Human Rights Clinic
The Human Rights Clinic is a community of advocates engaged in innovative education, social justice, critical reflection, and scholarly research.
Each of these pillars of the Clinic is mutually reinforcing, providing fertile ground for a critical human rights praxis. The Clinic’s methodology is collaborative, rigorous, and self-reflexive. The Clinic is a unique space for the education of strategic and creative advocates, who pursue social justice in partnership with civil society and communities, and critically engage with the human rights field’s existing approaches and work to advance human rights methodologies and scholarship. The Clinic aims to provide a foundation for students to engage in lifelong social justice education and advocacy.
The Clinic integrates social justice work and pedagogy through Seminars, Clinic Projects, and Team Meetings. The Seminars provide a map of the terrain of international human rights advocacy, including the field’s dominant forms of action, strategies, methods, and critiques. The Seminars provide a scaffold so that advocates can learn to maneuver within the complex legal and advocacy human rights field. Clinic members assess where they and human rights projects are positioned, the available tools or routes for action, and how to ethically, pragmatically, and responsibly choose which steps to take towards which ends. Students learn the fundamental aspects of human rights work, including: project selection, design, and strategy; choice and sequence of advocacy tactics; fact-finding methodologies and evidence assessment; interdisciplinary research methods; interviewing witnesses, experts, and perpetrators; digital and physical security; report and brief-writing; using judicial and quasi-judicial processes; advocacy options at the local, national, regional, and international levels; engaging the press and using social media; mitigating vicarious trauma and promoting resilience; ethical frameworks and the navigation of ethical dilemmas; and accountability and project evaluation. Seminars are taught through an array of pedagogical methods, including lectures and expert guest lectures, student-led discussions and presentations, in-class project workshopping, and simulations. Seminar readings are drawn from a variety of sources and disciplines, and readings are accompanied by Guiding Questions and written assignments, to facilitate focused preparation for class. In addition to Seminars, students meet regularly with the Clinic’s professors and supervisors for small group intensive theoretical and tactical discussions.
Students in the Clinic are assigned to Clinic Projects in small teams. This aspect of the Clinic functions similarly to a non-governmental organization, and the Clinic pursues a range of human rights projects each year, generally in partnership with civil society organizations and communities. The Projects address marginalized, urgent, and complex human rights issues around the world. Projects vary from year to year – in 2014-2015, they included work on targeted killings and drone strikes, corporate accountability for sexual violence in Papua New Guinea, environmental harm in the extractive industry, police violence in Peru, armed conflict in the Central African Republic, and access to justice in the United States. Working in small teams, students take on leadership roles in Clinic Projects, and, together with partner NGOs and communities, students work to advance social justice and to directly and collectively implement, test, and reflect upon the trainings of the Seminars, with the resources, guidance, feedback and evaluation of project supervisors. Students meet weekly with their Project Teams to advance their projects and think critically about their work. Project supervisors provide resources, guidance, feedback and evaluation to refine the advocacy. In addition to their leadership on Clinic Projects, Clinic members are assigned to an additional project in which their role is to offer constructive critique and to workshop concerns and solutions.
The Clinic fosters accountability and a self-reflective ethic through in-depth supervisor feedback, project workshops, student-to-student feedback sessions, and continuous evaluation of the Clinic and its Projects. The Clinic interrogates its own foundations, goals, ethics, language, methods and effectiveness, and acknowledges the limits of human rights discourse. The Clinic seeks to employ a transparent and evolving pedagogy, and students are active partners in building upon prior Clinic practice and are engaged in building the methods, pedagogy, and institution of the Clinic itself through the course of the year. Students are involved in institutionalizing lessons learned for future Clinic students, and Clinic alumni can become advisors to the Clinic. The Clinic is also a laboratory for testing and modeling new and innovative modes of human rights work, with a focus on enhancing human rights methods through interdisciplinary partnerships. Clinic Projects are also designed to enable the production of research with broader applicability to the human rights field, and students and supervisors are supported in pursuing scholarly research and writing related to their Clinic Projects.
