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Ten Things Law Students Can Do to Support Human Rights

Ten Things Law Students Can Do to Support Human Rights

1. Turn an Amnesty Action into an Article for Your Student Newspaper. 

Take the most recent action you’ve received about a lawyer prisoner of conscience and turn it into a newspaper article for your law school’s newspaper or bulletin. It’s a great way to educate your peers about the persecution our contemporaries can experience in other countries. Hopefully, the article will induce sufficient uproar from your fellow students to compel then to act, so be sure to include Amnesty’s recommended actions. If possible, try to make this a regular feature in your paper. It’s easy, and the Amnesty action has basically already written the article for you!

2. Invite a Former Prisoner of Conscience (POC) to speak at Your School.

Your regional Amnesty office has a list of Amnesty speakers who are POCs residing in your area. You can call the AI NY office at (212) 807-8400 for information on your regional office. Former POCs make powerful speakers. They not only represent the worst cases of government repression, but they also represent some of Amnesty’s best success stories. They embody the struggle for justice and the power that Amnesty’s grassroots activists have in pressuring foreign governments. In some cases, you may be able to find POCs from the legal profession. Some speakers ask for honorariums others do not. At the very least, be prepared to spend money on the speaker’s travel expenses. You’ll find the expense worth it for the motivational energy the speaker will inject into your audience.

3. Put Out a Letter Writing Table in a Public Area on a Regular Basis.

Whether it’s weekly or monthly, tabling with an Amnesty campaign-related action or urgent action appeals will not only generate more letters, but will also keep awareness about human rights issues high at your law school. To make things easier for passers-by, use pre-addressed envelopes (and if you or your group can afford it, pre-stamped envelopes). To cut down costs, turn the action into a pre-printed postcard and save on envelopes and postage. Tabling is also a great way to display and sell Amnesty merchandise (which you can buy at bulk discounts — contact your Regional Office). To attract attention, consider setting-up a TV/VCR next to the table and show a video relating to the action or a general AI video.

4. Hold a Film Festival focusing on Human Rights Activists.

There are dozens of commercial and documentary films about human rights activists from the legal profession for example (Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are some well-known names). Your regional Amnesty office has a library of videos on Amnesty cases and videos on special topics (women’s rights, specific countries, etc.). You can generally rent these videos by mail for free from the office (with a refundable deposit and possibly costs for postage). Screen five different films for five weekdays in a row, or spread them out over a few weeks. Again, this is another, simple way of generating awareness at your school. Approach other student groups to co-sponsor the event — it’s an easy way to spread the word about the event and raise awareness within the school.

5. Ask Your Dean, School Administration, and Faculty to Write Letters for Emergency Actions.

The titles your professors and administrators hold do carry weight overseas. You can stress this fact and ask them to act in especially urgent situations (you don’t want to scare them off by asking them to commit to writing appeals on every action). Ask them to use school letterhead and stationary in sending the appeals. For those faculty and administration members who are hesitant, emphasize the careful work Amnesty puts into its case work and actions and point out Amnesty success stories (Vaclev Havel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Harry Wu, etc.).

6. Focus a Article on Your Writing Requirement on a Current Human Rights Issue.

Almost every law student is required to write a major paper or has the opportunity to get an article published in a journal. If human rights appeal to you (and presumably they do since you’ve read this far), then pick a human rights legal issue. The topics you could explore are varied and diverse. For example, you could assess the impact of new immigration laws on refugees, or the impact of human rights litigation under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act in US courts, or the legal arguments for why the US should ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or the International Criminal Court (ICC) Treaty. For other topics, talk to your civil rights or international law professors. And if you do write such a paper, please let the Legal Support Network know!

7. Plan a Symposium on Human Rights Issues at Your Law School.

If your school has an international law journal and you’re a member, that’s the best place to start. Lobby the journal for a symposium issue on human rights. Again, the symposium could focus on any number of varied human rights issues. Approach other student groups who may be willing to co-sponsor the event and split costs (like the National Lawyers Guild, student groups of color, your students’ government/association, etc.). Coalition building is key. You can approach your school’s administration for financial support. Often, administrations set aside discretionary funds for special projects and events. Consider asking faculty at your school to moderate panels so as to encourage the faculty to attend your event. Planning a symposium can be a lot of work, but the communication exchanged and knowledge disseminated from such an event makes it well worth the effort.

8. Volunteer with a Human Rights Organization or Study Abroad for Academic Credit.

Many law schools allow third and second year law students to do externships or field placements with organizations that do legal work. Generally, you can set a specific number of hours per week to work with the organization and earn academic credit (provided you’re also not getting paid). In some cases, you can earn more than 6 units, depending on the number of hours you spend per week. It’s a great way to get out of the classroom and get some hands-on legal experience. The skills you learn in a field placement can be more valuable than any you get out of a classroom curriculum. You can often use your field placement to satisfy your writing requirement or to produce a journal article. Watch out though, many schools limit the amount of units you can spend in field placements. If there aren’t many human rights organizations in your area, consider approaching the law firm you worked with over the summer with a pro bono human rights project for the semester. You can also earn credit by studying abroad for a summer or a semester. Many law schools offer study abroad programs in various countries. Studying abroad gives you the opportunity to study the law of a different country while also observing the human rights situation in that country. It can be cheaper to go abroad for the summer than to take summer classes at your school. It’s also more fun!

9. Start an Amnesty Group at Your Campus.

If your school doesn’t already have an Amnesty group, then start one. It’s easy, and your regional Amnesty office and the LSN will send you tons of information about how to start a group, free of charge. If your school has an undergraduate institution, then find some undergraduates to start an Amnesty group (if there isn’t one already) or encourage undergraduates to join your new group. Remember, we’re all in the human rights movement together.

10. Lobby Your School to Award an Honorary Degree to a Lawyer POC.

As you know, lawyers are frequently persecuted in countries around the world for representing unpopular clients or for promoting civil and human rights. By recognizing the efforts of these dedicated advocates, your law school will send a powerful message to the government implicated about the importance of the rule of law and of international human rights. In addition, the award will be an enormous psychological boost for the prisoner. The Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania gives such an award to a different prisoner every year. The Dean announces the award during graduation ceremonies and an empty chair is placed onstage to represent the fact that the award is being bestowed in abstentia. The school also sends a copy of the degree to the government implicated and to other organizations like the U.S. State Department, human rights groups, and other NGOs. If the school is hesitant about awarding an honorary degree, then lobby for a citation or award. If your school is receptive to the idea, then also ask them to commit to holding a formal, in person award ceremony once the POC is released.