Narratives About Working in NGO Settings

Maame A.F. Ewusi-Mensah YLS ‘01
International Human Rights and Private Practice 

I knew when I came to law school that international human rights law was one of my interests, but I really had no concrete idea of what that meant. I think I just knew it was an area that I felt good about, that might be interesting, and might permit me to do some international travel. In order to get a better sense of what it was all about, and in order to get a chance to work on a real case, and perhaps make a difference, I took advantage, my first semester, of the opportunity to do human rights work through the Lowenstein Project, a law-school extracurricular group involved in human rights advocacy. I worked on a project related to Eritrea, which I found fascinating. The case, although at the time rather unformed, was very compelling, and the people I was working with were so competent and dedicated. Through the project I learned a great deal about the basic principles and instruments of international human rights law. After that experience, I confirmed my desire to further explore international human rights law as a career. 

Sometime during the course of that first year, I met a graduate of Yale Law School who was doing project finance at a large corporate law firm, and this piqued my interest in doing international work at a law firm. I realized that it was possible that private international law might be an effective vehicle for development in the developing world. It also dawned on me that although public international law was where I thought I wanted my career to go, I might gain some valuable experience and contacts in that field at a law firm. This was bolstered by the fact that the Lowenstein project I was working on was going to need the co-sponsorship of the Pro Bono department of a major law firm in order to be feasible as a lawsuit.

My first summer, I went to London to “do human rights work.” I worked at two small human rights organizations, as I felt I would get more responsibility and say in choice of projects than at a large, multinational NGO. That did turn out to be the case. For the first half of the summer I worked at Redress, a very small NGO doing work on issues of torture and reparations for victims of human rights violations. At the time I was there, there was only one lawyer on staff, and the amount of work she had was tremendous. I worked on my own project updating Redress on the state of social and economic rights in sub-Saharan Africa, which was a great way for me to get my feet wet in that area.

My other major project was assisting with the legislative effort Redress had begun to get anti-torture legislation in the United Kingdom that would permit arrest and prosecution of people who had committed torture abroad. Although the work seemed slow, I was encouraged by Redress’s successful work on the Pinochet extradition case. 

The attorney I worked with was a wonderful and brilliant lawyer, and the opportunity to work in the same office with her was one of the best experiences I could have asked for because of her expertise, mentorship and encouragement. Through Redress, I also made several contacts in the human rights community in the U.K., and saw first-hand how much even the field of international human rights law works through personal relationships. The second half of the summer, I worked at a slightly larger organization, Interights, which does a variety of advocacy, publication, and litigation projects around human rights in several regions of the world. Interights was literally abuzz, and a very exciting place to work. I was overwhelmed by the brilliance and dedication of all of the attorneys I worked with.

I worked on several different projects, which ran the gamut from the concrete to the free form. I realized from my free-form projects (one a continuation of my work on social and economic rights in sub-Saharan Africa), that I was better suited to concrete projects. I was also reminded that I had always envisioned doing litigation, and not advocacy. However, most international human
rights law is done through advocacy, and not litigation. This was a huge and necessary revelation! Although I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at Redress and Interights, and am still in contact with the people I worked with, I realized that if I were to work at a human rights NGO again, I would probably prefer one that was more litigation-oriented. 

The following year, I worked in the law school’s Allard K. Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic on a variety of interesting and compelling projects. I saw how indeterminate much of international human rights law can be, and the importance of personal relationships in moving the law along. That summer, I worked “domestic,” at the law firm of Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco, and at the Department of Justice. At the law firm I tried to explore opportunities for doing private international law and to develop international contacts and experience. 

During my third year, I took a course in International Business Transactions. I was amazed to learn how much private international law in the fields of privatization, project finance and the like, affects the development and international human rights law issues I am interested in. I was also intrigued by the opportunities that a law firm might provide for international experience in these areas. For the first time, I also got a concrete sense of what project finance lawyers do, what lawyers at institutions like the World Bank do, and what someone like me might be able to do (or not do) in these contexts. My research for the class on investment and sovereign debt in Ghana (where my family is from) has nurtured my nascent interest in doing legal work in Ghana at some point.  

