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.

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Humphrey Fellowship Reflection: Kathya Cibelle Dawe (Brazil), Fellowship Year 2010-2011

kathyaKathya Cibelle Dawe was a 2010-2011 Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School. Before that, Kathya worked as a Public Defender at the Penitentiary of Marilia in Brazil. She provided legal aid to the inmate population at the penitentiary – writing petitions and appeals to the local and supreme courts in order to enable prisoners to exercise their right to challenge their detention. She holds a Bachelor of Law degree and specialization in Criminal and Civil Law and Criminal and Civil Procedure, as well as a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology. After her Fellowship year, she returned to Minnesota to work among others as a TV Producer and Host at the Minneapolis Television Network. She has created fantastic videos about human rights topics you can watch online on the Human Rights Center’s YouTube channel.

 Kathya’s interest in human rights issues occurred at a very early age. Two major world events aroused her emotions and her desire to defend human rights: the Vietnam War and Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. Soon after graduating from Law School, Kathya started to work in a high-security prison as a criminal defense attorney for male inmates. This phase in her life was very difficult because she was not only confronted with the gravest criminals but also with other employees of the prison who didn’t appreciate her work. In prison she saw human rights violations every day. At that point, the active defense of human rights started to be not just part of her profession but part of her life.

 When Kathya applied for the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship, she wanted to learn more about human rights law in the United States in order to improve her skills and the situation in Brazil. While in the US, she visited prisons in Arizona and Minnesota and was eager to learn more about immigration, refugees, terrorism, counter-terrorism, and alternative dispute resolution. As a volunteer, Kathya taught tango to children from disadvantaged communities as well as in a Spanish immersion school.

 To draw attention to human rights abuses and topics, Kathya started her professional affiliation at a local Minnesota TV channel. That was an enlightening and enriching experience for her because she gained experience in working behind and in front of the camera.

 The Humphrey Fellowship Program opened up new opportunities for Kathya’s career in human rights. Over the period of the program, she gained knowledge and improved her competency, elevating her professionally. Because of her outstanding commitment and skills, Kathya was awarded with a Human Rights Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center in 2014. During her Human Rights Fellowship, she worked in the chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (Netherlands), supporting the judges in a major trial concerning crimes against humanity.

 In the future Kathya wants to continue producing TV shows and videos on human rights issues. In addition, she plans to contribute actively to the defense of human rights causes internationally.

 Kathya’s advice for future Humphrey Fellows:

 “Berthold Brecht once wrote:There are men who struggle for a day and they are good.
There are men who struggle for a year and they are better. There are men who struggle many years, and they are better still. But there are those who struggle all their lives:
These are the indispensable ones.’ Obstacles are just a test of your perseverance. Keep going. Be indispensable!”

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Kathya Cibelle Dawe and Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg Tribunal.

Human Rights Fellowship Reflection: Kristin Johnson, Fellowship Year 2014

Kristin Johnson is a third-year Juris Doctor candidate at the University of Minnesota Law School. She graduated summa cum laude in May 2012 from Middle Tennessee State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science in Political Science. In the summer of 2014, Kristin was awarded a Human Rights Fellowship from the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. In this Fellowship, she worked with Gender Justice, a legal aid organization in St. Paul, Minnesota focusing on issues of gender inequality and legal actions arising from such issues. These include civil actions based on sexual assault, pay disparity, wrongful termination, and many other situations commonly accompanying gender and intersectional biases. Over the summer, Kristin endeavored to provide valuable research and legal assistance to founding and staff attorneys as they fight to right gender-based wrongs.

To Kristin, the term “human rights” means to live free from oppression and abuse and to be able to control your own body as well as your destiny. She sees human rights as being based on the inherent worth of each person and the elusive “objective morality.” Among others, there is one human rights topic she can’t stop thinking about: the fact that the atrocities in Darfur continue 10 years after the birth of the Save Darfur movement. President Obama campaigned on the movement, millions of bracelets were sold, and people marched and wrote letters to world leaders. Even George Clooney and Don Cheadle went to China and Egypt to plead for help. Yet last year, more people were displaced by violence than in any previous year of this conflict. Still, Omar al-Bashir, the president of North Sudan, walks freely over five years into the issuance of warrants for his arrest for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. Kristin asks, “When is our R2P (Responsibility to Protect) going to kick in?”

Kristin’s past experience centers around LGBT rights. While they weren’t what led her to the Human Rights Fellowship Program, her interest in LGBT rights ended up being served by her time at Gender Justice because broad gender equality (whether the issue is around sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity) is their mission.

