Seminar Students Present Findings to Advocates and Government Officials in Washington, D.C.

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Human Rights Policy Seminar trip to DC
Human Rights Policy Seminar students meet with Juan Mendez (center): Natalie Deyneka 3L, Hannah Choe 3L, Jessica Ra '14, Kenneth Jennings '14, Stephanie Mellini '14, Cory Wolfe '14 and Caitlin McCartney 3L.

Natalie Deyneka 3L was drained after her UNC School of Law class Skyped with a client in Italy for whom they are advocating with the United Nations.

“Speaking to someone who has endured things so completely unthinkable is difficult because there is no way to do to undo the wrongs he and his family have experienced,” Deyneka says. “However, it underscores the potential of the legal profession to advocate for individuals whose rights have been violated in significant ways, and it greatly reaffirms my desire to become a lawyer.”

Deyneka took Deborah Weissman’s Human Rights Policy Seminar, which offers opportunities for involvement in non-litigation strategies and collaborations with organizations to address human rights violations. In such transition-to-practice courses, students experience the real challenges — and rewards — of the work.

“They come to appreciate that human rights law is not a practice field that exists only in the realm of international or regional systems, but that it concerns many routine legal problems that particularly affect the poor, women, immigrants and communities of color,” says Weissman, Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law.

Weissman took two groups of students to Washington, D.C., in connection with their seminar projects.

On the first trip, Deyneka and her classmates met in March with Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture. Students discussed their policy brief supporting Abou ElKassim Britel, a naturalized Italian citizen falsely charged with passport violations while traveling in Pakistan in 2002. According to Britel and a number of human rights organizations, U.S. officials took custody of him, tortured him and flew (extraordinarily rendered) him to a Moroccan prison, where he was tortured and released after nine years. The brief explains the legal obligation of four governments to offer Britel official apologies.

The students’ work so impressed Mendez, he asked them to send him a petition on Britel’s behalf along with their brief.

“The seminar was one of the most enriching experiences I have had in law school. By arranging these real-world projects, Professor Weissman not only introduced us to important, critically relevant human rights issues, she gave us an opportunity to take part in shaping the legal discourse,” says Kenneth Jennings, who was involved with the Britel project.

In April, another student group met with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to present their findings about how a lack of adequate legal representation works against low-income people in reaching successful outcomes in the court system and deprives poor defendants of justice. They developed a policy brief to be used with the efforts of a coalition of organizations, which asks the commission to hold hearings on those issues.

Students also presented to officials from the Department of Justice and other federal agencies about access to competent legal aid in housing and immigration issues, as well as the indigent defense crisis, in connection with the U.S. government’s treaty obligations. The issue is timely because in 2015 the U.N. Human Rights Council will assess the U.S. human rights record as part of a periodic review.

“Advocates and government officials commented to me that the students were prepared, articulate, focused and otherwise made excellent presentations,” Weissman says.

-July 11, 2014

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