I will be clerking on the 9th circuit after graduation, and probably not doing much international work, although I hope to see a lot of immigration cases, and perhaps some litigation dealing with the U.S.’s “international human rights” provisions, such as the Torture Victims Protections Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the Federal Sovereign Immunities Act. I am not sure yet what the next step after my clerkship will be, but I am sure that I will pick up my international interests in one fashion or another—perhaps in Ghana, perhaps in London, or perhaps in the U.S.! After spending almost 15 years pursuing my international interests and skills, I have developed a true appreciation for the benefits and excitement of an international legal career. Most important, I have learned that it does not really matter whether you work for the government, an NGO, or for a public interest firm specializing in international law as all offer incredible opportunities to gain an understanding and appreciation for other cultures and legal systems.

Monica Eav HLS ‘05
European Roma Rights Center and Law Office of Robert D. Ahlgren and Associates (private immigration law practice)

Unlike the other interns this past summer, I chose to split my summer between the Advocacy Department and the Legal Department at the ERRC. The European Roma Rights Center (“ERRC”) is an international public interest law organization that monitors the situation of Roma in Europe and provides legal defense in cases of human rights abuse since its establishment in 1996. ERRC publications about Russia and other countries, as well as additional information about the organization, are available at www.errc.org. Since I knew I was interested in being a human rights lawyer (whatever that was, I wasn’t exactly sure), I was curious to experience different kinds of work in the human rights field. In both departments, the ERRC was great about making full, productive use of me as an intern. 

From my very first day at the ERRC, I was given meaty, substantive work. My first assignment was to research and draft a lengthy report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee about abuses against the Roma in Slovakia in light of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). I also researched, drafted and edited a submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on human rights abuses against the Roma in Slovakia and in Russia. I wrote a legal memo on damages awarded by the European Court of Human Rights in a series of Turkish “destroyed homes” cases and one on. claims under international law against officials who refuse to grant local residency to Roma in Slovakia. Late in July I took a two-day field research trip to Telgart, Slovakia to research inadequate housing issues. I also edited a complaint to United Nations Human Rights Committee in a Greek police brutality case.

I think the most important lesson I learned was to ask questions and ask them often. The largest obstacle I faced was my lack of relevant languages and my lack of background in the region, in international human rights law and in Roma issues. I think I could have better overcome this obstacle if I had been better about asking questions and figuring out what exactly I didn’t know. 

Working at the ERRC was a great experience that I would recommend to anyone looking for some real substantive work in international human rights law. Not only did I learn a lot substantively, but it also was really valuable for me to experience the work of international human rights first-hand. Although I’m still not sure what kind of law (if any) I want to practice, this experience gave me a much better perspective on what I do and don’t like. For instance, I learned that I don’t like it when the practice of international human rights law is overly remote and government-centered, as opposed to client- and community-centered; I dislike working in a region where my lack of language ability curtails the kind of work I can do; I do like witnessing the high-level change that impact litigation can have; I do like using international law creatively to prevent governments from ignoring or denying human rights abuses happening within their borders. Fall 2003

Six months ago, I started practicing as an immigration lawyer at a six-attorney practice in downtown Chicago. Immigration law was definitely something I saw myself doing 6 years ago when I started law school, and so far it has not disappointed. I have one of the best jobs a lawyer could possibly have.

I practice in the areas of family immigration and deportation defense. A typical day for me includes working one-on-one with a client to develop his affidavit in support of a family member’simmigration application; writing a brief on why a client’s particular life history and circumstances show that she merits a favorable exercise of discretion by an immigration official; attending an immigration court hearing or interview with a client; researching the statutory definition of a certain state crime to determine what its immigration consequences will be; and doing a consultation with a prospective client where I explain that no, no matter what they are saying on the Spanish-language news, there is no new law that forgives prior deportations. It is fascinating, emotional, and intensely client-centered work and every day is different.  

My experiences during law school helped me decide that this is the type of practice and the field of law that suits me best. My first summer I interned at the European Roma Rights Center (“ERRC”), an international public
interest law organization located in Budapest, Hungary, which does human rights litigation and advocacy on behalf of the Roma in Europe. That summer I learned an amazing amount and had a great time, but I gradually realized that the practice of international human rights law was not for me. While the work was interesting and meaningful, I found that I craved more client contact and more individualized, tangible impacts. 

