United for Human Rights Honored with Human Rights Award
United for Human Rights Florida is awarded Colombia’s José Hilario López Award for Human Rights for their stellar advocacy.
Gracia Bennish of Tarpon Springs, Florida, President of United for Human Rights Florida, and Paula Gutierrez, Vice President United for Human Rights Miami, received the José Hilario López Valdés Award for Human Rights September 9 at the Ministry for Defense Complex in Bogotá, Colombia. They were acknowledged for their stellar work in promoting human rights through education.
The medal is named for Colombia President Hilario López Valdés (1849–1853 and 1863) who championed human rights by abolishing slavery and establishing separation of church and state and freedom of the press. It is presented annually by all branches of the military jointly during the country’s International Week of Human Rights.
Some 1,000 people attended the ceremony and millions watched on television as the Minister of Defense presented the medals to seven civilians whose work in human rights is carried out in Colombia and throughout the world. Among those honored was Antonio José Navarro Wolff, former guerrilla in the M-19, who recanted, did his amends and entered public service. Elected to the Colombian Assembly, he helped draft the Colombian Constitution of 1991, which remains the supreme law of the country.
A lifelong supporter of civil and human rights, Bennish has held the position of President of United for Human Rights Florida since 2008 when the organization was founded in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bennish has been introducing Cuba to human rights education. She worked with the State Department to secure visas for Cuban human rights advocates in 2014 and 2015. They participated in the group’s program commemorating the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This program was also supported by leaders of the Cuban-American community of Tampa.
Bennish has been educating Florida lawmakers on the importance of human rights education as a means of tackling some of the state’s most urgent issues. South Florida is the third-highest area for sex trafficking in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and children are often drawn into the web without even realizing it. Human rights education raises awareness so private citizens become more alert to the signs of human trafficking and report their concerns, making it possible to salvage victims and bring perpetrators to justice.
In addition to her work with United for Human Rights Miami, Gutierrez, who was born in Colombia, has sponsored programs for members of the Colombian armed forces now handicapped because of injuries sustained during the conflict. She has also run drives to collect toys for needy Colombian children and initiated a pilot program for law school students to study the human rights program and deliver it to schools in the area.
“All the branches of the military were represented as well as officials of the police. They each presented their colors accompanied by a brass band,” says Bennish. “They were so gracious and appreciative of our work and the United for Human Rights program, which has been used to raise awareness within the Colombian military at this crucial time when the treaty with FARC has just been signed and former guerrillas are being integrated into the community.”
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