Roadmap: Pro bono public spirit; human rights; international criminal law
Anoush Baghdassarian grew up in Long Island, New York, the daughter of Armenian parents whose families had fled to Egypt, Greece, Uruguay, and Argentina after the genocide of more than one million Armenian Christians under the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the 20th century.
In middle and high school, she began raising awareness among her peers of the tragic experience of the Armenian people by giving yearly lessons to her classmates. This culminated in her writing of a historical fiction play about the Armenian Genocide, FOUND, that she produced at her local public library in May of her senior year of high school in 2013.
She double majored in psychology and Spanish, with a sequence in genocide and Holocaust studies at Claremont McKenna College, focusing on the psychology of perpetrators of mass atrocities. She wrote two theses: the first about preventing atrocity crimes through approaches sensitive to varying moral foundations, and the second, a play in Spanish about Argentina’s military dictatorship. After graduating in 2017, she pursued two human rights fellowships, Humanity in Action and the Davis Projects for Peace. Through Projects for Peace, she co-founded an archival NGO, Rerooted Archive, for which she has conducted interviews on the ground collecting the testimonies of 250 Syrian-Armenians to document the Armenian community of Syria before, during, and after the Syrian conflict (2011–present).
“It has been a 100-year open wound that I felt so intensely that I began doing what I could to close it, and importantly, what I could to prevent other communities from suffering from the same affliction, the same impunity, the same ethical loneliness,” says Anoush. “The intrinsic motivation to help heal these wounds has been my guiding star in each endeavor I have undertaken.”
“[The Armenian genocide] has been a 100-year open wound that I felt so intensely that I began doing what I could to close it, and importantly, what I could to prevent other communities from suffering from the same affliction, the same impunity, the same ethical loneliness … The intrinsic motivation to help heal these wounds has been my guiding star in each endeavor I have undertaken.”Anoush Baghdassarian ’22
In early 2018 Anoush was selected to serve as an adviser to Armenia’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, attending the body’s Third and Sixth Committee meetings on human rights, and law, respectively. Later that year, she interned at the Human Rights Defender’s Office in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital. That fall, she pursued a masters in human rights studies at Columbia University, and later traveled to Armenia for her thesis to conduct surveys with Syrian-Armenians regarding what justice would look like in a post-conflict Syria.
After graduating from Columbia in spring 2019, she interned with Civitas Maxima in Geneva, Switzerland, the summer before attending HLS, helping to build war crimes cases regarding atrocities in Liberia.
Anoush says she came to law school knowing exactly what she wanted to do with her life: to work with communities affected by atrocity crimes to help secure some form of justice and acknowledgement of the truth with them using the law as one tool amongst many in that effort towards recognition, accountability, and prevention
One of the first things she did during her 1L year was to join Harvard Law School Advocates for Human Rights, a student practice organization dedicated to human rights work and advocacy on campus and around the world. That first year, she researched whether airstrikes in Yemen violated international law and served as the co-director of programming. She also joined Harvard Mediators, becoming a licensed Massachusetts mediator in her first semester, to help resolve disputes in small claims court.
She served on the International Law Journal, as a line editor, on the Harvard Human Rights Journal, as an article editor, and as a TA for human rights clinician Thomas Becker. Anoush also published an article in the Human Rights Journal during her 1L fall.
She helped re-establish the Harvard Armenian Law Students Association and served as Vice President her 1L and 2L years, then co-president her 3L year. She also served as a member of La Alianza her 1L year, and for both her 2L and 3L years, she was the social chair for La Alianza, a student organization composed of Latinx and Latin American law students and students interested in issues affecting the Latinx community.
She also joined Parody, the annual show of the HLS Drama Society, and participated for all three years.
Despite receiving the honor of being accepted as a visiting professional at both the International Criminal Court and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anoush was unable to travel to the Hague, Netherlands yet was able to serve as an HLS Human Rights Fellow for the Atlantic Council and the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She spent the second half of her summer working for The Sentry, a human rights NGO based in DC. Throughout the summer, Anoush also served as a research assistant to Human Rights Clinician Susan Farbstein ’04.
