Shara Duncan serves as Minister Counsellor to the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica to the United Nations in New York, in charge of International Law, Rule of Law and Genocide Prevention issues. She has previously worked as an Advisor to the Office of the Costa Rican Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship on issues of international litigation. Ms. Duncan is a lawyer and has earned a master’s degree in Human Rights and Peace Education from the Universidad Nacional in Costa Rica. She has graduated from the Summer Course of Public International Law from The Hague Academy of International Law as well as the XXIV Interdisciplinary Course on Human Rights at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights in San José. She joined the Diplomatic Service in 2006 and has served at Headquarters as the Coordinator of Programmes with South America in the International Aid for Development Department and as Coordinator of the Human Rights and Human Security area.
What brought you to work in the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention?
I believe that a little personal inclination and a lot of luck are the elements that have led me to work in this area. Human rights have always been a passion for me, I think due to my own experiences as a member of a minority community in my country, as well as a result of the examples and education that I received at home. As a child, I grew up in an environment in which critical discussion on current issues was promoted. My father is an intellectual and activist, who has dedicated his entire life to working towards the recognition of the human rights of people of African descent in Costa Rica and, together with my mother, always promoted a concern within us for changing our surroundings.
I decided to study law, with the primary interest of dedicating my professional practice to working with civil society – in the defense of their rights. This is why, once I moved on from my career as a lawyer, I completed a master’s degree in Human Rights and Education for Peace, which gave content and an academic dimension to the personal concerns I had in that area. I have had the great fortune that, in my duties as a public official, more specifically as a career diplomat, I have been able to be in positions that have required the defense of the rights of the inhabitants. Being in this position has also given me the opportunity to participate, at the national and international levels, in a series of forums, courses, and trainings that have expanded my knowledge in this area and have expanded the spectrum of opportunities and conceptions on the different ways of working to promote an environment in which we can all live full lives and one in which we can develop according to our abilities and desires.
Which actions, policies, and/or approaches do you feel are the most effective in the long-term prevention of mass atrocities?
I am certain that early prevention, through education with a human rights approach, represents the most effective long-term approach. Additionally, we must attack the structural problems that create exclusion. Due to this, I am of the opinion that, in the current global scenario, the implementation of the 2030 agenda and its goals is the best way to accomplish this. Furthermore, we must remain on alert to the worldwide growth of hate speech and populism that seeks to endanger, exclude, and marginalize certain groups of people – be they migrants, LGBTI individuals, or ethnic or religious minorities. These positions have acquired a megaphone through the near-universal use of social networks and new schemes for communication.
For a democracy to be sustainable, states must seek both the participation of its citizens and the rule of law, as well as providing citizens with the possibility of equally accessing labor markets and economic resources. In that sense, I am a faithful believer that a quality education with a focus on human rights is the path par excellence to achieve those objectives in an environment where we all fit.
What advice would you give to a new government official who has just entered the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention?
Accept the reality that no society is exempt from mass atrocities and that it is necessary to make serious efforts to have more pluralistic, inclusive, participatory and better educated societies, as well as the fact that we all play a key role in achieving better societies and must be critical in terms of our national and regional realities. Additionally, many countries in the world have something to teach us in terms of prevention, transitional justice, the preservation of memory and/or other pertinent issues. We should take an interest in seeking information on what is being done on these matters in other latitudes. Finally, it is imperative to learn to read social processes and recognize our own shortcomings in the mirror of other realities, however distant they may seem.
What has made you the most proud of your work with the Latin American Network for the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities?
Participating in the collective efforts of Latin America to train its officials in the field of prevention and, after several years, to see that there is a functional Network that allows an exchange of information between the different states that participate. That knowledge has translated, in my case, into the possibility of having an impact so that the discourse of prevention can become a reality through tangible results, such as the construction of public policy, which have been carried out and in which I have been involved as part of my duties. I have also been able to represent my country in the different forums that I attend with a much better understanding of the subject, thanks to the information and educational experiences that I have acquired as part of the Network and which function as fundamental elements of the work that I do.
Who or what inspires you in your continued work on the prevention of mass atrocities?
At the risk that it may seem commonplace, personally I am inspired by thinking about work in prevention, and the area of human rights in general, translating into improvements in the quality of life of millions of children around the world. And that future generations, perhaps, will not have to suffer the injustices and the vexations of war and hatred.
What was the most important element of your visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and time at the Lemkin Seminar?
The visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps constitutes a turning point in my life. This confrontation with the death of millions of people helped provide me with a more profound conception of the process of dehumanizing “others” through the language of hatred and populist messages, as well as an understanding that, given the adequate (or rather, inadequate) economic and social conditions, these messages constitute a spark in a powder keg, which can lead to the near complete destruction of a society.
Additionally, I think I can see even more clearly the absolute need to fight for the eradication of messages of intolerance and disrespect for differences. I am even more convinced of the primordial role played by keeping memory alive, which stops nations from forgetting their violent pasts, as a mechanism to avoid the repetition of mass atrocities in societies where they have occurred. The Lemkin Seminar is one of the most valuable courses I have taken in my life.