My volunteer work as a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and my participation in the asylum law clinical with Greater Boston Legal Services helped to cement that realization. I found that I loved getting to know my clients and working with them one-on-one. 

My second summer I interned at what is now the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, D.C., working under an attorney who primarily did immigration-related legislative advocacy. It was great to get a glimpse of how statutes and regulations are actually written and the important role stakeholders (and their attorneys) can play in the process. But again, I felt that it was not quite where I wanted to be.

I decided to do two clerkships after law school because I wanted the training and experience before I started to practice. I don’t think clerking before practicing is necessary by any means, but my clerkships certainly do help me a lot in my current job. The first year after graduation I clerked for a federal district court judge in Philadelphia, then I clerked for one year at the Immigration Court in Chicago, Illinois under the Attorney General’s Honors Program. Both clerkships gave me extremely valuable experience in legal research and writing. They also exposed me to important substantive law areas, such as federal criminal law (the District Court clerkship) and the law of deportation (the Immigration Court). And of course, the Immigration Court clerkship allowed me to get to know the Immigration Judges before whom I now appear, something I find both helpful and nerve-wracking.

My advice for students interested in immigration law is to get as much immigration-related experience through term-time and summer volunteer work as possible. Yes, it will make a difference to non-profit, government, and private employers if you have even one semester or one summer of relevant experience on your resume. Also, work on acquiring or perfecting that second (or third, or fourth) language. It can be incredibly difficult to get a job in immigration law without speaking Spanish or some other common immigrant language. 

Finally, when the time comes for the job search, I recommend keeping an open mind. Initially I applied for a public interest fellowship in immigration law and looked for staff attorney openings at non-profits, but when neither of those options panned out, I had to widen my job search. In my current practice setting, I have all the satisfaction of a client-centered practice, serving a low- to middle-income population in great need of help, in an office that has a real passion and mission to serve. (It probably helps that my boss is an ex-legal aid lawyer.) I can’t imagine a better place to start my career or a better field in which to practice. Summer 2008

Barbara Finamore HLS ‘80
Natural Resources Defense Council

Nearly three decades after graduating from Harvard Law School, after many twists and turns, I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to create what I consider a perfect job: one that enables me to fulfill my personal and professional goals, continue to grow and change, and most important, contribute to a better world. It can be done!  

Armed with an undergraduate interdisciplinary degree in environmental studies, I went to law school in order to pursue a career in public interest environmental law. My dream job was to bring precedent-setting cases on
behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a then-new nonprofit, nongovernmental environmental protection organization. I quickly learned that my career path was not to be a straight and narrow one, that unexpected circumstances would often intervene, and that dedication, flexibility and determination would be necessary for success .

Since NRDC, like many public interest organizations, did not hire new law school graduates at that time, I took a position with the U.S. Department of Interior Solicitor’s Office Honors Program. Ronald Reagan’s newly appointed Secretary of Interior, James Watt, abolished that program six months later, and I again had to search for work. Fortunately, NRDC was then hiring new attorneys to combat Reagan’s anti-environmental initiatives, and since at that point I had six months’ experience, I was able to land my dream job. I spent five years bringing precedent-setting litigation to force the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up 40 years of radioactive and toxic waste generated by the production of nuclear weapons.  

Personal life then intervened. I married a U.S. Foreign Service officer and ever since have been relocating every two to three years between Washington, D.C., and overseas posts in Moscow, Beijing, Taipei and Central Asia. During the first 10 years, despite the constant moves, a growing family and the still-emerging status of international environmental law, I was able to keep my career alive as a consultant to the United Nations Development Programme and the U.S. Agency for International Development. When I returned to Washington, D.C. in 1996, I was fortunate to be able to take up my earlier position as an attorney with NRDC’s nuclear weapons program. Yet my experiences overseas had imbued me with a deep concern for international environmental issues, particularly the intractable environmental crises facing China. NRDC was flexible enough to allow me to switch gears and launch a new program to promote clean and efficient energy use, environmental governance, public participation and responsible sourcing for multinationals operating in China. Even more important, NRDC has been flexible enough to allow me to continue as a full-time overseas employee while living in areas as remote as Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Though once a seemingly insurmountable challenge, my constant relocation has now (thanks largely to email and the Internet) become an advantage for working in international public service.  

