When I was in law school, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the UN Human Rights Committee hearing on Hong Kong’s report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Geneva, Switzerland. I was hooked on both the issues and the process. A year later, I went to Hong Kong for a year to work with the premier human rights organization there, the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, as a research officer. It was one of the best decisions I have made in my career. It is very important in this field to take all opportunities to network and develop connections in the areas you are interested in. The Section of International Law provides a fantastic platform for this.
Prior to your legal career, you were in the banking and financial sectors. How has that background helped or influenced your work in corporate social responsibility?
Understanding the finance community is very important to understanding what drives corporations in their decision making. Fortunately, many more companies are taking social issues seriously in the development of their corporate policies and procedure. Unfortunately, many are still not. The international community is fully committed to corporate social responsibility, and it is clear that more and more countries will be requiring at least minimum standards from entities incorporated in their jurisdiction.
This year celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This milestone document has heavily influenced the development of international human rights, constitutions, and laws. Do you have any thoughts on legal accomplishments, shortcomings, or challenges since its adoption?
Quite a broad question . . . but a good one. Even if we discard some of the more serious human rights issues going on in the world (DRC, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.), there are still grave issues regarding the rule of law and deterioration of the rights of people. The situations in China, Poland, and Tanzania come to mind. In fact, even in Hong Kong, there recently have been major setbacks in rights under their Constitution, called the Basic Law. However, you can also look at the positive. Places like Swaziland and Saudi Arabia are improving the rights of women, in large part due to their international obligations and public pressure, which is supported by the UNDHR and the human rights treaties that followed, including the regional human rights agreements. Moreover, rule of law is now being closely linked to development and developing countries.
Do you have a favorite concrete example where efforts by lawyers made a difference in combatting human rights abuses?
I have worked closely for years with the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at Georgetown University Law School. Back in 2003, the Clinic, with their Ugandan in-country partner Law and Advocacy for Women – Uganda, brought test case litigation under the Ugandan Constitution to allow women to divorce their husbands on the same basis as men can divorce their wives. Without too much detail, men could divorce with a very low bar to prove, if any, whereas women had an arduous level of proof in order to divorce their husbands. Using international obligations, including the UN human rights treaties, the Clinic and LAW-U were able to have the divorce law declared unconstitutional! It may seem like a small win, but if you were a woman in Uganda in an abusive marriage, it was a huge win. It is also important to remember that not all human rights wins have to be “big” wins. Human rights lawyers on the ground are working tirelessly to support and uphold international and regional human rights norms. This strengthens the legal gravitas of the norms and gives meaningful relief to the victims they are working for.
What advice do you have for law students or attorneys currently thinking about a career in human rights?
Do it! I am an example of someone who has been able to have both a successful corporate legal career and a successful human rights career. You have to balance what is important to you but also your expectations. No one gets out of law school and becomes the Executive Director of Amnesty International. Like in every other field, you need to decide what issues are most important to you. Research, write, and volunteer for assignments or internships in that area. It is a very enriching and fulfilling area of law where a lot of work needs to be done. It is not generally lucrative, but there are many other benefits from work in human rights. A great way to get started is to publish with the ABA, including the many opportunities to publish through the Section of International Law.
In addition to International Law News, what are some ways that Section members can get involved in publishing through the Section and the ABA?
There are so many options for members who want to publish. Most of our committees have newsletters, which is a great way to parse out a new topic or area of law, in addition to detailing changes in law. The International Lawyer is a tri-annual renowned law review focusing on topics of international law. The Year in Review is an annual publication that surveys the status of laws throughout the world. Committees contribute to the publication and capture the germane legal developments, key pieces of legislation, and landmark decisions that have occurred throughout the year. Through ABA Publishing, section members can propose book projects, which can be authored content or a compilation of authored pieces in an edited volume. To learn more, visit https://www.americanbar.org/groups/international_law/publications.html.