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Carla Villarreal Lopez: A Rising Career in International Disability Rights

Posted on Monday 7/29/2019
Carla Villarreal Lopez LL.M. '17 standing at the Alley of the Flags, Palais Des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

Before arriving in Syracuse to pursue her Master of Laws degree, Carla Villarreal Lopez LL.M. '17 was already an experienced human rights lawyer. In her native Peru she served as a Commissioner at the Ombudsman's Office, as well as a professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Peru. Today, with her master's degree and impressive awards added to her résumé, Villarreal Lopez is supporting the mandate of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the heart of the international law community, in Geneva, Switzerland.

"In Peru, Carla engaged in advocacy efforts, monitored public policies on women and disability rights, conducted training programs, and worked for legal reforms in line with human rights standards, including the reform of the civil code on legal capacity," says Professor Arlene Kanter, Director of the Disability Law and Policy Program, and Villarreal Lopez's former professor and mentor. "Until recently, the rights of women with disabilities to access justice and to be free from violence were widely ignored by the international community. In Peru, however, Carla brought attention to this issue."

While at Syracuse, Villarreal Lopez's academic strengths and commitment to public service were recognized with one of the University's most prestigious awards. As the first law student ever to win the Robert B. Menschel Public Service Fellowship, Carla was able to augment her practical experience working in Washington, DC, for Women Enabled International.

"Carla is now working in the Office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Geneva, as one of only two international fellows in the entire world—the other is also a Syracuse University graduate, Jean Molly Ameru G'18—to receive the prestigious Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation International Public Policy Fellowship," says Kanter. "I cannot underscore enough what a spectacular rise Carla has experienced in the world of international disability rights since she left Syracuse."

Villarreal Lopez recently took the time to answer questions about her burgeoning career, her tireless advocacy, and the state of international disability rights.

Why did you originally choose to focus your career on the rights of women and persons with disabilities?

I grew up surrounded by the devastating effects of an internal armed conflict in Peru and a dictatorship that corrupted institutions, jeopardized human rights, and impeded the democratic process. This context reinforced my decision to pursue a career in human rights. I consider law an effective tool of social change for implementing inclusive public policies and providing equal opportunities for the most excluded groups, including women and persons with disabilities. 

Given that you were already an accomplished lawyer and advocate on women’s and disability rights in your native Peru, why did you decide to pursue an LL.M. at Syracuse?

I was a Commissioner at the Women’s Rights Department of the Ombudsman’s Office and a Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru when I received the Open Society Foundations’ Disability Rights Scholarship to study the LL.M. at Syracuse University from 2016 to 2017. 

It was the best option for advancing my career in disability rights because the College of Law offers human rights and disability-related courses conducted by amazing professors, including Arlene Kanter and Cora True-Frost. At the same time, I could complement my legal background with a course at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, which was important for me as a civil servant. 

Furthermore, College of Law Assistant Dean of International Programs Andrew Horsfall and the staff of the LL.M. program have been very supportive, and every international student has a faculty advisor and a mentor. Likewise, the College of Law has a great infrastructure and all the resources for promoting an inclusive educational environment. The Disability Law and Policy Program is a leading academic center for disabilities rights worldwide. There are also different extra-curricular opportunities to be engaged, including the Disability Law Society, research assistantships, academic visits, international events, and more. 

What skills and lessons did you learn at Syracuse that have helped you further your advocacy? 

My experience at Syracuse University allowed me to grow as a researcher and human rights advocate. The College of Law helped me to foster critical thinking and the ability to analyze complex legal issues, as well as my research and writing skills. I co-authored, with Professor Kanter, an article on violence against women and girls with disabilities that was solicited for publication for a special volume of the Northeastern Law Review.

Syracuse University also strengthened my advocacy strategies and enhanced my ability to connect academia with legislative and policy reforms. Moreover, I learned more about the value of diversity and inclusive learning environments. I met persons from different cultures and backgrounds, and I learned from their experiences of promoting human rights in their own communities.

Can you describe your current work and activities at the UN Office of the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? 

I am a Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation International Public Policy Fellow serving Catalina Devandas, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I am responsible for assisting in research and supporting research-related activities with other special procedures and other human rights mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, treaty bodies, and UN agencies and programs, states representatives, civil society organizations, universities, and various institutions. I contribute to thematic reports with particular focus on persons with intellectual disabilities, analyzing literature, legislation, and good practices. I also assist with briefing notes, statements, presentations, material for awareness-raising, and follow-up activities, as well as organizing and coordinating expert meetings.

Catalina Devandas is an independent expert mandated to support the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). She develops a regular dialogue with states and other stakeholders; receives communications on violations of the rights of persons with disabilities; conducts country visits; and make recommendations on how to advance the rights of all persons with disabilities. 

How would you describe the current state of international disability rights?

Since the signing of CRPD in 2006, state parties have started to consider the exclusion of persons with disabilities as a problem that impacts society as a whole. There have been advances, but there are still many more challenges, including legal reforms in line with CRPD standards, such as legislation recognizing the legal capacity of all persons with disabilities. 

It is also fundamental to design, implement, and monitor inclusive public policies with consultation and active participation of persons with disabilities, as well as change discriminatory practices and attitudes in society. As the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has pointed out, only by embracing diversity can we aspire to a world in which nobody is left behind in the framework of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.

You still have a long career ahead of you—what would you like to accomplish in the coming years?

I would like to work for the UN or any international organization to further implement human rights standards into domestic legislation and public policies, including the gender and disability perspective. I would like to be engaged in projects in Latin America, including Peru, in relation to issues that in particular affect girls and women, as well as persons with intellectual disabilities. For instance, I am very interested in working on inclusive education, legal capacity, sexual and reproductive rights, gender-based violence, and access to justice.

What advice would you give someone—especially a student of disability rights—thinking of studying for an LL.M. in Syracuse?

I would recommend to apply now and take advantage of all the opportunities Syracuse University can offer, including the Disability Law and Policy Program, a leading academic center for disabilities rights worldwide. Studying abroad is an amazing experience at the academic, professional, and personal level. Syracuse’s LL.M. Program offers interesting disability-related courses conducted by excellent professors, and you can complement this learning with courses at other schools for a truly interdisciplinary course of study. Plus, you will feel supported all the time in the best inclusive educational environment.