Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Transitional Justice in Belfast and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Megan Manion

Mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland is not the most instinctual hub for international conflict resolution research. However, it is an important, influential, and symbolic one. I have spent the last two months working on research to support a reparations process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo while living in Belfast. Working towards meaningful and concrete reparations to be implemented in an ongoing conflict in the DRC while living in a post-conflict setting has meant having a first-hand interface with the uncertainty of conflict. The unease of experiencing the very tangible effects of conflict in Belfast – whether it be tension surrounding controversial holidays, expressions of violence from organized groups, flags which demarcate and threaten, or merely the division of neighborhoods – reminds me that solutions to conflict, in order to have meaning and effect, are processes, not mere solutions.

In early June, the Trust Fund for Victims and the Transitional Justice Institute held a meeting to consult experts for the reparations process that the International Criminal Court will be undertaking in the Thomas Lubanga Dyilo case. The choice of Belfast as the locale was purposeful. Belfast, a Western democracy, is still dealing with remnants of conflict, the continuation of harmful traditions, and lack of acknowledgement for losses and human rights abuses. This choice was an acknowledgement of the universality of conflict across cultures, regions, and systems. In human rights law conversations, initiatives, and actions there can be a significant and systematic tendency to “other” conflicts and portray them as somehow different from conflicts that occur in Western democracies. As such, my work has highlighted the core similarities between post-conflict societies and the issues that individuals, communities, and systems have to address as conflicts resolve or digress with fluidity.

Having this opportunity and reminder as I research and support the work of the Transitional Justice Institute has been a practice in humility and an unparalleled opportunity to participate in a process with international and local experts who approach these critical issues of conflict and repair with critical awareness of their own impact and the implications of their perceptions and choices.

By Megan Manion, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Megan Manion is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute.



Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: The Murals of Belfast, by Amanda McAllister

Mural in Belfast

The conflict is written onto the walls of Belfast. After thirty years of violence during The Troubles conflict, murals have become a tradition for every community. The murals reflect public opinion, recent agreements, hopes for the future, and signs of solidarity. They range from optimism to harrowing predictions for the future of Northern Ireland. There is simultaneously the “peace wall,” depicting hopeful murals and images of leaders like Nelson Mandela, and the infamous “prepared for peace, ready for war” mural in North Belfast. At the heart of these murals lay visions of identity, national belonging, and methods for pursuing rival futures.

The experiences of Northern Ireland play a significant role in the purpose of the organization that I am a part of this summer. Ulster University’s Transitional Justice Institute takes the experience of Northern Ireland and exports those lessons to transform and inspire resolutions to conflict. One way in which these lessons are shared is through the Annual Summer School on Transitional Justice. This year’s topic was “Gendering the Practices of Post-Conflict Resolution: Investigations, Reparations and Communal Repair.” The school is a week-long course consisting of interactive lectures, workshops, roundtable discussions and cultural outings for the visiting human rights leaders. The workshop focused on global approaches to gender, violence and transitional justice, assessing gender in the context of community, reparations in comparative perspectives, and communal interfaces with gender accountability. Each working part of this perspective and field is intricate and interlocked. If one, essential part is severed, the nuance of effective understanding of the relationships among those parts is lost and the system is left dysfunctional.

Mural in BelfastAs I go forward in my legal studies, I understand the necessity of the ways in which fields and perspectives work as part of a dynamic system requiring rigorous analysis of the way in which those parts work separately and together. Like the murals in Belfast, which display a breadth of history, images of solidarity with other conflicts, and even pop culture, the complexities of the human experience cannot and do not exist in a vacuum. They are entwined and demand thoughtful and purposeful unraveling in order to effect change.

By Amanda McAllister, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Amanda McAllister is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Real-Life Law, by Charles Moore

After having studied law during my first year of law school, having an opportunity to see real-life issues play out in a legal context has been eye-opening for me in many regards. It is one thing to read cases in textbooks and quite another to be confronted with an individual living in your community who has legal problems students have only ever read about. It is far too easy in law school to lose sight of the fact that there are people who are adversely affected by the law and instead focus on legal concepts and doctrine. Working with the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) has made apparent the individual component of the law and the ways people can be empowered by it.

