting Professional. This exposed me to the most important regional human rights debates and opened the door that allowed me to continue my path as an international human rights lawyer. After this experience I worked as an attorney at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Costa Rica and later at the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) in their offices in Mexico City, San Francisco, and Bogota. These first steps gave me the opportunity to train myself not only in strategic litigation before the Inter-American System on Human Rights, but also in building advocacy and legal strategies before UN bodies and domestic institutions throughout Latin America as well as the accountability mechanisms of international finance institutions. I learned about my region from the voices of communities themselves and supported domestic NGOs that put themselves at risk every day in order to defend human rights. Three female mentors helped me take more firm first steps as an international lawyer: Marcia AguiluzMaria Jose Veramendi and Alexandra Sandoval.

Please tell us a bit about your work on transitional justice in Colombia.

I work as a Deputy Judge at the recently created Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) in Colombia. The JEP is the justice component of the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition created by the Peace Agreement signed by the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People´s Army (FARC-EP). The JEP´s function consists of administering transitional justice and judging the gravest crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict before December 1, 2016 and contributing to guaranteeing the rights to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition of the victims.

The transitional justice system in Colombia is one of the most sophisticated in the world and is based on two main principles: the centrality of the victims and the restorative justice principle. I work at the Truth and Acknowledgment Chamber of the Tribunal for Peace. Our mandate is to build a dialogical –as opposed to adversarial- process in which the voices of the victims are centered and where the actors who have had a role in the gravest crimes committed during more than 50 years of conflict are punished. However, the notion of punishment negotiated in the Peace Agreement is not the traditional one. We have to design and impose alternative sanctions - other than imprisonment- on these actors once they have contributed to the rights of the victims, recognized their criminal responsibility, and told complete, detailed and exhaustive truths. These types of sanctions have no precedent in history; therefore, our main challenge is to create them and guarantee that they do not lead to impunity but to a true process of reconciliation.

Currently I am supporting the work of the Truth and Acknowledgment First Instance Chamber in the first Case of the JEP, “Case 001,” that judges former FARC-EP fighters for the policy of kidnapping of civilians and military. I am also working on the “Commission of Participation” of the JEP, designing the JEP’s policy to guarantee the effective participation of the victims throughout the process, incorporating best practices in the matter and a restorative approach to justice.

What have been the high points of your career thus far?

I think that every professional step has been important and has opened the next door for me. However, I would say that having the opportunity to serve currently as a Deputy Judge at the JEP has been one of the highest points of my career so far. During the years I worked at the international level, I always thought I was training myself to come back to my country with skills that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire easily here. When the peace negotiations started, I was far away, but I was always thinking about the path to return home and be part of this historical moment. This is a high point because I am fortunate enough to be able to contribute to the building of the Peace, while learning so much in the process. Working at the Peace Tribunal, and particularly on its first case, gives me the chance every day to do something no one has done before: interpret a new rule, create a new procedure, build a new door for victims to access justice, and think about ways that best tell the story of our conflict. Even though currently the implementation of the Peace Agreement faces serious challenges, I do believe that if we do it right, we have a chance to make a difference.

Also, I feel that having earned a Fulbright Scholarship and been admitted to studying my LL.M. at Harvard Law School was an important and transformative moment of my career. It gave me the chance to open my mind to new ways of practicing human rights law, which was key to opening professional doors that I had not imagined previously pursuing. Now I see clearly how being exposed to diverse students and professors and learning from their different and rich approaches to the law and to life, made me understand that it is valuable - and sometimes even necessary- to leave our comfort zone and explore the role we can play and impact we can have at some distance.

What are some of the challenges that you faced coming up in your career?

Many of the challenges are related to being a young and vocal woman in a competitive, sexist work environment. Dealing with sexism is like an additional, unpaid and largely unseen part of the work: write briefs, go to meetings and also justify that I have worked hard enough to be where I am. Not so long ago, I started to feel exhausted. I soon realized that I was spending lots of energy fighting battles or feeling outraged every time I felt underestimated or confronted by various forms of “machismo”. I was spending a lot of my time at work thinking about how to defend and protect myself, without being seen as aggressive. How would I lead, without being seen as bossy? How would I present my work, without appearing as though I am showing off? There seems to be a difference between men being proud and drawing attention to their work, and women doing the same. It's almost like we should be surprised or humbled that our work - which we have dedicated ourselves to with the costs that that inevitably entails - is noticed and respected. I decided to mindfully make the effort to use my energy on things that are actually under my control, which is to give my best professionally and to use every opportunity - particularly the most challenging situations- to strengthen my own voice, as a person and as an attorney. Of course, this is a daily process and I continue to wrestle to find the balance, but I truly feel that the less I pay attention to what others think and the more I listen and know myself, the better my work is, the more it comes from a truthful place, and the more I enjoy it. 

