Please note: We have changed the student's name.
June 2, 1997
Dear Ms. Parker,
Recently when looking up information on human rights on the Internet, I ended up at your home page. I read with interest your biography as well as the articles and resources on the page. I am writing to you today because my career goal is to work in human rights and humanitarian law.
I am currently an undergraduate student at The George Washington University in Washington D.C. One question I have for you is in regard to foreign language proficiency. I have studied French ever since seventh grade. I am done with my foreign language requirement now. I don't know whether I should continue in French. I don't plan on concentrating on Western Europe. But since human rights is a rather global field with lots of work based in Geneva, part of me feels that I should continue my French studies. Do you think that would be the right course of action or should I pursue learning another language, such as Spanish? How many languages do you speak? Is being multilingual really a requirement for your line of work?
The French you've already studied should be sufficient. However,it would be wise to learn some Spanish. You might also consider Russian, Japanese and Arabic, which are official languages of the United Nations in which few American attorneys are trained. A competency in any one of them would be extremely useful.
In deciding where you will go, a developing country is an excellent idea. This way you can acquire a deeper understanding of the context in which many basic human rights issues unfold and in which they are addressed. If you have been raised in a wealthy, industrialized society like the United States, this alternate perspective will be of immense value, I think, in your own personal and professional development.
I also highly recommend to anyone wishing to pursue human rights work to attend the training session offered each summer at the International Institute for Human Rights in Strasbourg. The training is conducted in English and does not require any formal legal education. Unlike a program offered at an American law school abroad, at the institute you will get a truly international perspective. The instructors are officials of the United Nations, the Organization of American States (O.A.S.), the Organization of African Unity, the Council of Europe and the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) I found this training especially important in my humanitarian law education. You can write to the institute at 1 Quai Lezay-Marnesia, Strasbourg, FRANCE, 67000. Telephone: 33-88-350550.
You should try to get the best legal education possible. That means the best law school you can find that accepts you. An increasing number of American schools offer courses in human rights, but at the J.D. level you don't have much flexibility in choosing non-core courses. Courses in humanitarian (armed conflict) law are even rarer, which is what makes the Strasbourg program so valuable in a human rights attorney's education.
At the master's level, there are a number of excellent programs available, at Oxford, as you mentioned, and also the London School of Economics, Columbia University, the Human Rights Center at Notre Dame University, and elsewhere in the United States. These include the schools in your area, like Georgetown and the American University.
(The university links listed in the Research and Education section at the Human Rights Interactive Network main website may be helpful in your exploration. A link is provided at the bottom of this page -Editor.)
There also foreign governments and legislatures, or nongovernmental human rights organizations (NGO's) like my own. With regard to the NGO's, be sure to carefully investigate the organization's mission statement, goals and specific focusses to see if they match your own objectives.
At the U.N. level, one alternative not very often publicized is working for one of the "rapporteurs" appointed by the Commission on Human Rights to investigate a particular area of concern, such as violence against women, the environment, and sometimes specific countries where the human rights situation is particularly egregious.
Don't overlook local groups in your area which may be engaged in country-specific campaigns, assisting Cambodians, Burmese, Kashmiris, etc. With these groups you would not only develop a network of contacts, but possible clientele for after you get your law degree.
With regard to starting my own career as an attorney, I interned with the Organization of American States and externed with California Supreme Court Justice Frank Newman before branching out on my own. By then I had numerous contacts internationally and undertook projects on behalf of Disabled People's International and the International Indian Treaty Council, among other organizations.
I have been consulting attorney to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and from time to time am invited or requested by NGO's, governments, opposition groups, or resistance movements to give briefings or prepare memoranda on the application of humanitarian law to a specific conflict or situation.
But even with all these avenues combined, private attorneys like myself usually subsist on air, sweat and saliva. Traveling to Geneva twice a year to attend the sessions at the Commission and Sub-commission level is not cheap, and I've found that the success I achieve there is often accompanied by controversy from various governments. After all, governments don't like to be accused of violating human rights or carrying out war crimes. There are even some detractors within the field, who you would think would be more supportive. The combined ferment generated by all these forces at times constitutes a formidable obstacle, not only for me but some of my peers.
This is certainly true in the area of fundraising. It is not simply a matter of limited resources. Philanthropic donors and foundations tend to shy away from controversy. They may also be unfamiliar with what takes place at the Commission and Subcommission sessions in Geneva, or how humanitarian (armed conflict) law works to prevent wars, as well as stop those already in progress. In reality, it affords the best means of "conflict resolution" available today, for unlike other peace initiatives and programs, it actually engages the parties to the conflicts, who are required by international treaties to bring about a speedy cessation to hostilities.
In short, you have to weave your way as best you can in dodging the bullets, from whatever direction they happen to be coming from.
To find out more information about schools with human rights programs, please refer to our university listings under Research and Education.