This summer, HLS students traveled to distant locations – in Burma, Sierra Leone, Budapest, The Netherlands, Bolivia, South Africa, Ireland and Argentina – to do human rights advocacy work. Fifteen students were awarded Human Rights Program internships, working at Legal Aid in South Africa, Human Rights Education Institute in Burma and Irish Centre for Human Rights, among other places. Below, three students describe their summer experiences:

Alejandro Canelas Fernandez ’12
Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales
Buenos Aires, Argentina

It all happened very quickly: New city, new job, new system of law. It also went by very quickly, in the space of eight summer weeks. Still, the time I spent working for the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) in Buenos Aires was incomparable.

Argentinians have a way of embracing foreigners that I’ve rarely witnessed in other countries. They’re warm and jovial, without making you feel like an “other.” From my first day at the CELS office, the staff threw me into the mix.

In that cramped, cluttered office in downtown Buenos Aires, I was immersed in discussions about pressing human rights issues, strategizing how best to address them, and producing the documents to carry out that objective. I worked with directors on amicus briefs addressing police brutality and exploring the impact of new media regulations.  CELS also encouraged us interns to leave the office to get a sense of the bigger picture. We attended trials of military officials accused of committing crimes during the country’s military dictatorship, rallies in support of the equal marriage bill that was passed into law, and other relevant activities occurring across the city.

I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture. There were moments of genuine frustration, as there can be in any institution. In one instance, we had 24 hours to revise a grant proposal; we worked nonstop to complete it in time, only to find out that the format specified by the funder needed to be changed.

Still, I was able to meet the challenges thanks to the people working for the NGO. My supervisors and coworkers are not only among the most talented lawyers in Argentina and Latin America, they are also prestigious academics, educating the next generations of human rights advocates and raising awareness at a global level.

Above all, they are activists – individuals devoted to doing their part in the uphill battle to protect human rights. I felt privileged to work with them for two months. It was an experience that has set the bar for all jobs to come.

Yonina Alexander ’12
Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law
Sierra Leone

When I reflect on my summer in Sierra Leone, I think of explosions. Not explosions of gunfire and grenades; those ended with the civil war in 2002.  I think instead of explosions of color — the blazing greens, reds and blues of the country’s landscape, reflected in the vibrant fabrics worn by women around their waists.  I think of explosions of flavor — the unmistakable taste of hot chili peppers, ground into cassava leaves and barracuda, cooked over an open flame. And I think of the warmth and friendliness of the strangers on the street, the countless ‘howdebody?!’ salutations that greeted me wherever I went.

Sadly, I also think of explosions of hostility and anger. Sierra Leone still struggles with common occurrences of vigilante justice, especially in reaction to theft. Sometimes, from my office at a local NGO in Freetown, I would hear cries from public beatings. I was struck by the energy and vitality that surrounded me in Sierra Leone, but perhaps most striking was the combustibility of it all.

I spent the summer with an organization called the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL-SL), a human rights group that works to ensure government compliance with both domestic and international law. I was the only non-Sierra Leonean working in the Freetown office, and I spent many hours with the local interns, discussing their views on the country’s decade-long civil war, the transitional justice mechanisms that followed, and prospects for future reform.

Most of my work, however, focused on gender-related issues. In Sierra Leone, women are often considered the property of their husbands, denied the opportunity to own property themselves, and given little recourse in the event of domestic violence. The country recently passed three Gender Laws designed to directly address these issues, but actual implementation of the law has been slow.

As part of my work, I wrote an evaluation of the National Gender Strategy Plan, a recent policy paper issued by the government. I examined the plan in light of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty signed and ratified by Sierra Leone, and the recommendations of the country’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I looked for gaps between what the government is required to do, and what it has done, and suggested means for improvement.

My research led me to a regional conference on the implementation of two UN Security Council Resolutions relating to women and security.  I will always remember the sense of empowerment and responsibility that filled the conference hall, as these West African women pushed for enforcement of resolutions that would improve their lives and those of their fellow countrywomen. I left Sierra Leone with a sense of hope, believing that such efforts might one day provide a stabilizing element to this small West African state.

Ashley Chung ’12
Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales
Buenos Aires, Argentina

I spent my 1L summer in Argentina, working for Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN), an environmental rights NGO in Buenos Aires. As an intern at FARN, I worked on a number of interesting and challenging projects with the organization’s executive director and coordinator for institutional development.

My biggest project focused on management of international waterways. I compared the legal framework for international waterway management in both the European Union and the Mercosur region of South America, and suggested ways in which Argentina could improve its system. I also translated an article on an Argentine court decision regarding construction in the wetlands; drafted letters in Spanish for lobbying and development cooperation purposes among Argentine NGOs; and helped organize a cross-sector conference on the UN, global environmental governance, and civil society participation.

FARN was both a friendly and relaxed work environment. My Argentine co-workers were not only willing to answer my questions, they also gave me advice on sights to see in Buenos Aires, tips on acclimating to Argentine culture, and a list of the best restaurants in the city. Meanwhile, I was also taking a seminar on human rights in Latin America as part of HLS’ Human Rights Program. The bilingual class met once a week at the Universidad de Palermo, and offered the six of us from HLS the chance to discuss human rights issues with a group of Argentine law students who brought their own work experience and perspectives to the table.

Between the HLS/Universidad de Palermo seminar and my work at FARN, I was able to get a broad perspective on rights-based public interest work and the NGO network in Argentina.  At the same time, I had plenty of free time in evenings and weekends to explore Buenos Aires and travel to other parts of Argentina, including Iguazu Falls (by the Argentine-Brazilian border), Jujuy province (near the Argentine-Bolivian border), and San Antonio de Areco. Overall, I had an incredible summer experience – despite the fact that it was technically Argentine winter the entire time I was there!