Redefining Human Rights Lawyering Through the Lens of Critical Theory: Lessons for Pedagogy and Practice
63 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2011 Last revised: 12 Jul 2013
Date Written: February 23, 2011
In recent years, human rights law clinics have mushroomed across the United States, specializing in work ranging from direct representation of asylum seekers in U.S. courts, to international litigation, to project-based advocacy of conducting fact-finding missions and producing reports documenting human rights violations throughout the world. At the same time, domestic poverty law clinics are increasingly framing some of their advocacy, which often takes the forms of direct legal services, community lawyering, and law reform, in terms of human rights.
Critiques of international human rights lawyering often point to the imperialist narratives and victim essentializing that are often perpetuated in human rights lawyering. These critiques may apply with equal force to the international and domestic human rights arenas, including to the direct representation of vulnerable individuals experiencing human rights violations. Human rights clinical law professors often struggle alongside students to develop lawyering strategies and approaches that are responsive to those critiques yet still are effective in achieving the goals of clients - be they individuals, groups, or organizations.
While these ethical, strategic, and pedagogic challenges may be novel for human rights clinicians, they are familiar terrain for many poverty lawyers who have long-struggled with similar challenges in the context of direct representation of poor, marginalized clients and engagement in law reform and impact advocacy efforts. Clinicians in other areas of social justice lawyering, particularly those working in the poverty law arena, have developed a rich body of scholarship in this area that has itself been influenced by the corpus of critical legal and social theory.
As human rights and poverty law clinicians, we initially presented the core themes addressed in this article during a workshop we collectively led at the 2010 AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education. Here, we seek to further develop these themes. We review the ways in which critical theory has been introduced to address these vexing questions concerning victim essentialization and othering in poverty and community development law clinics in the U.S., and then explore strategies for redefining human rights lawyering in a way that is responsive to critical theorists and that informs and expands our teaching, our advocacy, and our students' sense of what it means to be a human rights lawyer. In the process, we explore the changing role that human rights law and advocacy has come to play in social justice initiatives in the U.S.
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