Kristin initially wanted to complete her Human Rights Fellowship at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda because she has always been haunted by the 1994 Rwandan genocide and wanted to play even a tiny role in bringing perpetrators to justice. When that was squashed due to a minimum intern period instituted in the summer of 2014, she chose Gender Justice in St. Paul on recommendation from Professor David Weissbrodt and the work they do to advance gender equality. There she did a great deal of research and drafted motions, memoranda, complaints, and letters. All in all, Kristin describes her Fellowship as a great practical experience in both communicating with clients and applying the law to help them. Because of the need for confidentially, she can’t share details, but simply seeing the courage of the clients in the types of cases Gender Justice handles was life-changing to her. Over and over again, she saw people who were deeply wounded by horrible abuse suffered at the hands of others, who, instead of hiding from it, sought to face it and hold the perpetrators accountable and change or implement programs and policies to help protect others from suffering the same experience.

Kristin sees her career goal as helping and supporting people in need. That’s why she attends law school. Whether she is going to work in traditional civil rights, international human rights, immigration, or other fields such as employment or housing law, her career will involve fighting for people who cannot fight for themselves.

Kristin’s general advice for people who want to work in the field of human rights:

“Significant power disparities, regardless of scale, are a breeding ground for abuse, and the powerless need advocates. If this is where your interests lie, and if you do it to full capacity, you’ll go mad with frustration every day, and you’ll have your heart broken with equal frequency. But nothing else is as sure to get you up every morning and keep you coming back and giving your all.”

Humphrey Fellowship Reflection: Sandhya Sitoula (Nepal), Fellowship Year 2013-2014

Sandhya Sitoula is a Program Coordinator at the Center for Legal Research and Resource Development, a national level NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her responsibilities include providing capacity building training to human trafficking protection actors and encouraging stakeholders to adopt a victim-centered approach to trafficking cases. She conducts research on trafficking issues, trains organizational field staff and other concerned stakeholders, and supervises Trafficking in Person (TIP) cases. In addition, she is an Executive Member of the Human Rights Committee of the Kathmandu District Court Bar Association and also works at the South Asian Women Fund as a Legal Fellowship Program Coordinator. At the moment, Sandhya’s core job is to assist victims of human trafficking and several other kinds of gender based violence. She helps them through legal representation in courts to ensure access to justice and fair trials. One of Sandhya’s main goals is to assist Sabdhya 2women and children who have suffered from victimization. In this way she focuses on empowering women and making them able to recognize and exercise their rights. Furthermore, Sandhya is engaged in initiating rights-based advocacy in different women related issues throughout the country. Sandhya received her LL.B. in Jurisprudence and Human Rights Law from the Kathmandu School of Law and went on to receive a Master of Laws in Human Rights and Gender Justice from the same institution. Sandhya was a 2013-2014 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School.

In Sandhya’s opinion, one of the biggest human rights issues in Nepal is gender inequality. There are still provisions that ban women who are under 30 years old to apply for foreign employment, she said. The literacy rate is very low and early age marriage is another serious challenge, which the women in Nepal have to face. Sandhya herself experienced many cases of injustice in Nepal, particularly against women and female children. Because females are considered to be worth less than males, Sandhya was confronted her whole life with discrimination. But she also recognized that discrimination against women often comes along with violence and dependency on men. Growing up under these living conditions strengthened Sandhya’s will to work in the human rights field. She applied for a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship in order to learn more about international approaches to human rights and to get in touch with diverse human rights leaders from different countries. Sandhya attributes her fellowship year at the University of Minnesota Law School to helping her realize her own potential.

The knowledge Sandhya gained during her stay in the United States was incredibly beneficial for her career on the one hand and for her personal understanding of human rights on the other hand. Sandhya realized that she unknowingly had some bias too. But during her stay abroad, Sandhya could identify her bias. From now on she tries to see the world through “human rights lenses” and live the legacy of Hubert H. Humphrey. In theory, the concept of human rights seems to be very simple to Sandhya. It is just a bundle of rights, which people receive by being born as human beings. These rights belong to all humans. In practice, however, Sandhya understands first hand that human rights are very hard to implement into societies. Nonetheless, she keeps on working for the underprivileged in Nepal every day. If she cannot change the system from one day to the next, Sandhya at least wants to share her knowledge with people who need a helping hand.

Sandhya’s advice to future Humphrey Fellows:

I would like to tell prospective fellows that this opportunity is very precious! So plan your fellowship year in a very tactful manner. Take as much as you can from the program and try to build as many strong networks and relationships. These contacts  can be very useful in the future.

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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 Presentation: Desmond Kaunda

Please join us on February 25th for a presentation on access to justice and human rights by Humphrey Fellow Desmond Kaunda from Malawi.