The OPIA Blog

Alumni Spotlight: Advocating for human rights in Latin America

Since graduating from HLS in 2004, Michael Camilleri has worked across Latin America and in Washington D.C. with civil society and grassroots organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and government agencies on addressing issues of human rights in the Latin American region.

Michael came to law school with a passion for working on human rights issues in Latin America. At HLS, he was one of the founding members of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, which helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Human Rights Clinic. As a law student, he spent a summer interning in Costa Rica with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a leading NGO that litigates in the Inter-American human rights system. He also developed relationships with faculty who had worked on issues of human rights in Latin America, which proved instrumental in helping him gain the experience he desired in and after law school. After graduating, he secured a fellowship from the HLS Human Rights Program and went to Guatemala, where he worked with a coalition of civil society organizations on rule of law issues. After this fellowship, he returned to CEJIL as a staff attorney, where he litigated cases before the Inter-American Commission, Court of Human Rights. He spent five years at the organization working on cases from Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and the United States.

Next, Michael worked as a Senior Legal Advisor to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although based in Washington D.C., Michael continued to travel significantly throughout Latin America and the Caribbean in support of the Commission’s work. He drafted decisions of the Inter-American Commission in freedom of expression cases, acted as a policy advisor to the Special Rapporteur, and trained human rights defenders, journalists and judges.

Today, Michael serves on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. His portfolio covers Latin America, the Caribbean and Canada, and he provides policy guidance on the full range of issues affecting the region, such as trade, environment, citizen security, human rights, energy and development. Currently, he is leveraging his past experience to support the United States’ efforts to preserve the independence, autonomy and integrity of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has come under attack from certain governments in the hemisphere.. Although his role is mainly a policy role, Michael has found that his law degree has been directly applicable to projects involving legal issues such as treaty interpretation and international dispute resolution. More broadly, Michael has found the analytical framework he developed in law school to be particularly useful in his day-to-day work.

Michael advises current law students interested in international human rights work to gain as much practical experience as possible through clinics and experience working abroad over the summers and through post-graduate fellowships. He also notes that it can be useful to develop expertise in one region, along with relevant language skills; while it can be difficult as a law student, it is especially valuable to be able to point to an area that you really own and have concrete skills in.

Finally, he emphasizes that taking comparative law classes can be especially useful; much of what one encounters in the human rights field is transnational and comparative law, rather than pure public international law. Ultimately, the objective is to be a bridge between legal cultures and to be conversant in the legal systems of other countries; studying comparative law and spending time abroad will allow students to better understand foreign legal systems, which will prove instrumental in future work as human rights lawyers, researchers, and advocates.

Written by former 1L Section Rep Akhila Kolisetty