Gateway to a better world

Expanded program helps Harvard lawyers advance human rights abroad

Chi Mgbako in Rwanda
Chi Mgbako '05 in Rwanda. Mgbako visited the country three times with the HRP,
most recently to write a report on the persecution of human rights activists.

Commencement is still weeks away, but Chi Mgbako '05 already feels like a seasoned human rights advocate. She's been to Rwanda three times in three years, documenting human rights abuses and preparing reports for NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In February, Front Line, an NGO for the protection of human rights defenders, published a report she co-wrote on the persecution of human rights activists in Rwanda. For Mgbako, this is testimony to the training she received through Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program.

"I feel like I've come full circle," said Mgbako. "As a 1L, I went to the Human Rights Program and said I wanted to work in Africa, and I did. Going back for the third time, I really felt I had some expertise. I knew what I was doing, and yet, I was still learning. It was amazing."

More and more students like Mgbako are finding a niche in human rights advocacy and a home in the HRP, an academic program that has pioneered legal training in international human rights through an interdisciplinary curriculum that combines scholarship with work in the field.

The program has grown from the first handful of interested students in the mid-1980s to some 200 students involved today, coming into its own as an important part of legal education at Harvard, according to James Cavallaro, its associate director.

"Twenty years ago, human rights was a fringe field," Cavallaro said. "That's clearly changed. In an increasingly globalized world, human rights has greater importance. It's a way to help students understand injustice and give them a language to respond to that injustice."

Established by Professor Henry Steiner '55 in 1984, the program was among the very first human rights centers instituted at a law school, and the first to offer a human rights curriculum at Harvard University. From humble beginnings, it is now at the center of a vital and energized community of students, practitioners, scholars, alumni and human rights organizations worldwide.

Indeed, while Mgbako may be amazed by the level of support and training she has received, Steiner says students today expect no less.

"At the start, students were puzzled by what this all amounted to, and so was I. We were all learning," said Steiner, who will step down as director when he retires this July. "Students now assume the program has been here forever. It's not that it's no longer maverick, but that it's so clearly institutionally established. It's part of the landscape now, and it's always going to be. It's wonderful--my fondest dream."

Students have been the driving force behind the program's growth from the beginning. In 1988, they established the Harvard Human Rights Journal, now the leading scholarly journal in the field, and more recently they formed the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights to give students more opportunities to gain practical experience in human rights work. Today, organization members are doing clinical work in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the United States.

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