** 2014-2015 Human Rights Clinic Mentorship Program**
Accountability for “Targeted Killings” and Drone Strikes: In September 2014, the Clinic launched a new project to promote accountability for US “targeted killings” and drone strikes. This work built upon prior work undertaken by the Clinic under the direction of Naureen Shah. The Clinic worked with U.S. and international civil society groups to develop joint NGO letters to both the UN and the US government urging greater transparency, accountability, and compliance with international law in the use of drones for lethal targeting. The Clinic also prepared extensive research on advocacy work and strategies, hosted strategy meetings with civil society organizations, and conducted consultations with military, civil society, UN, and international law actors, as well as journalists and Yemeni experts to develop new advocacy projects to address drone strikes.
Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic: In 2014-2015, the Human Rights Clinic developed a new partnership and project with a Central African Republic (CAR) NGO to support their work related to war crimes investigations, accountability, and the promotion of peace and reconciliation in the country. In December 2012, a brutal civil war erupted in the CAR, with frequent occurrences of war crimes and widespread displacement of the civilian population. There is now a UN peacekeeping mission in the country, although humanitarian conditions remain poor for many residents, and there is widespread impunity for war crimes. The Clinic designed a joint project with CAR civil society to develop a secure war crimes evidence database, prepare legal advice on the elements of war crimes and international humanitarian law violations, and guidelines on gathering and storing evidence. In June 2015, Knuckey traveled to the CAR to support the domestic NGO’s investigations.
Business and Human Rights in the Global Economy: Peru. In 2014, the Human Rights Clinic launched a new effort to support communities and social organizations mobilizing against a proposed gold mining project known as Conga in Cajamarca, Peru. Community members fear that the project, if allowed to go forward, will result in negative impacts to the environment and human health stemming primarily from harm to water quality and access. Local communities say that the mere existence of the project has already adversely impacted human rights, calling attention to violence against protesters by security forces acting on behalf of the company, and harassment and efforts to forcibly displace those living near the mine concession area. The Clinic is supporting the affected communities through an exploration of the responsibility of the different companies and institutions involved in the project (including a U.S. mining company and the International Financial Corporation of the World Bank) in light of the application of international legal norms and standards. In March 2015, the Clinic traveled to Lima and Cajamarca to meet with organizations, activists, and affected communities to discuss and advance legal strategies seeking to stop the project. The Clinic also supported a legal action in a U.S. federal court seeking discovery of information held by the U.S. company regarding an incident of violent repression of protest activity at the mine site in November 2011 that left many protesters injured.
Business and Human Rights in the Global Economy: Papua New Guinea. HRI and the Human Rights Clinic support communities dealing with the environmental and social consequences of the Porgera Gold Mine, a mine owned by a Canadian company, in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. The thousands of indigenous people living in villages surrounding the mine fear that mine operations have polluted their rivers and streams, contaminated rainwater, caused erosion and landslides, and contributed to poor air quality and low crop yield – but have had little access to independent assessments of these environmental concerns. Residents requested the Clinic to carry out independent research of any environmental and health impacts. After extensive research and preparation – including on rights-based mixed-methods research, the rights to water and health, international and domestic environmental law, and interviewing technique – in December 2014-January 2015, the Clinic traveled to the region along with environmental scientists from the Earth Institute of Columbia University, as well as a film-maker. The team conducted an interdisciplinary rights-based study, blending physical science and human rights methodology, to assess the mine’s environmental and human rights impacts. Sarah Knuckey also traveled to the region for a month in July 2015 to carry out additional research. The results of the study will be published and shared with the communities in early 2016.
Separately, the Clinic also works on issues related to physical abuse by the mine’s security guards. For years, residents have alleged that mine security guards engaged in beatings and sexual assault, including gang rapes, of local residents. After earlier work investigating these violations, the Human Rights Institute and the Human Rights Clinic have been analyzing the mining company’s recent efforts to compensate sexual assault victims through the creation of a non-judicial remedy mechanism. A major report and an academic article will be published in 2015 as part of a multi-pronged analysis of corporate non-judicial grievance mechanisms for human rights abuses. In October 2014, the Institute and Clinic also hosted with EarthRights International a workshop of international experts to discuss community-led grievance mechanisms, as an alternative model for remedying these types of abuses.
Faculty Highlight: Clinic Director Sarah Knuckey
To read Sarah Knuckey's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the faculty webpage.