Lobby of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity

Lobby of the St. Paul Department of Human Rights & Equal Economic Opportunity

HREEO receives complaints from individuals who feel they have been discriminated against primarily in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodation. I have had the opportunity to become involved in the investigation of several cases and have even been able to write a few decisions. By doing this, not only do the legal issues come to life, but the impact lawyers can have on a community becomes apparent as well. Although many times our office is not able to issue the decision an individual is hoping for, we play an important role in empowering the individual and mediating a resolution. At all stages of the process, an open line of communication is created and mediation is encouraged throughout. Often times, an individual feels they have been wronged and they need to be heard. Our office provides a medium through which individuals can express their grievances and also have a platform to highlight discriminatory behavior. Even if at the end of the process they do not receive the decision they were hoping for, they have been given the opportunity to discuss the incident with our office and the offender, and still preserve their right to file a complaint in court. Our process allows for open dialogue and reconciliation, which often times is exactly what is needed in order for an offended party to feel vindicated.

This experience with HREEO reinforces all the reasons I went to law school. I wanted to empower the disadvantaged and provide assistance to those who are often not afforded the benefit of legal counsel. Even in a setting where I am not directly advocating for individuals and am instead acting as a neutral facilitator, I have the ability to assist those in need. By providing a listening ear and a helping hand, I am giving these individuals a voice they may otherwise not have found.

By Charles Moore, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Charles Moore is conducting his Human Rights Fellowship at the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: An Internal Struggle, by Ally Billeaud

Arusha, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania

When I arrived in Arusha, it was my first time in Africa and since I have traveled a lot in the past, I did not consider that I might become homesick. For the first four days, I was tired and delirious, I did not have any way to contact home, and I missed my family and friends miserably. The only thing that kept me from getting on a plane to go back home was my landlord and his wife. They took me in as family—the way any parent would want their child to be cared for in a foreign country.

Mr. Farhan speaks English very well. He is a seventy year old man but looks and acts like he is in his forties. His wife is drastically different. She is soft-spoken, speaks very little English, and is much younger. I fell in love with them immediately; it was equivalent to moving into my own grandparents’ house in Louisiana. Jokingly, they call me a typical American: I don’t cook, I take a ton of vitamins, and I don’t go to church on Sundays. But most importantly, they have helped me succumb to my surroundings, to ease the transition of moving from the States to a third world country.

Arusha, Tanzania

Arusha, Tanzania

Every day I walk to work, I see the same lady taking the same trek. However, she is walking with an awful limp and terribly unsupportive shoes. I want to just pay for a cab to pick her up each time I pass her. And every night that I lock up my apartment, I see the same dog across the street and I know he is starving. Besides the fact that I watch him constantly, I walked past him one morning and literally heard his stomach growling. Again, I just want to feed him, give him anything so that he isn’t so hungry.

Both of these things are actions I can take. The lady might not want a ride to work and the dog could be worse off after I leave this summer, but I can do something. But there are countless things that I cannot do. These are the issues that are emotionally draining to ponder and embrace.

When Mr. Farhan explained to me how the doctors were unable to fix the clot in his wife’s arteries, I wondered if it was because of their lack of money or the absence of doctors capable of doing the surgery. He proceeded to tell me how pigs’ heart valves are used to repair blood flow. Once I heard this, I instantly remembered how my grandma had the same problem three months ago and had surgery immediately thereafter to solve the problem. Without the surgery, she faced the risks of stroke or death.

I broke down inside. Mrs. Farhan deserves the same surgery my grandma received. They are both wonderful women who worked hard to earn a decent living. They both have husbands and children that love and rely on them. So why does one grandma get to mend her life-threatening condition, but not the other? Is it really only because of where one just so happened to be born?

Ally Billeaud in Arusha, Tanzania

Ally Billeaud in Arusha, Tanzania

I am having this internal struggle of deciphering what I can and cannot do. I have to stop myself from feeling guilty but also remember to be sensitive to the struggles others face. I think I am still somewhat in shock to the things I have seen here because my question for why the world is so random, mean and beautiful has only become more convoluted. What I hope for is that I gain a better perspective of the world and use that knowledge to lead a more meaningful life for myself and others.


By Ally Billeaud, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Ally Billeaud is conducting her Human Rights Fellowship at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: First Week, by Peter Grenzow

I exit the elevator and walk to the office. The waiting room is already packed, humans spilling out into the hallway and around the corner, hoping that today they will have an opportunity to obtain what so many Americans take for granted—a chance for a better life. Voices silent, uncountable, waiting to be heard.

I open the door to the office, and it’s as if I have entered the crossroads of the world. A cacophony of noises and different languages spoken. The Xerox constantly chick, chick, chick-ing as a new I-130 or I-589 slowly congeals, page by page, in its tray. A thousand keyboards clacking and languages whispered and shouted in 20 different dialogues. Spanish and Creole the official tongues of this corner of the world.

