Graciela Fuentes: Dialogue with an Adventist judge at the United Nations
Graciela Fuentes is a lawyer, university professor, and a judge at the United Nations. Her job takes her to all parts of the world, and thus she has been in contact with many cultures and different human realities. She knows firsthand some of the great heroic stories of our times, of miracles and happy endings. She is also aware of the sad reality of the conflicts around the world and the misery of human greed and evil.
Gaciela is an Adventist who takes her beliefs seriously and has a clear mission commitment. Born in Argentina, she graduated from the National Law University in Buenos Aires. For graduate work, she turned to Canada, where she completed a master`s degree in international law at McGill University in Montreal, and later a Ph.D. in comparative constitutional law and human rights in Ottawa University.
Her work in Argentina focused on penal law, but in Canada she concentrated on international business law. She has taught law, philosophy, and international law as a visiting professor in several countries. She has worked for many years at the United Nations in peacekeeping operations, including work as an international judge in countries that are coming out of war or have major civil disturbances.
Currently she lives in Italy, advising international organizations on judicial reform. She also serves as a consultant to the European Parliament.
In which area of law do you most often focus in your job?
I mainly work with legal reform in countries that are going through a transitional period, such as from an authoritarian to a democratic system of government, or from a centralized controlled economy to a free-market one. We also work with countries that are coming out of a war situation or a civil conflict, such as Afghanistan or Bostnia. In those circumstances, the government system has often collapsed, the economy is devastated, and social conflicts are creating tension. The international community then steps in and provides experts to help to arrange free elections, rebuild an administrative system, provide parliamentary functions, organize other structures essential for a functioning society, and, of course, work toward the establishment of an effective judicial system capable of ensuring the rule of law. This last area is where my job is principally focused.
Can you give some examples of the kind of tasks in which you are involved?
Legal reform generally starts at the very last stage of an armed conflict or right after it finishes. Where racial hatred or religious mistrust is a part of the conflict, challenges may seem different. In any case, the breakdown of law needs to be attended to. My work has taken me to places like Rwanda, where tribal and ethnic conflict split a society and took a heavy toll; and Bosnia, where the war was of a different kind. In both cases, I was in charge of organizing a sort of emergency room, to provide “first aid” for the legal structure. In addition, we work on personal cases; for example, in the middle of a war, it might happen that parents are separated from their children. When there are thousands of families that are running for their lives and thousands of children missing, what do we do? Most of the children are in shock; they may be too young to remember who they are or where they lived before the traumatic events. From then on, we work to provide the children with documents, place them in institutions, or arrange for foster care.
We also help people recover their property rights when usurpers have occupied their houses and taken over their land. Often people have no documents to prove their identity, and we must work from scratch to establish their identity and provide them with documents that will ensure a decent future.
What motivates you to work in places that are so challenging – in terms of poverty or security?
It is not easy. Generally, I take a team that includes lawyers, judges, and police officers from several countries. Sometimes, we have to live in precarious shelters, and we have to manage with very little food and a bottle of water for the whole day. Sometimes, these missions demand a stay away from home for many months.
On more than one ocassion, God has saved me from certain death. For example, unknown to any of us, a bomb was placed in the truck in which we were traveling in a certain country, but for some reason, the bomb was never activated. At one time, just as I was pronouncing a sentence in a court, the building was bombed, leaving a huge crater just a few feet in front of me. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The building was not that lucky. Our work is such that we are all the time reminded of the anger and hatred of the human heart, on the one side, and the love and care, on the other. We cannot avoid the existence of war and injustice, but we can help in restoring order, in rebuilding a fractured community, and in carrying the message of peace and security to many people.
While other relief workers are dedicated to important missions, such as vaccination, medical aid, food and water supplies why do you feel this legal work is important?