Accelerating the greening of China is now one of NRDC’s top strategic priorities. I opened NRDC’s first international office in Beijing in 2006, and have already helped it to triple in size in little over a year. As director of NRDC’s China Program, I am responsible for overall management of our growing staff, developing program goals and strategies, fundraising, overseeing project implementation, coordinating with other NRDC colleagues and China project partners, hiring and supervising technical consultants, representing NRDC at international conferences, and speaking with government agencies, consulting firms, private companies, regulatory agencies and the media. On the advocacy side, I work with my Beijing office colleagues on policy reforms and capacity building efforts that will help China to drastically improve its energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions while strengthening its economy. 

I am also now a member of NRDC’s governing Council, and head up another NGO that I cofounded in 2006: the China-US Energy Efficiency Alliance. The Alliance works with Chinese and U.S. experts, officials and other key stakeholders to pool financial and technical resources to help China design and implement large-scale energy efficiency incentive programs.  My time (an average of 60-80 hours per week) is fairly evenly divided between program management and substantive advocacy work. . I spend at least one week a month on travel to China, typically to Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and/or Nanjing. 

A typical day in China might include meeting with Chinese partners to review progress on a joint research study; participating in a hands-on workshop or training session; hosting a seminar to introduce government officials to best international practices, policies and technologies; visiting a demonstration project site; or giving a presentation at a conference of Chinese energy experts or environmental journalists. 

I spend much of my time back home talking with colleagues, advising other organizations wishing to launch projects in China, researching and writing, developing fundraising proposals, and working with my colleagues to organize study tours, workshops and other events. I rely heavily on email and the Internet, as well as weekly and monthly conference calls, to coordinate with NRDC colleagues and project partners, and to keep abreast of developments in China and internationally in the fields of energy, emissions control and climate change. I also travel often to meet with NRDC colleagues, Congressional staffers, foundation donors and other experts working on China environmental and energy issues, and to participate in NRDC Council and Board meetings.  The most fulfilling aspect of my work is the opportunity to work relatively autonomously on issues of tremendous importance to both the global environment and the health of millions of people in China. The most frustrating aspect of my work is the same as that facing most environmental advocates: resources that are woefully inadequate in light of the magnitude of the problems addressed.  

A career in public interest environmental law with an organization such as NRDC would be a good match for a student who is highly dedicated, self-motivated, patient and persistent in the face of obstacles. S/he should value highly the opportunity to tackle serious environmental issues, work autonomously and take on major job responsibilities early in one’s career. Issues such as monetary compensation, job security and training opportunities should have a lower priority. A career in public international environmental law and policy would be a good fit for someone who is also flexible, curious, and able to work in a cross-cultural environment. Language ability is always a plus. Strong advocacy and negotiation skills and the ability to work with coalition partners are a must. 

Since the field of environmental law, both domestic and international, is broad and constantly changing, there are a number of ways to prepare for a successful career. One option would be to combine a law degree with a graduate or undergraduate degree in a related field, such as chemistry, environmental engineering or public health. Another option would be to focus on language study, international relations or public diplomacy. The path I chose was to obtain as broad an introduction as possible to all aspects of environmental law and policy, then learn the rest on the job. In addition to an undergraduate degree in environmental studies, I took every course in law school that was even tangentially related to environmental law. This approach has served me well, since at different times in my career I have focused on issues as diverse as climate change, biodiversity protection, groundwater management, radioactive wastes, energy efficiency, marine sanctuaries, fertilizer production and fuel cell vehicles. Yet in each case, I found myself engaging in late-night study sessions and wishing I had taken more courses in such areas as nuclear physics, organic chemistry or economics—perhaps the fate of environmental lawyers everywhere. 