Peter Grenzow and his supervisor, Br. Mike LaFrance, at Catholic Legal Services

Peter Grenzow and his supervisor, Br. Mike LaFrance, at Catholic Legal Services

The first week flies by, but it could have been 9, already having worked with well over thirty clients. Thirty stories ranging from the desperate and downtrodden to the excited and hopeful. Clients ranging from a newly arrived Haitian sitting in the waiting room for hours on end, homeless, nowhere else to go, waiting for us to help find him a roof over his head and a warm meal for a rainy night, to children who have experienced unimaginable hardship, but still manage to crack a smile. People coming to the United States for a thousand different reasons and one. Escaping persecution at the hands of governments, thugs, gangs, or neighbors, or moving away from immeasurable poverty in hope of a better life.

In just one week I have filed asylum applications, prepared naturalization and visa applications and conducted legal research relating to various aspects of immigration law. I have translated forms from Spanish to English for staff attorneys, including U-Visa affidavits, a medical record and a birth certificate. I have also interpreted Spanish at multiple client interviews, and have started preparing motions relating to removal proceedings in EOIR courts.

The experience I have gained in just 5 days has been invaluable, and I know that the next 8 weeks will continue to be nothing but an adventure.


By Peter Grenzow, Human Rights Fellow, Summer 2015

Peter is serving his Human Rights Fellowship at Catholic Legal Services, Archdiocese of Miami, Inc. in Miami, Florida. 

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Hope, by Damir S. Utrzan, M.S.

What is hope?

While the meaning of hope has been discussed and debated throughout history, the South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu defines hope as “being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

This definition of hope embodies my experiences at the Center for Victims of Torture (CVT) over the past few months. CVT was established to help displaced persons recover from politically sanctioned torture and war-related trauma. The rehabilitative services CVT offers include medical treatment, nursing care, social services, and psychotherapy.

As a pre-doctoral intern in couple/marriage and family therapy (C/MFT), I work with clients on processing traumatic memories with the ultimate goal of re-establishing a sense of safety. While the approaches to psychotherapy I use depend on the client’s needs and problems, they are all evidence-based forms of treatment such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). This means that they have undergone rigorous scientific research and replication in demonstrating their effectiveness.

Center for Victims of Torture Healing Center Entrance, St. Paul, MN

Center for Victims of Torture Healing Center Entrance, St. Paul, MN

Being trained as a scientist-practitioner, which incorporates research with clinical practice, I was convinced that an evidence-based approach is the most appropriate in recovering from severe trauma. But one day, as I was walking through the CVT Healing Center entrance in St. Paul, MN, my conviction was challenged. The flower pedestals were bright red with a pink hue. Their shadows were dancing on the ground as the wind gently blew across each individual blade of grass and the old wooden gate swung open.

This moment encouraged me to wonder whether CVT provides more than rehabilitative services to clients. It also led me to wonder whether evidenced-based forms of treatment are the only tools psychotherapists – and human rights activists for that matter – have in combating the devastating consequences of human rights violations.

Since that experience I have realized that CVT provides clients with more than rehabilitative services. It shines a light onto the dark crevices of a painful past. This enables clients to gain a better understanding of how the past continues to influence them in the present. And while this may not re-write their past, it enables them to envision a better future. I have also realized that psychotherapists extend a helping hand in reaffirming that healing occurs in the context of relationships, which is essential to being able to see a better future.

In the end, it is hope that helps those who have suffered enormous losses to rebuild their lives. This may not be the end to a treacherous journey but it is a new beginning.


By Damir S. Utrzan, M.S., Human Rights Fellow, 2015-2016

Damir S. Utrzan is serving his Human Rights Fellowship at the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, Minnesota.

From Fellow to Regional INL Director, Tony Fernandes Returns to the U of M

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U of M Law School graduate and former Human Rights Fellow Tony Fernandes returned to the Human Rights Center to discuss his role as Director for Africa and Middle East Programs in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL/AME) at the U.S. Department of State. The agency assists local law enforcement agencies with transnational threats, including organized crime, human trafficking, and recently wildlife trafficking. His division works in around 30 countries. The INL/AME has built up a slate of capacity-building they can offer, but will only do so upon the partner nation’s request.

For example, his division has assisted the Tunisian security forces in their Arab spring transition. Through retraining, they moved away from being a symbol of the old regime by gaining the capability to handle demonstrations without lethal force. Such newfound restraint played a part in the general success of their most recent election.

When asked what inspired him to go into this line of work, Tony pointed to his own Fellowship in South Africa at the end of apartheid. It opened his eyes and fired his interest in human rights policy making. In the spirit of the Human Rights Fellowship, he has continued in public service from then until now.