Maite Schmitz is the Deputy Head of the United Nations Division at the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations. She participated in our 2009 Global Lemkin Seminar in Poland.
Why are you dedicated to the field of genocide and mass atrocity prevention?
It’s not easy to explain what drives someone to a specific field of research or work. I believe that my passion for international law and human rights started during Law School, and it only became stronger as I started applying what I’ve studied. That’s when we make a connection to people’s lives, and that’s also when we realize that our work can actually make a difference.
Sometimes when we read about genocide and other grave international crimes, we are faced with numbers: how many people died, and how many were wounded or displaced. People barely relate to numbers, though. In this regard, the Raphael Lemkin Seminar played a very important role, as we had the chance to go to Auschwitz and learn about individual human beings, their lives, their fears and their fate. Then, it becomes more than only numbers; we empathize, and we think about ways to make our contribution so that it won’t happen again.
What does a day or week in your current position look like?
I’m currently working at the United Nations Division of the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations. In my work, everyday is different. A large part of my portfolio relates to the issue of strengthening and reforming the UN, particularly the Security Council. After seventy years, the global institution responsible for maintaining international peace and security has barely changed, even though the world is completely different now. The negotiations are still ongoing, and I hope that 2015 will be a watershed year in this process, with real progress and concrete outcomes.
What actions and policies do you feel are most effective in the long-term prevention of atrocity?
First, I’m glad to see this question, as it focuses on prevention, and particularly on long-term prevention, which is the best approach to tackling international crimes. In my view, promoting sustainable development is key to preventing atrocity, as it addresses its root causes. There is sometimes a tendency to overlook the structural policies that contribute to a world free of mass atrocities, and instead we end up with only short-term, operational responses, which might temporarily solve a crisis, but will not put an end to it. It is shocking to see that the global military expenditures today exceeds 1.7 trillion USD in one year, while official development assistance has hovered around 126 billion USD. Culture, education, poverty eradication and food security are essential aspects in any effective policy aimed at achieving sustainable peace, and budgetary priorities should reflect that as well.
In this regard, some actions that come to my mind include: human rights education, outreach activities promoting a culture of peace, measures against xenophobia and racial discrimination, reparation programs to victims of serious human rights violations and the promotion and protection of the rights of the most vulnerable segments in society.
Who or what inspires or motivates you?
Humanity. Every time I listen or I read a story about someone who decided not to be a bystander, but instead took action and changed someone else’s life, I believe a little more in humankind—and this is something that inspires me.
For a government official who may be just entering the field, what advice do you have to give towards effective work in genocide prevention?
My first advice would be to always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. I know it is easier said than done, but it is a valuable and fundamental exercise. Genocide begins with hate and with the denial of the human condition to those who are perceived as different. So, in order to understand this process of dehumanization, one has to see through the eyes of the people involved in the conflict, otherwise any attempt to mediate and to promote a meaningful dialogue will be doomed to failure.