Finally, since the field of public international environmental law is notoriously difficult to break into, I would urge students actively to seek out clinical programs, internships, student-funded fellowships and/or volunteer opportunities with the organizations that most interest them.  Such opportunities are usually available during both the school year and summer breaks. Working in one’s dream job—even without pay at first—can help students to decide whether it is the right job for them, give them the experience necessary to break into the

Carol Pier HLS ‘98
Human Rights Watch

As I walked through the crowded Zócalo in Mexico City in the fall of 1991 as a college sophomore studying abroad, I was struck by the plethora of vendors of vastly diverse wares dotting the plaza. A similar sight greeted me as I climbed the stairs of my final metro stop each morning and was greeted by the smell of hot potato chips, boiled corn and sweet tamales for sale by individuals standing behind rickety tables near the metro exit. Whether they sold food or non-perishable goods, the many participants struggling to survive in Mexico’s informal economy were an integral part of my first experience with Mexican culture and were the initial spark behind the passion I have developed over the subsequent eight years for the protection and promotion of human rights in Latin America. They were also the unwitting impetus behind my decision to attend law school to become a more effective human rights advocate.  

Since my time in Mexico, as I traveled to other Latin American countries, I began to realize the extent of the labor crisis in Latin America, of which informal economies are a symptom. I came to understand that the millions of people selling goods in the streets, buses, metros and plazas of Latin America are frequently individuals — primarily women and children — forced into such a lifestyle to support families unable to survive on subsistence wages paid by businesses, often multinational corporations. I also began to comprehend that had these individuals sought employment in such corporations, their daily wages would hardly have surpassed those they currently earned and would often be garnered under much less favorable working conditions.

I first witnessed the plight of workers in multinational corporations during 1994-1995 in Chile as a Fulbright Scholar, researching the need for Penal Code reform as a necessary step in the transition to democracy. While in Chile, our group of Fulbright scholars toured a Dole apple- packing warehouse filled with women, old and young, standing for hours on end in the drafty concrete building, receiving minimal compensation to take home to their impoverished families. 

During my first year of law school, I joined the Harvard Human Rights Journal to pursue my interest in international human rights scholarship, and I began a more in-depth study of labor exploitation in Latin America through research I performed for Visiting Professor Russell Barsh in conjunction with the Harvard Student International Human Rights Project, a student research and advocacy group that I co-coordinated while at Harvard. My research focused on the plight of banana workers in Costa Rica in anticipation of my internship in San Jose, Costa Rica, funded by the Harvard Human Rights Program, with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), during the summer of 1996.

While in Costa Rica, I witnessed the effects of egregious worker exploitation, meeting with poor peasant workers as I conducted independent research on the use of pesticides, banned or restricted in the United States, on banana plantations owned by U.S. multinational corporations such as Chiquita.

I interviewed the workers after a union meeting in their town meeting hall— a large cement slab covered by a tin roof supported by steel posts — and they spoke of their sterilization and the illnesses, birth defects and miscarriages in their families caused by the pesticides. They explained that the Costa Rican government had yet to respond to their plight, now over 10 years old. 

Once again during the fall semester of 1996 during my second year at Harvard, as a volunteer for Centro Presente, a center in Cambridge, Massachusetts for Central American immigrants, I interviewed a Guatemalan woman whose asylum case I was preparing and I heard a similar story of disregard for the health and dignity of workers. She spoke of her job in a clothing factory, before she fled Guatemala eight years ago, where she received $0.75 a day, which she used to sustain herself and her little boy. Her terror of deportation arose not only from a debilitating fear of returning to the land in which she had endured horrific abuses at the hands of the army, but also from a deep anxiety that she would be unable to earn a living wage to provide for herself and her two sons. 

During the summer of 1997 as an intern at the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Affairs, funded by a public interest grant from Harvard Law School, I researched and analyzed Chilean labor law and practice and discovered widespread labor abuses such as those I witnessed at the Dole packing warehouse in the summer of 1995. I found that the abusive practices in Chile are exacerbated by a Labor Code containing laws promulgated under General Augusto Pinochet that provide insufficient protections for workers, especially vulnerable temporary laborers. My findings and analyses are documented and developed in Labor Rights in Chile and NAFTA Labor Standards: Questions of Compatibility on the Eve of Free Trade, 19 COMP. L. & POL’Y J. 185 (Winter 1998).

