Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Maya Batres – Center for International Environmental Law

Defending the right to a healthy planet: a daunting task, but a necessary one. This is the motto of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), the non-profit law center I had the opportunity to work for this summer. Located in Washington, DC, CIEL operates within the epicenter of environmental and human rights policy. I was accepted into CIEL as a legal intern, with responsibilities including researching and writing about areas of international law and policy; assisting with policy analysis and advocacy; attending meetings and conferences; and otherwise working closely with CIEL staff on various projects.

As a dual citizen of Guatemala and the US, I was uniquely equipped for this internship, understanding the needs of developing countries and the political framework of the leaders in environmental and human rights law. Because of my background, I feel the duty to speak for those who might not know their rights in a time where climate change and environmental health concerns grow at an alarming rate.

It might be a small organization with just ten attorneys, but CIEL has a large impact in the field of international environmental law. The organization operates within four main programs, including People, Land and Resources, Climate and Energy, Human Rights and the Environment, and Environmental Health. Focus areas range from indigenous rights to corporate accountability for climate change, to transnational chemical treaties and partnerships. My exposure to current legal projects as a legal intern seemed endless.

One of my most rewarding projects included drafting reports for CIEL’s Early Warning System, a safeguard tool that allows for communities to monitor upcoming development finance projects and how their rights to a safe and healthy environment could be compromised. I also had the opportunity to draft parts of an amicus brief for one of the senior attorneys working to protect the indigenous communities in the Andes Mountains from aerial fumigations of the Coca leaf, which they use for medicinal and nutritional purposes. My other projects mainly dealt within the Climate and Energy program, which fit nicely with my interests in climate change.

In addition to the benefits from the internship work itself, the diversity of the attorneys’ backgrounds widened my perceptions of the possibilities of human rights law. I had the opportunity to work with attorneys from a variety of educational backgrounds and countries of interest. Attorneys travel regularly for their cases and for conferences, which is something I look for in a potential career. Most attorneys have worked at other environmental NGOs prior to their work at CIEL, and draw upon these experiences in their work today. Most intriguing, however, is that CIEL president and CEO is a UMN graduate himself. I have now had experience in working with one of my own, and see one of the paths I could take in the human rights/environmental law field. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with CIEL and to have walked amongst the brightest in their fields.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Griffin Ferry – Advocates for Human Rights

The most interesting part of my internship at Advocates for Human Rights is when I’m called on by the refugee/immigration branch to serve as a French interpreter. Interesting, however, does not always mean easy. Whether the client is from Eritrea or Togo, Cameroon or Mali, there’s a story behind their application for asylum that’s often difficult for me to hear and I imagine more difficult for them to recall. Most of the cases that I’ve interpreted for this summer have been political opinion cases in which an individual is persecuted for their political, whether actual or perceived, affiliation. This is apparently mirrored internationally as there’s quite a bit of jurisprudence form both the Inter-American Court for Human Rights and European Court of Human Rights on the same subject.

The most interesting aspect of serving as an interpreter is the relationship that you form with the individual for whom you’re interpreting. The lawyers (all of the lawyers that I’ve worked for have been doing pro-bono work which I think is really cool) always explain to me that I’m not to say anything of my own creation to the individual: I interpret what has been said to English into French and then from French to English. Nothing more. Nothing less.

What this means is that I may talk to an individual for three hours, may take a trip to the airport with them, without saying a single one of my own words to them. Despite the lack of verbal communication a relationship of some type is formed. Recounting stories of the past seems like a cathartic exercise for most people who usually shake my hand and thank me when all is said and done. They’ve shared a part of their lives with me and I’ve performed a service for them. I’d say most of the time the relationship is one of mutual trust and appreciation.

I came to law school because, perhaps naively, I wanted to help people. It’s hard to feel as though I’m making a difference when I sit behind a desk and stare at a computer for eight hours a day but when I get a chance to hear someone’s story, look them in their eyes and thank them, I know my decision to go to law school is the right one.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Susan Hallquist – Volunteer Lawyer’s Network

This summer I had the privilege of working at Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. VLN is a non-profit organization which provides civil legal services to low-income people through volunteer attorneys. Because of my experiences this summer, I now have a better understanding of the struggles and barriers that people in poverty may have when trying to access justice and maneuver through a complex legal system.

The majority of my time has been spent learning the ropes at one of the free legal advice clinic run by VLN. There, VLN’s volunteer attorneys provide brief legal advice and brief legal services for a variety of issues, including, but not limited to family law, consumer/debt, employment, general civil law and forms, and housing issues. The clinic also has some limited clinic time dedicated to criminal law. It has been interesting to see the gambit of legal issues and of different client interactions. I certainly learn something new, whether it be a new resource or about client interaction, each day.

I am most enthusiastic about my work coordinating a pilot free legal advice, which was hosted through collaboration by the Minnesota Chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Hmong American Bar Association, and Volunteer Lawyers Network. The clinic is a starting point for further outreach to populations that VLN aims to serve. It was fantastic to connect interpreters, diverse volunteer attorneys, and Asian social services to make the event possible. It is hoped that the clinic continues on in some capacity after I finish my fellowship.

Doing a fellowship through VLN has been eye opening and has shown me the value of continuing to public interest work throughout the entirety of my legal career.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

Human Rights Fellowship: Stories from the Field – Intro Post

Greetings!

