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International Human Rights Clinic to celebrate 10 cohorts of impactful advocates

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Record of successes brings clinic, students to attention of international human rights community.

By Leslie Ridgeway

From left, Hannah Garry, director of USC’s International Human Rights Clinic, Aysha Pamukcu (JD 2011) and (facing camera) Brian Rifkin (JD 2011) in a cell at the infamous S-21 prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Credit: Vinh Dao)

In 2020, the USC International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) will celebrate its 10th clinic, along with nearly a decade of impact in international criminal justice, anti-human trafficking work and upholding refugee rights. Since its establishment in 2011, dozens of IHRC students have traveled to The Hague, the Middle East, Africa and Asia to represent victims, work with judges in international tribunals and collaborate with attorneys and other law students.

As global trends toward violation of fundamental human rights become increasingly troubling,clinic Director Prof. Hannah Garry says she’s finding renewed enthusiasm among her students about their role in upholding the rule of law.

“I have seen more interest in the clinic and the work than ever before, in part because law students realize in our country and elsewhere it’s lawyers on the ground who are powerfully fighting back and making headway,” she says.

Students have been involved in many successful actions, such a recent field experience in Beirut that resulted in a U.S. judge ruling to lift refugee resettlement denials for 87 stranded Iranian refugees. Another group of pragmatic students earlier this year discovered a tool through the Global Magnitsky Act to advocate in Washington D.C. for sanctions against the president and military of Cameroon for oppressing minority groups. The clinic is now filing a communique with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, calling for an investigation into crimes against humanity there.

Such work has brought the IHRC to the attention of local and international organizations seeking assistance with overwhelming caseloads, Garry says. Over the years, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the International Refugee Assistance Project and the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking have sought to partner with the clinic as a result of its strong reputation for professionalism and highly effective work.

Interlinking international criminal justice with human rights advocacy


IHRC students (such as this year’s class, above) file communiques, draft research memoranda and work with international tribunals as part of their training in international human rights law. (Credit: Larissa Puro)

When Garry launched the clinic in 2011, her goal was to interconnect her considerable experience in international criminal justice with traditional human rights work, which involves putting pressure on states and others to uphold the law. International criminal justice can accelerate or otherwise influence the process by sending guilty government leaders to prison, she says.

“There has been a lack of training in US law schools on international human rights law and how to use it as a lawyer,” she says. “I really wanted students to see how it works and how international criminal justice is effective in enforcement of rights.”

Shannon Raj Singh (JD 2011), legal officer at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, says an important clinic assignment to draft research memoranda presented to judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda on genocide charges led to a coveted internship opportunity.

“Professor Garry pushed us to complete work of such a high caliber that every member of our team was offered on-site internships with the Tribunal's Trial Chamber in Arusha, Tanzania following graduation,” she says. “During my time in Arusha, I was able to immediately build on the work my team completed at the Clinic, and was present in the courtroom as the Trial Chamber delivered its historic judgment in Bizimungu et al.”

The IHRC has been among the first to engage in partnerships with several international tribunals for other countries including Lebanon, Cambodia and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, with a partnership currently underway for accountability in Syria, Garry says. The work includes advocacy for victims’ rights and ensuring their participation in the justice process.

Working with clients teaches unforgettable lessons

Working with vulnerable clients left a deeply personal impression on alumna Jindan-Karena Mann (JD 2016).

“I learned that it is impossible to represent a client on their legal matters if their basic needs for safety and health are not met, and that sometimes being an effective advocate for someone means supporting them in their non-legal concerns,” says Mann, a PhD candidate in International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.

Hearing victims’ traumatic stories is sobering for the students, who learn in the IHRC not just to walk a mile in their clients’ shoes but also to take care of themselves as they record their heart-wrenching experiences.

“Professor Garry engaged us in regular discussion on the systems of privilege and oppression that shape our perspectives and those of our clients,” says Rebecca Taylor (JD 2019), who is working as an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow at Human Rights First. “She emphasized how important it is to engage in thoughtful and purpose-driven legal work, which includes taking proactive steps to address any vicarious trauma we experience as a result. Learning how to mitigate trauma and ground myself and my clients is a practice that has informed my approach (to human rights work).”

A decade of important successes

Among IHRC’s many successes: students have won nearly every anti-human trafficking case they’ve participated in, representing up to 20 victims from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa, helping them rebuild their lives and cooperate with law enforcement to prosecute their traffickers. Future projects include writing a report on the effectiveness of the FBI-Department of Justice Innocence Lost initiative, and working in partnership with Willow International on combating human trafficking in Uganda.The clinic has also stepped in on several cases involving women activists targeted for raising awareness of human rights abuses – a vulnerable group.

The clinic was recently approached by a newly launched human rights organization, to help train local monitors and write reports on countries that use trials to oppress individuals including journalists, human rights defenders and political activists, and hold prosecutors and judges accountable under the right to a fair trial.

A celebration will be planned in the spring to recognize the clinic’s achievements and the donors who have supported it, Garry says.

For more information about IHRC, email hgarry@law.usc.edu.

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