The message implicit in my experiences with labor abuses in Chile, Costa Rica and Guatemala is that “developing” nations will often sacrifice the rights of domestic workers for national economic growth. Governments of “developed” countries will also promote a global trade regime in which domestically headquartered multinational corporations profit at the field, and introduce them to practitioners and mentors who can open doors to the next opportunity. If all else fails, I would encourage students to go ahead and move to a country that interests them, even without a job in hand. There will always be opportunities for those with the determination, dedication and persistence to follow their dreams. Summer 2008 expense of foreign workers. Exposure and publicity of corporate human rights abuses, however, can create uneasiness among violators and can result in changes in corporate practices and raise awareness among consumers. I hope to pursue a career in international labor rights, dedicated to raising such public awareness and holding multinational corporations accountable for their violation of the basic human rights and dignity of their workers in developing countries. Summer 1999

Since September of 1999, I have been with Human Rights Watch in Washington, DC. During my 1999-2000 fellowship, I researched and authored a report for Human Rights Watch entitled, Hidden in the Home: Abuse of Domestic Workers with Special Visas in the United States. I subsequently worked as a labor rights researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, investigating child labor and obstacles to freedom of association on Ecuador’s banana plantations. In April 2002, Human Rights Watch published the report that I wrote based on that research—Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador’s Banana Plantations. 

Since January 2002, I have been the labor rights and trade researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Business and Human Rights Program. I conduct fact-finding missions to document labor rights violations, prepare reports on those findings, and engage in advocacy on both workers’ rights and trade issues in the United States as well as abroad. My most recent investigation focused on El Salvador and resulted in the December 2003 Human Rights Watch report, Deliberate Indifference: El Salvador’s Failure to Protect Workers’ Rights. I very much enjoy my work and feel extremely lucky to have found a job that allows me to pursue the very interests and career path that I described almost five years ago when I wrote the above narrative. Summer 2004

Anna Rotman HLS ‘04
ASADHO, Term-time work, Kinshasa, Congo

In July 2003, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced he intended to focus his investigation efforts on the situation in Ituri, in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In response, the International Justice Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) immediately began the process of analyzing the organization’s own ongoing research in the DRC with the goal of identifying incidents and evidence of crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction. I, together with several other law students, joined these efforts as a clinical assignment organized through Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program. Our work involved reviewing hundreds of pages of interviews and research carried out by HRW researchers so as to piece together the history of particular massacres. Because this was the first time that HRW was applying the legal language of the Rome Statute (which defines the jurisdiction of the ICC) to a particular incident, I also was deeply involved in researching the common elements of the crimes within the ICC’s jurisdiction to then establish whether enough evidence was available to show that the threshold criteria for the crimes were satisfied in each particular incident. The project taught me valuable legal research skills. More importantly, I quickly became aware of the incredible complexity of prosecuting these types of heinous crimes. Although it is unquestioned that hundreds of thousands have died in DRC as a result of the on-going conflict, assigning individual criminal responsibility for this involves painstaking investigation and demands top-notch lawyering. The work has inspired me to focus on getting strong lawyering skills under my belt early in my career to prepare me for a future career as an international prosecutor.

Through my clinical work with Harvard’s Human Rights Program, I was also able to organize a winter term independent clinical project with a local human rights NGO in Kinshasa, DRC called the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights. Having become so educated on the conflict and dynamics of the war through my Human Rights Program clinical with HRW, the independent clinical offered an incredible opportunity to work first-hand with a local group fighting for human rights in the country’s capital and to reflect with those on the ground on the different judicial mechanisms that could be used to redress the crimes committed in DRC. 

The HRW work on DRC together with my winter term clinical in DRC allowed me to gain legal skills and advocacy knowledge. More importantly, the combined experience encouraged me to reflect in an informed and critical manner on one of the most complex conflicts of recent times, the international community’s response and the role that NGOs could and should play in seeking redress for victims. My hope is that these lessons will inform my future work and make me a more effective advocate for human rights. Summer 2004

Kenneth Roth YLS ‘80
Human Rights Watch

In the eyes of most people, I am no longer a practicing lawyer. I rarely litigate a case, advise a client, or craft a deal. Yet, in my view, my job as Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, the international monitoring and advocacy organization, involves me deeply in the practice of law. Admittedly, I operate in a very different domain from a traditional courtroom lawyer, but my professional life today has many parallels to my earlier practice as a litigator and prosecutor.  

