December 16, 2013
photo: Students in the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic lead know-your-rights trainings for LGBT and women’s organizations on enforcing international human rights standards in Haiti.
Catching up with globe-trotting CUNY Law Professor Lisa Davis (’08) can be a challenge, especially when she’s tracking the progress of long-term projects taken on by the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR) and her students.
Geneva and Beirut were on her recent travel itinerary, as was Port-au-Prince, where the clinic has for years had a measurable impact on women’s lives. After the devastating 2010 earthquake, IWHR used international mechanisms to get Haiti to improve lighting and security in earthquake displacement camps to help protect women from sexual violence. Since 2010, IWHR has partnered with grassroots women’s and, more recently, LGBT groups to leverage international pressure to promote other legal and policy reforms that address the discrimination and violence faced by these communities.
photo: IWHR Clinic alumna Blakeley Decktor (’12) and student Kathleen Thomas (’14) conduct interviews about the recent upsurge in violence against Haitian women human rights defenders.
“I’m traveling with our IWHR Haiti team. The students will interview survivors of violence, engage with U.N. agencies, and conduct know-your-rights trainings for LGBT and women’s grassroots organizations on enforcing international human rights standards in Haiti,” Davis relayed in an e-mail.
IWHR’s work in Haiti expanded after this summer’s outbreak of violent protests in Port-au-Prince against LGBT Haitians. Students conducted fact-finding investigations into the violence. In addition, they investigated whether IWHR can litigate regionally against the government after attempts on the life of a women’s human rights defender.
The students’ latest trip also taught local groups about the current provisions strengthening women’s rights in a draft law that would modernize Haiti’s penal code. Born from IWHR litigation and petitioning of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2010, the draft law aims to enhance protections and improve access to justice.
“What’s really incredible about this project is the extent to which it’s been responsive to the needs of communities in Haiti,” said IWHR Director Cynthia Soohoo. “We have longterm partners [there], and our work has been driven by their goals. That has enabled us to ensure that reforms we seek actually reflect the priorities of grassroots groups.”
At this writing, the draft law criminalizing violence against women was anticipated to come to a vote before Haiti’s Parliament. The Ministry of Justice, at IWHR and partners’ request, had already approved the inclusion of provisions criminalizing marital rape in its penal code revision.
Parliament’s passage of the draft law would help Haiti meet international standards for protecting women and address genderbased human rights violations. Once passed, the law would make marital rape and sexual harassment crimes; legalize therapeutic abortion in the first trimester, if the woman’s health is at risk; and help protect Haiti’s LGBT community from discrimination.
“If approved, it would be a landmark in legislation addressing gender-based violence in Haiti by implementing the long-term recommendations of the Inter-American Commission and ultimately change the lives of countless women in Haiti,” said Davis.
Achieving such results in international forums has put the spotlight on IWHR since its founding by the late Rhonda Copelon in the 1990s, attracting students to CUNY Law who seek to protect and support women’s human rights.
“I said to myself: ‘I have to go to that school because of that clinic,'” Nermina Zecirovic-Arnaud (’13) remembered, after once hearing Copelon deliver a presentation. By the time Zecirovic-Arnaud got to CUNY Law, the clinic was in the hands of Davis and Soohoo.
“Lisa and Cindy are phenomenal. They continue [Rhonda Copelon’s] legacy really well,” said Zecirovic-Arnaud, who traveled twice to Haiti during her time at the law school, conducting fact-finding investigations on human rights violations committed against victims of sexual violence and LGBT discrimination. As one of three students on the Haiti team, she learned how to write U.N. legal submissions and conduct legal investigations with cultural sensitivity.
“It was an incredible experience to talk to grassroots organizations and women survivors” of sexual and gender-based violence, she said, “and to learn how resilient they are, despite their circumstances and living conditions. All the abuses they face, and they are still advocating for themselves and not giving up.”
What students learn in the clinic they take well beyond the walls of CUNY Law. This experience not only helps them gain employment; it also better prepares them for their future careers.
“We have alums working in all sorts of human rights fields, from litigating to trafficking cases to documenting LGBT human rights violations worldwide,” said Davis. “Our grads tell me that the work they did in IWHR made them feel better prepared to engage in interviewing, documenting, preparing prima facie cases, and so much more.”
Natasha Bannan (’11) recently applied what she learned from IWHR about international forums and human rights treaties to bring a petition to IACHR charging the United States with 70 years of human rights violations on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, stemming from the U.S. use of the island for bombing practice and biochemical warfare testing. Her petition, brought on behalf of the island’s residents, picked up international media attention from outlets as diverse as ABC News, the Huffington Post, and Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Dia.
“The U.S. military refused to acknowledge any connection to the subsequent health and environmental hazards and the harsh consequences [to island residents], including disproportionately high rates of cancer, hypertension, kidney failure, respiratory illnesses, and skin conditions. [The U.S. did] serious harm to the environment as well: the land, the surrounding water, and the air. There’s been no redress for seven decades,” said Bannan, who cochairs the international committee for the National Lawyers Guild. She also is a legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Working on cases such as Vieques is something Bannan sees herself doing in future years.
“It’s why I went to CUNY Law School,” she said. “To do this kind of work, to apply my knowledge and skills I have learned on behalf of a community that I am a part of to try to seek justice. To me, it’s what it means to be a lawyer.”
Students also learn that they can play a serious part in international legal processes, even though ultimate justice may be years away. But the wait is well worth it.
“It’s a long process, but it has the potential to have a big payoff,” said Blakeley Decktor (’12), who worked on IWHR projects in Haiti, Guatemala, and Colombia. “You do see results as a government is forced into action, stepping in and being responsible for doing what it was already obligated to do” but had failed to do before.
Decktor, now a legal fellow and program officer of documentation and advocacy at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), learned from IWHR what she does today in her job at IGLHRC: working with other human rights organizations and activists, writing U.N. legal submissions, documenting human rights violations.
Traveling for the first time to Haiti this fall as a CUNY graduate, Decktor trained human rights defenders and grassroots groups on how to do the same kind of human rights documentation work IWHR has done over the years, and how to turn that documentation into a report to submit to the United Nations. Such reports keep governments in check when they have not fulfilled human rights agreements under treaties.
Decktor said that one of the best things that came from her experience with IWHR was traveling abroad, meeting and working directly with the people who were fighting to help themselves.
“Two years ago when I was in the clinic as a student, I met in Geneva some of the [Haitian] activists from KOFAVIV [an organization established by and for rape survivors from Port-au-Prince] that we partnered with. They’re really wonderful, dynamic women,” said Decktor.
Visiting countries in conflict, and having direct access to the people who need help to succeed in their fight, is awe-inspiring and compassion-building for IWHR students.
“It’s one thing to learn about international human rights theoretically and to write these reports, but to truly see the impact on the ground is something different,” said Zecirovic-Arnaud. “I feel inspired and empowered to be able to help people and learn from them. It feels incredible.”
When students relay how much IWHR has helped them prepare for the world outside law school, it makes all the difference to Lisa Davis.
“It’s those notes that reaffirm my commitment to the work of IWHR, and it’s why I look forward to teaching at CUNY Law each day—knowing it makes a difference,” she said.
At the same time, IWHR takes CUNY Law’s stated mission of “law in the service of human needs” to an international level.
“We’re working with communities that are most affected and trying to figure out how to use and change laws to ensure that their fundamental rights are respected,” stated Soohoo.
— Paul Lin