In September of her 2L year, Anoush continued participating in Advocates by serving as the director of training and community, bringing trainings to a virtual campus, like how to conduct open source investigations, as well as bringing the Advocates community together through inaugural activities like Advocates Olympics and coffee chats. Anoush also served as a project member on a team investigating corporate accountability for war crimes, such as pillage, in the Middle East. That fall of 2020, a war broke out in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, a disputed territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Anoush turned many of her efforts there. She began writing for Lawfare, an opportunity available to all HLS students, about the conflict. She simultaneously consulted HLS Human Rights Clinicians including Beatrice Lindstrom, Bonnie Docherty, and Tyler Giannini, on action she could take and built a team of Armenian law student peers from around the world, hailing from Argentina, Armenia, and the US, to write reports to the United Nations in a short 3 weeks, culminating in a first report to the Committee on the Elimination on Racial Discrimination, and a second to the Special Rapporteur on Contemporary forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. In January of her 2L year, Anoush established an Advocates project focused on the war. Her Advocates team collaborated with Human Rights First and the Armenian Bar Association and eventually produced a report for the State Department in support of Magnitsky Act sanctions.
As a 2L, Anoush began the first of her many clinical experiences with the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) with supervisor Professor Susan Farbstein drafting a brief for crimes against humanity in The Gambia. She completed an independent clinical with the Center for Justice and Accountability during winter term, and, during the spring of 2021, she joined the Government Lawyer: U.S. Attorney Clinic.
“My clinical and pro bono experience at HLS taught me that the law is not a passive tool, but that it is actively wielded by an agent, the lawyer,” she reflected. “Most importantly, it taught me through countless examples and practice how to be a responsible, ethical, innovative, and kind lawyer, an invaluable and necessary complement to learning the law in the classroom.”
Anoush also pursued four independent writing credits through which she believes her understanding of the law grew greatly, three during her 2L year with Professors Martha Minow, Samantha Power, and Tyler Giannini and one during her 3L year with Professor Alex Whiting. She served as an International Law Journal article editor and Harvard Human Rights Journal submissions editor, and published a piece in the Yale Journal of International Affairs about atrocity crimes against Kurdish people from Afrin, Syria whom she interviewed that year.
Anoush also supplemented her classroom and clinical education with research opportunities. In fall 2020 she served as a teaching assistant for former Ambassador Samantha Power’s geopolitics and human rights course. Throughout her time in law school, Anoush shares that she had the privilege to learn from and serve as a research assistant for seven Harvard Law School professors on: Global Banks on Trial in the U.S. with Professor Howell Jackson; Humanitarian Disarmament with Professor Bonnie Docherty; the Program on International Law & Armed Conflict with Professor Naz Modirzadeh; helping contribute to a database for Bolivia bilingual litigation with Professor Thomas Becker; Transitional Justice with Professor Susan Farbstein; Civil Procedure with Professor Jim Greiner; and co-coordinating a team to build a syllabus for a course to be taught in fall 2022 on Domestic Human Rights Litigation with Professor Tyler Giannini.
Additionally, throughout her 2L and 3L years, Anoush served as a pro bono volunteer at several organizations, including the Armenian Bar Association, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Access to Justice Lab, the State Department Office of the Legal Advisor, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Counterterrorism Section.
She was a Chayes Fellow for the NGO the Center for Truth and Justice (CFTJ), of which she is a founding member, helping to establish the organization in December 2020. For her Chayes fellowship, she worked on documentation and advocacy for the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Anoush also created and coordinated the CFTJ traveling internship program that summer in which 4 HLS students participated and traveled to Armenia to interview victims of the war.
Anoush worked at Foley Hoag for four weeks at the end of the summer, as a summer associate in the International Litigation and Arbitration Department, where she worked on cases before the International Court of Justice regarding genocide and war crimes. And she hosted for the first time an intern program through her NGO, Rerooted. Five HLS students served as interns at Rerooted and the NGO submitted its first report to the United Nations that summer for Syria’s Universal Periodic Review. Thanks to the help of volunteers and interns, the NGO has published four additional reports since then, including submissions to the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, as well as to the special rapporteurs in the fields of cultural rights, minority issues, and the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
During her 3L year, she was involved with the Criminal Prosecution Clinic through which she prosecuted her first jury trial.
