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May 21, 2021

International Human Rights Leadership Q & A

The CRSJ International Human Rights Committee is filled with passionate and devoted lawyers and activists who strive to address human and civil rights concerns in the United States and globally. More specifically, this committee undertakes all matters which involve the denigration of civil and political rights of individuals worldwide. In responding to these assaults, the dedicated members of this committee strive to forge and bolster an interconnected legal, business, and cultural network of lawyers, activists, and institutions to tangibly protect human rights. Through establishing rapid response webinars, organizing panels of renowned speakers, drafting policies and reports on pressing international issues, and engaging the legal community in necessary debate and discussion, this committee propels the values held most centrally to the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section.

To learn more about the nuances of this important committee, we turned to Committee Co-Chairs, Daniel L. Appelman and Jaclyn Fortini Laing, to shed light on their leadership and hear what propelled them to pursue this field.

Where are you from? How have your experiences here, or throughout your upbringing, influenced your passions and aspirations today?

JFL: I am from Plainfield, Illinois, but have lived in many places like Beijing, Santiago de Chile, and the Hague. I currently live in the South of France. I think traveling, working, and collaborating with people of all different backgrounds, personalities, and belief systems has made me a more empathetic person, which heavily influences me professionally. 

DA: I grew up in Los Angeles and civil rights and social justice were always topics around the dinner table. I grew up with a keen awareness of the Holocaust and how populism and nationalism can easily lead to repressive authoritarian governments. In college, I was active in the civil rights and anti-(Vietnam) war movements.  I admired the lawyers who defended us pro bono when we engaged in civil protests, and went to law school partly to remain involved in social and political issues, something which I have continued throughout my legal career. 

What drives you?

JFL: Law school debt…I'm kidding. Occasionally, being a lawyer will give me the opportunity to be a part of history or to interact with someone that's lived through a global event which I can’t take for granted. I also love the law for its incredible efficacy. If you practice it right, it provides the opportunity to directly impact someone's life more than any other profession.

DA: Human rights law provides so many opportunities to institutionalize evolving norms and promote accountability.  The historical development of human rights law tracks a broadening, but still fragile, acceptance of standards of behavior and of human rights, and a rejection of impunity.    What drives me is the imperative of holding human rights violators accountable, of protecting the defenseless and the outspoken from persecution, and of supporting the rule of law.

What is one thing most people do not know about you that you feel they should?

JFL: I hold a law degree in a common law country (US) and civil law country (France).

DA: I grew up as a Dodgers fan but married into a huge extended family of Cubs fans.  This makes for tough going when we visit Chicago.  Another thing most people wouldn’t know is that I was the first lawyer to represent a commercial Internet client when the Internet first became publicly available.

When you look back, what is it that you want your advocacy and professional career to stand for?

JFL: I hope I effect real change in the lives of at least a few people. The beauty of law is its ability to save someone's life, whether that be gaining asylum for someone, overturning a wrongful conviction, or changing the law through impact litigation. I hope that my legacy reflects my refusal to get caught up in the politics and social climbing that can plague our profession.

DA: I was trained and developed expertise as a technology lawyer, but I was always interested in human rights and social change.  When I look back on my professional career, I’d hope to have made a meaningful contribution to human rights law in my last decade of practice; that would be the most rewarding part.  

What is one issue which you care about or work most on and why?

JFL: Women's rights in the workplace. Personally, I was let go from my job and replaced by a man a month into my maternity leave from my firm in Hermosa Beach, CA. California law did not provide protection from employers with fewer than 5 employees, leaving me in the lurch. I was lucky in that I am an attorney and have a family support system, but many are not. If women cannot gain a fair wage, they will continue to have less buying power, reducing their value to the corporations running the world. If corporations, lobbyists, or politicians are not forced to listen to women, we'll never move forward with equality. There needs to be more done to encourage women to stand up for themselves in the professional context and against veiled sexism.

DA: The problem that is most striking to me is the continuing weakness of institutions to address mass atrocities and other human rights violations.  National justice systems are often corrupt, under-resourced, or insufficiently developed. In many countries, lawyers and judges face persecution and the rule of law is under attack.  The International Criminal Court and the hybrid criminal courts are exceedingly selective and slow in the expensive cases they are able to try.  I am also interested in expanding the exercise of universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction operates on the principal that some violations of human rights are so egregious that any country with an interest in bringing a perpetrator to justice to do so, despite traditional jurisdictional limitations. Finally, I’m interested in limiting the international arms trade, which is largely responsible for the easy accessibility of weapons that are used to commit atrocities.

What do you feel is the greatest challenge facing this issue today?

JFL: Along with every other issue today: divisiveness. Many prefer to remain complacent than hear what makes them uncomfortable or denies their worldview. Further complicating matters are those in power who feed into these fears and misunderstandings to gain political favor.

DA: Human rights is part of a larger picture.  Respect for the rule of law and basic human rights depend on a vibrant civil society that accepts evolving norms and the dignity of human life. In countries under economic or social stress, the collective compact often breaks down, releasing the brakes on ethnic, political or territorial conflict. Adherence to human rights standards goes necessarily hand in hand with progressive and consistent economic development. 

In what corners do you find the greatest support in propelling these issues you work on? In other words, who are your most frequent allies?

JFL: Mostly other women, from all professions.

DA: Our committee initiatives would be much less successful without the help of other committees within the ABA with overlapping interests and expertise. Also, the Center for Human Rights is a tremendous resource. We work with other bar associations and with other NGOs on a regular basis.

What project(s) has the International Human Rights Committee undertaken that you found most rewarding to have worked on? Are there any upcoming events you want us all to know about?

JFL: I find that I get responses from, and connect with, all different kinds of people from different parts of the profession over the Gender Issues Newsletter. It has led me down some very interesting paths.

DA: Last year, our committee joined a working group to develop ABA policy which focused on the rising persecution of the legal profession in many countries and the consequent threats to the rule of law and access to justice.  We are planning to follow this with a series of webinars spotlighting the issue on a country-by-country basis.  We have also just formed a working group on initiatives related to corporate social responsibility and business and human rights.

What is one thing you have learned which resonated with you most throughout your time serving as a committee co-chair for the International Human Rights Committee?

JFL: If you want something done, take initiative yourself!

DA: The opportunities for human rights work within the ABA are boundless and selecting the several from the many possible projects is difficult. Having a few well-done projects with great participation beats having many solely aspirational projects.