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A conversation about the importance of freedom with Human Rights lawyer, professor, advisor and expert, Erika Torregrossa Acuna

On the 19th August 1936 the renowned Spanish poet and playwright, Federico Garcia Lorca, was assassinated by the Nationalist militia. Whilst always declaring himself not to have particular political allegiances, Lorca wrote passionately about freedom - freedom for women, for homosexuals - for all who were repressed and oppressed by a very closed-minded society.

Antonio Torregrossa was a Spanish lawyer who left Spain in the Civil War to go to live and work in Columbia. After a trial where he defended a trade unionist, he was assassinated.

Two extraordinary Spaniards, both working towards finding freedom for those who did not automatically have it - and both of whom were killed for their beliefs that society should be a more fair and inclusive place.

Fortunately, their legacies live on today.

Lorca’s body of words is known globally and always regarded as a shining light for minority groups.

And Torregrossa’s legacy lives on through his granddaughter, Erika Torregrossa Acuna, whose name is synonymous with human rights. To list her roles, past and present, would take up more words than the entire count for this article but suffice to say she is an eminent lawyer, a professor, an adviser to the Government and a CEO of a company that educates businesses on human rights. She juggles so many balls so successfully it is almost impossible to believe, yet she does it all with grace, with compassion, with humour - and with a genetic DNA that has always fought for others.

Erika was born in Columbia in 1973 but has lived in Spain most of her life.  From a young age, Erika knew that, like her grandfather - and, indeed her father who was also a lawyer, she wanted to become a lawyer to “defend people who don’t have resources and who are in difficult situations”.

Erika studied at the University of Barcelona (where, years later, she has returned as a Professor) and it was during this time that she realised her desire to defend people was more specifically and clearly defined as a vocation to help those with limited freedoms; prisoners as an example and not only in Spain but around the world.

She began her working life as a civil servant of the Government of Catalonia in General Penitentiary Services where she closely combined her professional activities with the aims of a political party to fight for the rights of migrants, particularly women. In Spain, there are a lot of Colombian refugees and this resonated with Erika who never lost her ties with her birth country. As a Colombian woman, she worked tirelessly to help them.

Erika also participated as an advisor for victims abroad in the Colombian Peace Process where she says she witnessed some heartbreaking stories. The process was very long and hard for the victims not just in Colombia but outside too.

Erika’s journey has always seen her walk hand in hand combining law and politics; always with the aim of finding greater freedoms for those deprived of them.

As a lawyer, she developed her practice in International Criminal Justice and the protection of Human Rights working in numerous organisations both in Spain and globally including in the Hague where she was General Secretary of the BPI-ICB-CAPI (International Criminal Bar-International Criminal Bar-College of International Criminal Lawyers of The Hague)  and combined working trips to the Hague with her already split time in Barcelona and Madrid.

Erika describes 2023 as a “particularly important year” in her work and life.  She received two highly prestigious awards; ‘Outstanding Colombian of the Year’ and also the ‘National Human Rights Award’. She was also recognised for her contribution to peace in Colombia. Definitely not one to rest on her laurels, Erika took these three honours as a “sign” for her to do even more.

“For the past five years, I have worked for the Spanish Government as an adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs specifically in the sector covering international corporation development. I travelled around the world, looking at the plights of women and refugees and it opened my eyes to the connection between companies and human rights. Legislation has been passed that companies need to ensure the protection of human rights so I decided to set up a company to advise companies on how specifically to implement human rights.”

Hence Diplocorp was born.

Does Erika have time to relax outside of all her work commitments?

“I love running. I have participated in some half marathons, I realise it is important that your body should be strong both inside and outside in order to run long distances - and that challenge appeals to me.”

It seems, even in her leisure time, Erika believes in pushing herself to the limit.

Did Erika herself encounter discrimination for being a woman in her chosen professions?

“It is not easy. I am not only a woman; I am Colombian. And a mother. There is a lot of discrimination but even though you can clearly sense and feel it, in a way it is ‘invisible’. It is never spoken out loud - but it is most definitely there.”

Erika has two daughters, 26 and 22 years old. She became pregnant while studying which made life even tougher for her; having to be a mother while trying to pass exams was not an easy road; but taking the easy option is not in Erika’s blood. And the hard work paid off, not just with her career but due to the fact that both of her daughters are extraordinarily proud of their mother and constantly tell her; something which in turn makes Erika happy about her own achievements. Interestingly, when asking her what her biggest achievement so far is, she looks forward to what she can still do in the future. Watch this space!

Erika’s friends and family describe her as a ‘dreamer’ and indeed she is. She has big dreams. But what makes her so special is that she is more than capable of making dreams come true.

Maroulla Paul

March 2024