HLS Advocates for Human Rights Reorganizes and Expands

BY REBECCA AGULE

On Saturday, September 30, a record turnout ushered in a new training session for the HLS Advocates for Human Rights. Now in its fifth year, Advocates has experienced tremendous growth from the time of its inception. The opening class had approximately 20 participants; now over 150 students contribute to activities throughout the school year.

Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, welcomed training session attendees, giving them his perspective on working in human rights following the September 11th attacks, speaking specifically about the potential impact of the Military Commissions Act.

When an attendee asked about Roth’s current focus upon this piece of United States legislation, in light of other on-going international atrocities, Roth explained his reasoning, calling it the demonstration effect. “Not because the U.S. is the worst abuser in the world,” he said. “I am not going to pretend that it is. But the U.S. is the most influential.”

Roth also emphasized the need for human rights champions to work through political channels and economic incentives, especially in regions where the judicial process carries little authority.

The Advocates target human rights abuses throughout the world, dealing on both the legal and the educational levels. Past projects have led to the presentation of cases before major international legal bodies, including the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in Costa Rica and the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Advocates also explores and supports the potential of newly minted mechanisms, such as the Peace and Security Council and the African Court of Justice, both of which are arms of the African Union. In 2005, Advocates collaborated with Human Rights Watch to prepare a guide for NGOs attempting to navigate these bodies.

Information and education also form a large portion of the group’s activities. Rebecca Hamilton, while completing her degree in the joint HLS-KSG program, has joined with both Advocates and the general Human Rights Program to build local networks of advocacy and education aimed at increasing awareness of the situation currently embroiling the Darfur region in Western Sudan.

Having undergone structural changes over the summer, Advocates has reorganized itself into eight distinct groups, six regionally based (Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and U.S.A), and two thematic (Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, and Human Rights and the Environment). The Middle East and thematic focus groups are all new as of 2006. These projects include work in collaboration with the Human Rights Clinical, initiation of on-campus activism, and the planning of informative events, such as brown bag lunches or guest lectures. Projects undertaking legal work connect students with established NGOs, providing necessary man-power to often over-worked and under-funded organizations.

Advocates President Jacob Kopas believes this is just the beginning of the organization’s expansion. “Now that we have formed a [human rights focused] clinical program, its makes more sense for 2Ls and 3Ls to do clinical work though the HRP’s clinical course,” he said. “Therefore, we are increasing our activism beyond clinical projects to include more opportunities for teaching, training and local activism.”

The prospect for practical experience draws many students to Advocates, including 1L Naomi Reed. In addition to a general concern about human rights, Reed cites tangible involvement as a major incentive. “The fact that Advocates gives you the opportunity to start working on real cases right away,” she said. “It makes that large tuition bill seem worthwhile!”

The impact of Advocates trickles down even to admitted students, as they try to decide where to matriculate. “I nearly went to NYU instead, because of their strong public interest focus,” Reed said. “Programs like HLS Advocates were the kinds of things that made me feel like I could come to Harvard and also be able to do the king of public interest work that I hoped to.”

Fellow 1L student Zoila Hinson echoes these sentiments. “I do plan on working in human rights in the future,” she said. “I thought this was an amazing opportunity not only to get experience for its own sake, but to actually work on some of the issues that I care about and that originally motivated my decision to come to law school.”

Kopas looks forward to the expansion of the Advocates. “I would like to see Advocates as a home for all students interested in substantive human rights work at HLS,” he said. “To me, Advocates has been a vehicle not only to gain experience and practical skills in doing advocacy for human rights issues, but also a way to meet and be connected to some of the amazingly brilliant students here who share similar interests.”

The vision for the future of Advocates reflects the dreams of its leaders for the law school in general. “HLS has come a long way from the image it had as a factory for corporate lawyers that it had just six or seven years ago,” Kopas said. “I would like to think that Advocates has had a hand in changing that image by bringing together amazing students who are dedicated to the cause of promoting social justice in the world. HLS, as an institution, is merely a reflection of the students that occupy its halls. I hope in 10 years HLS is known as a center for Human Rights advocacy and that Advocates plays a central role in making that happen.”

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