She also joined the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, and continued her work with Harvard Mediators, and HLS Advocates. As co-president of Advocates, Anoush found new ways to foster community among students and alumni, coordinating the building of an alumni network and helping to invite alumni speakers to campus including from the the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecution Division, and Human Rights Watch. Anoush also created and served as project leader of a new project team for the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, this time working with the University Network for Human Rights and former HLS IHRC clinician and alumni Thomas Becker ‘08, along with students from Yale and Wesleyan, drafting a report documenting the abuses of the war which will be published this fall, 2022. Anoush is working with victims of the war and family members of the prisoners of war to help create advocacy and justice strategies with them at the center of the efforts.
For her 3L year, she was executive online editor, running the online portion of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. She also published a piece with the HLS International Law Journal.In her 3L fall, Anoush presented about her NGO Rerooted at the HLS library, and had an accompanying exhibition hall displaying clips from interviews, reports, photos, and more, at the inaugural HLS Library Ideas Salon, a space for current HLS students to share and discuss their work beyond the classroom. She was also nominated and selected by her peers to present at “HLS Talks!,” a student-speaker series run by the HLS student government that provides an open forum for HLS students to share their stories as individuals, not just law students.
During January term, she contributed to a report for the ICC advocating for the expansion of the ICC’s jurisdiction. And in the spring, she served as a teaching fellow for professor Ted MacDonald’s Human Rights and Anthropology course at the Harvard Extension School, and pursued an independent study with Human Rights Clinician Tyler Giannini about potential litigation for atrocity crimes in Syria using testimonies from Rerooted.
A stand-out student in the clinical and pro bono community, Anoush graduated with an unprecedented 4,240 pro bono hours during her time at Harvard Law School, and was the winner of the 2022 Andrew L. Kaufman Pro Bono Award.
“My father always says that if you do what you love, then you never work a day in your life,” she reflects. “I have found that to be exceptionally true. It has never felt like I was doing work; rather, it’s always felt as if there was so much more I could be doing, and so many more causes I could be helping. And there are. And likely always will be.”
Anoush shares that HLS has so much to offer and as such she would have loved to apply for the Law Review, travel for clinical opportunities, and join more clinics and take more courses had time or circumstances allowed. When possible, she took as many credits as the registrar would allow, and to top that off, she audited classes for no credit where permitted, starting her 1L spring. “Asking questions about what could be possible, building unique opportunities with professors and peers, and seeking mentorship, opened a world of experiences at HLS thanks to the generosity of professors and staff with their time and dedication to students,” Anoush shares, “reflecting on this, I’m grateful for my mother’s advice to “Ask! The worst that can happen is someone says no!’”
In addition to studying for the Bar exam, she helped organize and participated in a conference in Armenia regarding the 2020 Karabakh war. While in Armenia, Anoush also ran a fellowship program she created through CFTJ for four law students who traveled to Armenia and met human rights professionals and government officials to inform the research papers they will publish and present at next year’s conference. In addition, she won a Humanity in Action fellowship to produce a short film she scripted for which she interviewed descendants of Holocaust survivors whose parents had testified in post-Holocaust tribunals to capture sentiments about the importance of documenting the truth as a form of justice. The video she created was a part of an “untold stories” series and is now available on Humanity in Action’s YouTube channel.
Lastly, for Rerooted, she created a fellowship with HLS’ La Alianza in which La Alianza supported two rising HLS 2Ls to travel to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for two weeks to carry out oral history interviews with Armenians living in Argentina.
After graduating, Anoush joined the International Criminal Court as a visiting professional through the support of the International Legal Studies fellowship.
In January 2024, Anoush will return for a clerkship on the Second Circuit.
Reflecting on her law experiences and opportunities at HLS, she said: “I take with me a newfound appreciation and recognition of not just the law, but my role as a lawyer with the agency to use the law in ways that match and reflect the significance of the responsibility bestowed upon us to do good in this world, close wounds, and alleviate the sense of ethical loneliness afflicting too many communities today.”