Human Rights Watch combats human rights violations in some 70 countries worldwide. We conduct on-site investigations of abuses, expose them to public scrutiny, and generate economic, diplomatic, and public pressure to curtail them. Different as these steps may sound, each corresponds to a stage of litigation. We collect the facts of a case, although this is more likely to be done by interviewing witnesses in repressive societies or abusive war zones than by conducting depositions or requesting documents. We analyze those facts under applicable law, although our “briefs” tend to be published reports, and the law is usually found in international treaties rather than domestic statute books. And we engage in oral argument, although our “courtroom” is typically a press conference, congressional hearing, or UN conference room, and our “jury” is the court of public opinion.  

Indeed, as law schools are only beginning to realize, the human rights movement has developed a new legal method, but one that does not rely upon the courts. When there is an independent judiciary and the rule of law, traditional litigation works well enough to protect basic rights. But in most countries where Human Rights Watch works, there is no adequately functioning judicial system. The human rights movement thus has had to develop an extrajudicial method to protect rights. By stigmatizing abusive governments in the press, and convincing other influential governments to withhold certain forms of aid or trade benefits, we exert pressure on the executive and legislative branches of abusive governments to curtail their human rights transgressions. Compliance with this pressure-based approach is hardly as sure-fire as the response to a judicial order in a democracy, but this methodology is often quite effective in mitigating human rights violations.  

Of course, there are important differences between my “litigation” and that of most practitioners. It is not enough for me to convince a particular judge or jury of the merits of my case; I must move an entire government. Often that means figuring out how the press will cover an issue, how the public will react, and how other influential governments and institutions will respond. Instead of looking to the law books for precedents, I must look to the past conduct of governments and international organizations. In conducting an investigation, the usual difficulty of communicating with witnesses is only compounded by cultural and linguistic divides. And the frustrations of dealing with an obstructionist adversary in classic litigation cannot compare with—to cite just a few of my experiences—being tailed by a dozen surveillance agents through the streets of Havana, detained at gunpoint by an army patrol on a remote hillside in Rwanda, or fired upon by Haitian troops in Port-au-Prince.

Some parts of my job are also similar to the non-courtroom aspects of a traditional legal practice. Much as a senior partner at a law firm, I must ensure that my staff is well trained and meets high standards of performance, and that the organization is well managed. I even have to worry about “rainmaking,” but instead of drumming up business I need to raise the organization’s $22 million annual budget—a task that, to my surprise, I find I often enjoy, because of the accomplished and intelligent people I meet in the process, and the sense of fulfillment I secure from building an effective organization. 

Like many people who move into management positions, I sometimes long for the days when I could be on the front line of my profession, rather than sending others to do the most exciting work. When I started at Human Rights Watch sixteen years ago, I regularly undertook investigations myself. It was exhilarating to enter a repressive country, outfox the government as it sought to keep me away from key sources of information, and meet the remarkably courageous and dedicated people who lead local human rights or democratic movements. I conducted investigations in such places as Kuwait just after the Gulf War; Cambodia and Albania, as their closed and secretive regimes were beginning to open up; Haiti, El Salvador and Guatemala in the midst of armed conflict or civil strife; Rwanda after the genocide; and many more.  

Today, as the growing professionalism of the human rights movement demands lengthier investigations, and as my responsibilities at headquarters in New York make it increasingly difficult to get away for long periods, I find myself involved in fewer investigations. More often, I travel to hold press conferences, to meet with government officials, or (necessary task that it is) to raise money. But this representational role also has its share of rewards and challenges.  

