Gateway to a better world, continued
"[HLS Advocates] was started because much of the clinical work was limited to the summer or winter breaks or through classes, which meant the work was usually done independently," said Ronja Bandyopadhyay '04, who co-founded the organization in 2002 with classmates Daniel Schlanger and Michael Camilleri.
"This was a chance to make sure that everyone who was interested in clinical work could participate--especially 1Ls, who can't get clinical credit, but they can still get the experience through HLS Advocates," she said.
Through the organization, Bandyopadhyay, whose parents are from India, found herself steeped in human rights issues in Asia. After working on an amicus brief to the Indian National Human Rights Commission about the forced disappearances of thousands of Sikhs in Punjab, she turned her focus on the Ahmadiyya community, a minority group in Bangladesh.
"The government of Bangladesh declared a ban last year on publications by the Ahmadiyya," said Bandyopadhyay. In mainstream Islam, there is a "finality of prophethood" that essentially ends with Muhammad, she explained. "But the Ahmadiyya are a Muslim branch that believes a reformer came after Muhammad. Many mainstream Muslims view this as heretical and reject them."
According to Bandyopadhyay, that rejection has led to harassment and violence against Ahmadis by the majority Muslim population in Bangladesh, and many Muslims there have called for their excommunication. The government's ban on the group's publications has raised a red flag in the human rights community, she says.
Last March, Bandyopadhyay and another student from HLS Advocates traveled with their HRP supervisor to Bangladesh to interview government officials and Ahmadis in cities and rural villages to document the situation. This work has been incorporated into a report published recently by Human Rights Watch.
Meeting face-to-face with the people she hoped to help was a powerful experience.
"When you're talking to real people, [the work] becomes much harder, but that's also what drives you," she said. "So many people count on you. When you come from America and an institution like Harvard, you have incredible resources, and people you meet often believe you can solve the problem. You've created a hope.
"That makes you want to act, but also truly makes you question what you're doing and why you're doing it, and to think critically about human rights work, because your actions will have consequences."
Since HLS Advocates was founded, the number of students engaged in clinical work (noncredit and credit) has grown from 25 to more than 100, stretching supervisory capacity to the limit. Last year the organization lobbied the law school administration and successfully secured funding for two advocacy fellows to supervise students, more travel abroad and a project to strengthen the links between clinical work and the classroom.