December 14, 2022
At only 34 years, María Cecilia Ercole has already established herself as a seasoned human rights practitioner with over eight years of experience at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) under her belt. With postings in Geneva, Beirut and La Paz, Ercole’s time at OHCHR has led her to a wide range of human rights work – from monitoring and reporting of presidential elections in Bolivia, to advocacy for victims of torture and modern slavery, to investigations of human rights violations in Yemen and Sri Lanka. Her outlook on human rights was formed by the history of her home country, Argentina, where civilian opposition against the military dictatorship morphed in time to include a push for social, cultural, environmental, and economic rights.
From a young age, and before becoming a lawyer, Ercole was actively involved in community and volunteer work in Argentina. She tutored inmates who were studying law at the Devoto Prison in Buenos Aires and helped in a center for addicted adolescents fighting “paco”, a by-product of cocaine. Following law school, Ercole initially worked in the private sector in Buenos Aires on investment and commercial arbitration cases. But she quickly realized her passions lay elsewhere and left her position in order to work in human rights.
On leaving the private sector, Ercole said, “I felt relief that day while leaving the law firm building. But I was also feeling insecure. Not only was I a fresh graduate at the time, but my father’s conviction was that pursuing a human rights career was snobbish and unrealistic. I would often catch myself questioning this early career turn, swapping a lucrative career in arbitration for a human rights one.”
Her next career stop marked a major shift away from arbitration law. Ercole briefly worked with the Center for Justice and International Law in Washington, D.C., representing victims before the Inter-American Human Rights System. Following this, she accepted a coordinator position at a grassroot NGO providing legal aid to victims of domestic violence and asylum seekers living in slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. “The NGO office was in the small attic of an insurance company”, Ercole noted. “Despite that, we were making a difference through the legal profession. And, as a young lawyer, I also had my first experience managing a small team of lawyers and volunteers.”
From Buenos Aires, Ercole moved to Geneva, the heart of the international human rights system. Throughout the many countries she has worked in, a particular commitment has stayed with her: defending and expanding the rights of women, children, migrants and LGBTIQ+ individuals. On this, a notable victory stands out. As OHCHR gender focal point in La Paz, Ercole’s unrelenting advocacy vis-à-vis the government authorities and OHCHR’s strong alliance with a vibrant national civil society contributed greatly to the state’s recognition of the country’s first civil union of a same-sex couple in December 2020, thereby setting a precedent for the advancement of LGBTIQ+ rights in Bolivia.
As the Wasserstein Fellow in Residence at the Harvard Law Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA), Ercole juggles different tasks. At HRP, she aims to bring answers to challenges Ercole encountered when investigating violations during armed conflict and beyond. A product of this scholarly interest has been a recent article about the rights of LGBTQ+ persons in armed conflict published on the blog of the European Journal of International Law. As an adviser at OPIA, Ercole assists HLS students interested in human rights careers in navigating the intricacies of the international legal arena. “Empowerment should always be the starting point with young people”, said Ercole. “All in all, advising has been my chance to give back.”