Finally, I have often found it a challenge throughout my career to determine where I can have the most impact in the human rights field and from which position I can best contribute to improving others´ lives. In this way, I have been confronted by questions like: should I work at the international or at the national level? Should I speak from the civil society or from international bodies or state institutions? Should I focus on doing field work and being with the victims or should I try to have a position where I can make decisions or influence more closely decision-makers? In my case, the decision to return to Colombia to practice law was very important. It took me years to finally decide to come back.

Leaving Harvard, I had a choice between working at the Independent Accountability Mechanism of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC and working in Myanmar in a business and human rights NGO. It was a very difficult decision. Truthfully, I felt that to go to the Bank was to be a traitor to my commitment to human rights, and to my enthusiasm for working on the ground with affected communities. I sought advice from a professor who would become a mentor, Marshall Ganz, who is a Professor on Organizing: People, Power and Change at Harvard's Kennedy School. He has tremendous experience with respect to organising and mobilising social movements based on shared values, as well as on building leaderships. He taught me important lessons on how to mobilise power to make change. He said to me “you aren't only Ana Maria, the lawyer, but also Ana Maria, the person” and took me through a processof defining my priorities which included being close to Colombia, paying off my sizeable student loan, building strategic relationships, building a family, working with communities and thinking about the image of a place that would make me happier every morning when I woke up. He then asked me to give a rating from 1 to 5 to each job in relation to each one of those criteria, based on how close the job would bring me to that priority. When I went through that process, the job at the Bank came out on top. I chose to work at the Bank, a choice which, a few years ago, would have been unthinkable to me. However, being at the Bank allowed me to learn how to perform in a non-human rights world, to learn the language and interests of actors who can significantly impact human rights, and gave me a platform to actually mobilize power to make changes from “within”.  I also learned a lot about myself and what did and didn't work for me. The tools this experience provided me with are now invaluable and make a difference when approaching legal and political issues in my current job. 

Do you have any advice for people, particularly women, hoping to work in international law in the future?

I am still in an early stage of my career and I am learning what works and what doesn’t work for me. So, the advice I can give is the advice I give myself everyday.  These reflections, which I am still perfecting, are all connected:

Be intentional. International work is very attractive and it can make a lot of impact, but if you aren't aware of where you are going and you aren't thinking, it can take your roots from you and you might end up in a place where you don't understand why you are doing what you are doing. Don't end up going with the flow, just because of your existing momentum, a sense of inertia, or because you believe you do not have options. Make choices. Be mindful.

Take the time to know who you are and what's important to you. Also know that this changes. To be intentional you have to make the time to know yourself, as well as your priorities and needs in a certain moment of your life. In my case, seeing myself as a whole, a lawyer and a person, helped me setting priorities to make better job-related decisions in challenging times. How important is financial stability to you? Living close to your family? Building long term relationships? All these questions are valid and important and the answers can change with time. Building your set of priorities mindfully is building the compass that will allow you to recalculate your route when needed. 

Be coherent and strong in your beliefswithout becoming inflexible. Consistency is a powerful means to transform yourself and the people that surround you. I have seen firsthand how lifechanging it can be working with someone who, no matter how adverse the situation or how unpopular their acts or words, keeps maintaining their truth and acting accordingly. In international law and particularly in human rights, such consistency is needed to make real change and inspire others to do the same. However, I have also seen how “rigid coherency” sometimes is underpinned by ego and can endanger innovation in human rights. Balance and openness can help us, as human rights lawyers, to become more and more skilled in knowing and learning from our counterparts; talking and working with different actors, like the private sector and the State and building innovative communication and advocacy strategies to engage the broader civil society in our causes. 

Work hard and build a strong support network. When I first came to the US to do my LL.M it was shocking for me to see how much emphasis everyone put on the act of “networking”. It felt somehow mercenary to meet people with a preconceived idea of how would they be somehow useful for you. However, with time I understood that it is not only possible, but also essential, to have a “human approach to networking”. This is, to build a network based on your true interests to learn from others and to open possibilities of joining forces to help each other and advance common interests. Now I see clearly that a strong professional path is forged by hard work, but also it has to be accompanied by colleagues, mentors and people that in many -even unexpected- moments play a role to help you moving forward. The importance of networking is just a proof of our interdependency and of the importance of reciprocity in human relations. 

Sareta Ashraph