20 years of Human Rights at HLS



The Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School celebrated its 20th anniversary this past weekend, marking twenty years of institutionalized support for the study and engagement of human rights legal work. According to Henry Steiner, director and founder of HRP, interest in such a program began to grow in the 1980s as human rights rhetoric seeped into the consciousness of academic culture, causing students to demand more support from the school. Steiner notes that as human rights “became more newsworthy, it became a better known movement. When all that rhetoric becomes public, students become interested.”

Indeed, Steiner and Associate Director Jim Cavallaro both credit student involvement as being the key to HRP’s success. “HRP’s very creation responded in large part to student interest,” said Cavallaro. “The same is true of the Human Rights Journal and of student-organized conferences, panels and summer internships.” Cavallaro points to the expansion of clinical offerings as a sign of the program’s growth being tailored to student demand.

“In the past few years, the clinical side of the Program has grown remarkably. This has been driven by student interest in clinical work in human rights, but also by HRP’s institutional approach to clinical advocacy, which has become more engaged in recent years,” said Cavallaro. “I think it vital that we continue to respond to student interest. At the same time, we need to continue to focus on what we have done well for so many years, [to] merge reflection and action.”

Steiner shares a similar belief that HRP’s strength lies in combining the practical with the academic. “Engagement and reflection. The two are not contradictory. Students often want both,” notes Steiner.

Alexa Shabecoff, director of the Bernard Koteen Office of Public Interest Advising, has seen an increase in students coming through her door interested in pursuing human rights related work. “Generally, I’ve seen more students, really in ever-increasing numbers, interested in public international law in general,” said Shabecoff.

Speculating as to why there might be an increase, Shabecoff points to the increasingly global mindset of modern students. “I’m only guessing here but I think this dramatic increase in public international work is due to the growing numbers of students who have spent time abroad before law school and therefore have an internationalist perspective and because our savvy students understand the fact that the world is becoming more interconnected,” said Shabecoff.

Shabecoff, Steiner, and Cavallaro all point to HLS Advocates, a student human rights group, as an example of students pushing human rights to the forefront of legal discourse at Harvard. “I have loved watching the growth in the human rights program,” said Shabecoff. “I was really impressed by how the students started and founded HLS Advocates; I loved seeing how energized and entrepreneurial they were. The students through their work and through their lobbying demonstrated – very eloquently – the student interest in human rights work and the need for more lawyers to supervise that work.”

Steiner is equally impressed. “The students have deep commitments to the field,” said Steiner. “I see a very bright future.”

Cavallaro, who came to HRP in 2002 after a career in human rights, understands the appeal. “HRP provides an absolutely unique opportunity to think about human rights and engage at the same time,” said Cavallaro. “That’s what makes it so dynamic and that is what interests so many students, and, as I said, me.”

Support from the school administration has also helped HRP grow alongside increased student demand, more than quadrupling its budget over twenty years of existence.

“I was impressed by how quickly HRP and the Law School responded to this student interest by expanding HRP,” said Shabecoff. “HRP is really a dynamic place and truly provides a great deal of inspiration to our students, about public service and about how their law degree can be put into action, regardless of where they end up.”

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