God needs everybody’s talent in a combined way to give relief to suffering humanity. I consider the legal work very important to restore sanity to the functioning of a system that stands fractured by war or civil strife. I have already mentioned the case of missing children, illegal takeover of property, and missing identities. For peace to become a reality, it is important that society begins to function normally, and that normalcy requires a legal grounding and framework. If not, social peace could be endangered by unfair or arbitrary judgments. If there is a lack of a legal system, or the government does not intervene to solve conflicts, people tend to take the law into their own hands. Also, crime tends to increase when there is no operational legal system.
How do you keep your faith in the middle of offbeat jobs and circumstances?
I learned about the Adventist message by listening to Braulio Perez Marcio`s radio program, “The Voice of Hope.” I was delighted by the music of Del Decker and the King’s Heralds. I was baptized 37 years ago in the Adventist Church in spite of my parents’ opposition. I went through many problems in my life, but God has always been by my side.
I have learned to grow in the faith, even though I cannot attend church every Sabbath, because my job often isolates me from an Adventist community. However, I have the companionship of prayer and Bible study. These are essential to me, and I always a feel certain closeness to God, particularly when I am alone in places where there is no Adventist church. Even in such places, technology has made it possible for isolated people like me to enjoy the blessings of Sabbath: my laptop brings Sabbath School and the divine worship right into my room. A connection to Sacramento Central Church in California or to 3ABN programs is a great blessing. I sing every Sabbath with the virtual Sabbath School, send my prayer requests, my offering, and tithe. I feel part of a very large world family that worships God, and when I go back home, in Italy, I worship with the Adventist church of Pisa.
Do you get to testify about your faith in your workplace?
I essentially testify by my behavior. The difficult or dangerous situations give me the chance to talk about a loving God who takes care of us and provides for all our needs. The times of despair after a bombing, or the fear that the road ahead may be mined, has given me the opportunity to give my workmates encouragement and strength to move forward and keep going. As chief of a department, I am requested to attend many meetings that are held on Sabbath, but I don’t. That way I have the chance to explain why I could not be present at those meetings. Loyalty to my job is also part of my testimony; therefore, I appoint an associate to represent me in those meetings, in order not to alter the program because of my beliefs. Even though my workplace does not permit open talk about my faith, my love for God, or my principles, my life should bear a silent testimony. There are people watching me, and often we live together. They ask me a lot of questions about my beliefs, and I should be ready to answer them. Above all, life itself should be an open book of what we believe and whom we believe in.
What would your advice be to young people who would like to study law?
I believe that there is a need for more Adventist lawyers. Many young people are discouraged from going into a legal career because of perceived or real dangers and temptations, such as corruption, involvement of big money, compromising the truth, and spending too much time in conflicts. But in my own career, I have found that a lawyer can live above such perceptions. A lawyer can do a lot of good from an honest, upright and supportive position.
As an Adventist lawyer, what is your position regarding human rights?
Our idea of human rights is derived essentially from our Judeo-Christian roots and values. Many societies with different cultural values reject any changes to be made to their laws. They are opposed to such concepts as freedom of expression, religious liberty, gender equality, acceptance without discrimination, etc.
Part of my job is to explain to officials of the government, judiciary, and legislature, and opinion leaders of such countries the need to maintain and foster basic human freedoms. We cannot say we have human rights and at the same time deny the rights of boys and girls to have an education and of women to live in equality with men. It is not freedom to inflict mutilation on the bodies of children or allow them to go into prostitution.
My mission regarding human rights is to help people understand that society as a whole is no stronger, no freer, than the individuals who compose the society. To the extent an individual lacks a certain basic right, to that extent the society is weak and immature. Individuals who prize their rights and privileges should also see to it that others have the same rights, and only then can a society have a proper sense of human rights. Those rights are individual as well as communal and national. Those rights are God-given, and it is our calling to uphold, protect, and practice them.
Sonia Krumm (Ph.D., Universidad Montemorelos, Mexico) is director of the General Education Program and professor at the School of Human Studies, Education, and Social Sciences, Universidad Adventista del Plata, Argentina. She gives lectures and has written books for primary school curriculum. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graciela Fuentes’s e-mail: email@example.com.