People often ask me how I got started in the human rights field. I point to various formative aspects of my life. One was certainly my father, whose stories of growing up in and fleeing Nazi Germany left me with a keen appreciation of the evil that governments can cause and the importance of building a strong legal system for protecting human rights as a restraint against such atrocities. My international orientation came in part from having lived briefly abroad and in part because I came of age at a time when many of the biggest domestic civil rights battles seemed to have been waged and won, while the international human rights movement was in its infancy, with many of the big battles still to be fought. But above all, as a child of the 1960s, I sought a profession that accorded with my basic values and would allow me to do something in which I believe. I thus feel tremendously fortunate to have found a job that fits so perfectly with my values, that consistently challenges me intellectually and personally, and that leaves me feeling that work is a natural extension of my life and aspirations rather than a necessary diversion. 

Still, it was hardly easy getting into the human rights field, let alone into my current position. I owe a lot to lucky breaks, though there was a certain calculation behind the luck. My first stab was hardly auspicious: each of my three years at Yale Law School I tried to sign up for the one human rights course offered, and each year it was canceled. I thus managed to leave law school without any formal human rights training.

I didn’t let this daunt me, though. One of the first things I did upon finishing a federal judicial clerkship and joining the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison was to begin volunteering to do human rights work on a pro bono basis. My first task was simply representing a young Haitian man-seeking asylum. That got my foot in the door. When martial law broke out in Poland several months later, I was handed the task, still as a volunteer, of monitoring and reporting on human rights conditions. I continued following events in Poland, traveled there, and wrote reports about it, as I left Paul, Weiss for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Serving as a prosecutor and ultimately chief criminal appellate attorney in the Southern District (I also had a brief stint in Washington on the Iran-Contra investigation), my human rights work took up many evenings and weekends. But I hardly looked at this as a sacrifice, because this work so thoroughly captivated me.

However, the human rights movement was small at the time, and job prospects were poor. It wasn’t until nearly seven years into my legal career that I received a phone call asking whether I might be interested in applying for the new position of deputy director that was opening up at Human Rights Watch. This offer would never have come my way had I simply applied cold from the outside. But, by volunteering and staying involved, I became known within the human rights movement and, perhaps most important, my judgment and skills came to be trusted.

Needless to say, I grabbed the opportunity, although many of my colleagues at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as they moved to partnerships in major law firms, were skeptical. There certainly was some risk involved: Human Rights Watch was a tiny organization at the time, and while it kindly offered to match my salary at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this was considerably less than I could have been making at a law firm. But instinctively I felt that the job would be right for me, and I was far more excited about it than about following the more traditional career paths of my colleagues.

Today, after more than a decade and a half at Human Rights Watch, I still have not seen anything else that I would rather be doing. It is a privilege to be able to choose my cause rather than having it dictated by random clients. It is endlessly challenging to provide the intellectual leadership in figuring out how to keep human rights issues alive in the public’s consciousness while outwitting governments and their many excuses for violating human rights. And it is deeply satisfying knowing that I am making a difference, that without the vigilance of Human Rights Watch, without the pressure that we generate, governments worldwide would indulge far more often their temptation to ignore human rights. 

I suspect that I also obtain many of the same satisfactions from my job as a business leader does in running a thriving company. In the ten years that I have headed the organization, I have watched it triple in size and become a truly global organization. As the organization expands—it now has 190 employees—I take pride in attracting a stunningly talented and dedicated staff, including an influx each year of some of the top students from this country’s major law schools, and in helping to create an environment that is intellectually alive and a fertile ground for innovation and professional growth.  

How does one enter the human rights field today? It still isn’t easy, but there are many more opportunities than when I started. With the range of internships now offered by major law schools, it is often possible to spend a summer or semester working overseas for a local human rights group. Learning foreign languages, spending time in the developing world, and honing one’s investigative and writing skills can help set a job applicant apart from the others. Human Rights Watch also offers unpaid summer internships as well as one-year, paid fellowships for recent law school graduates. The fellowships enable recipients to work as full-time members of our staff, with their own investigative, advocacy and writing responsibilities. Many of these fellows go on to join the organization’s permanent staff. Obtaining a job at Human Rights Watch still isn’t easy—indeed, the competition can be intense—but as the movement grows in importance and size, career opportunities do exist for increasing numbers. Much as I found when I got started, the best route is simply to find a way, as a volunteer, intern or otherwise, to begin doing the work.

Last modified: December 13, 2011

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