This week and next, we will be publishing a series of posts written by participants in the Human Rights Center’s Human Rights Fellowship Program during their 2014 summer Fellowship experiences. We are tremendously grateful to all of the generous donors who made these experiences possible.

Human Rights Fellowship Stories: Jacob Rhein – Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division – Criminal Section

This summer I am assisting government attorneys in the prosecution of civil rights abuses as an intern in Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division – Criminal Section. Among other duties, the Criminal Section is charged with prosecuting human trafficking, deprivation of rights under color of law, official misconduct, and hate crimes.

Much of my work so far has been helping to prosecute corrections department officers who engage in excessive force or sexual extortion against inmates. For instance, I was recently involved in preparing jury instructions for a prison beating case in Georgia, and I also reconstructed a chain of custody from investigative testimony so that the government can offer a semen sample into evidence. Both cases involve tragic stories of abuse by government officers over a span of several years. In cases like these, prosecution by the Criminal Section is vital to the penal system’s legitimacy. Our nation is committed to having a government of laws rather than a government of men, and that commitment extends to prisons and corrections facilities. The law may deprive a convicted person of certain liberties, but a criminal conviction does not strip a person of inalienable human dignity or the rights of bodily integrity. Officers who prey on the vulnerabilities of prison inmates turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. Hopefully, the involvement of the Criminal Section will bring clarity to these situations and will vindicate the rights of the victims.

Another aspect of my work has been helping with the Cold Case Initiative. Since 2006, the FBI has been reinvestigating unsolved murders that were committed before the 1970s and were based on racial animus. The Civil Rights division has the task of assessing whether these murders are still prosecutable, and then issuing a report on what the evidence tended to show and why the matter was never resolved. This project involves an overwhelming volume of investigative files that have recently been unsealed for the first time in decades. During my work I have had the chance to read through a number of transcripts and summaries of witness interviews and statements by victims and suspects regarding events as early as 1946. This experience has been a privileged look into some of the darker moments in civil rights history – moments when whole communities seem to have been involved in obstruction of justice after a serious crime had occurred. Reading through the investigative files has helped me to appreciate more than ever the work of the Civil Rights Division in general and the Criminal Section in particular. When the Criminal Section prosecutes a hate crime, it not only seeks justice for the victim, but also has an expressive purpose. Civil rights prosecutions signal the nation’s promise to protect the equal dignity of all people, especially where a minority group has been the historic target of abuse.

I would like to thank the attorneys who I have already been privileged to work with, my attorney mentor and supervisor, the Human Rights Center, and the donors who sponsored my fellowship. The opportunity to work at the Criminal Section has already been a formative experience for me, and I am sure that the remainder of the summer will have a positive impact on my future.

The views expressed in this article represent those of the author and not necessarily those of the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center.  As a forum for dialogue and education, and an acknowledgment of the contentious nature of human rights issues, some views expressed on this blog may not necessarily be those of the Human Rights Center as an institution.

HUMAN RIGHTS SERIES 2014 (WEDNESDAYS FROM 12:15 P.M. – 1:15 P.M. MONDALE HALL 15)

HUMAN RIGHTS SERIES 2014 (WEDNESDAYS FROM 12:15 P.M. - 1:15 P.M. MONDALE HALL 15)

APRIL 2, 2014 @ 12:15 P.M. – 1:15 P.M.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF DR. AAFIA SIDDIQUI
JUSTICE MUST NOT ONLY BE DONE; IT MUST BE SEEN TO BE DONE
MONDALE HALL ROOM 15

Dr. Aafia Siddiqui is a PHD and as well as an MIT graduate. In 2003, she was placed on the Most Wanted List by the FBI. The U.S. media was quick to label her as “Lady Al-Qaeda”. Later the same year, she disappeared under mysterious circumstances from Pakistan. People close to her claimed that she was in the custody of U.S. agencies—a claim the U.S. government vehemently denied. In August 2008, she was presented in a U.S. District Court in Manhattan, New York. Wounded, bandaged, doubled over in a wheelchair, and barely able to speak—she had been shot in the stomach by one of the very soldiers she stood accused of attempting to murder. Not even a single terrorism related offence was included in her charge sheet though. Her trial followed, not only in the courtroom but also in the media. What happened next can be best described in the words of Ramsey Clark, former U.S. Attorney General: “I haven’t witnessed such bare injustice in my entire career”.

On Wednesday, April 2, Ehtasham Anwar, a Humphrey Fellow at the Human Rights Center, will lead a mock trial style presentation on some of the most contentious aspects of the Siddiqi case. Join, Mr. Anwar, and explore for yourself a case which has left behind more questions than answers!

For more information about Mr. Anwar:

https://www.law.umn.edu/humphreyfellows/current-humphrey-fellows.html

THIS SERIES IS CO-SPONSORED BY: AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL-LEGAL SUPPORT NETWORK

Children & The Law: Bhutan’s Emerging Child Protection Unit

Children & The Law: Bhutan's Emerging Child Protection Unit

Please join us!
March 26th Human Rights Session
12:15-1:15pm
Children & The Law: Bhutan’s Emerging Child Protection Unit
Walter F. Mondale Hall, Room 15