Human Rights group gets to work


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Among the many types of expertise developed and exercised at Harvard Law School, those of the Student Working Group on Human Rights occupy a unique niche. Members of the group spend their days communicating with Latin American human rights activists and using the applicable law to aid human rights victims in the region.

Of particular focus for the 20 students in the Working Group are violations in El Salvador, where hundreds of untried atrocities of the Reagan-backed military junta remain unsettled. The legal framework to hear these and other cases regarding heath care and workers’ rights resides in Washington D.C., at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Though located here in the U.S., the Court’s laws and rules are worlds away. The student advocates, operating out of the Human Rights Program office, must research applicable international law and procedures to file petitions on behalf of human rights victims.

Two-L Dan Schlanger emphasized how HLS students’ relatively easy access to legal resources can prove invaluable to those seeking redress in foreign countries. “There was untapped interest among students in Latin American affairs,” he said. Drawing on that interest, he decided launch the Student Working Group on Human Rights this year.

“Things really took off,” said HRP director Peter Rosenblum, “when Jim Cavallaro came to join the HRP as associate director. Jim has extensive knowledge of the Inter-American system.”

Yet the effort of students such as Schlanger and Mary Holder — who are fluent in Spanish and dedicated to enforcing human rights laws in the hemisphere — provides equally needed vitality. “On a typical Friday afternoon,” Rosenblum said, “you can find as many as 20 students involved in the work… many working pro bono and without receiving credit.

The Group’s first achievement will be an amicus brief to the Inter-American Court regarding disparate treatment of Mexican foreign workers. The Mexican petition of the parties includes reference to a recent D.C. Circuit case, Hoffman v. United States, in which illegal workers were held ineligible for statutorily guaranteed back pay during protected labor strikes.

Much of the Working Group’s time, however, is consumed by learning the rules and regulations of the courts themselves so they can file petitions for those that they have met and learned about in the region. In an effort to learn about regional difficulties and individual trauma, a group of HLS students recently flew to El Salvador, where they met with activists and determined their potential role as American students.

Most have also traveled to Washington, D.C. to watch the court in action and to meet key figures in this unique venue.

Though well-established human rights advocacy organizations exist in Latin America, the Working Group has elected to work with the less well-known Commission on Human Rights in El Salvador. This is part of an effort, as Schlanger terms it, to work with grassroots organizations that can themselves effect more change, perhaps after HLS resources are unavailable. Furthermore, he emphasized, there is still an overload of potential cases.

The Working Group is structured around the nation-based research it is conducting. Typically, one J.D. pairs with an LL. M. — who has often practiced law in the specific country — to research the viable options for litigation and set out the legal standards and relevant practices. Though the work consumes volumes of time, many students receive no clinical credit, instead anticipating a lasting engagement in the field more valuable than any transcribed evaluation.

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