Re-Imagining the Human Rights Law Clinic
26 Maryland Journal of International Law 80 (2011)
34 Pages Posted: 3 Jun 2020 Last revised: 4 Jun 2020
Date Written: 2011
This article, co-authored with Chilean law professor Nicolás Espejo, engages the debate in U.S. clinical circles about how best to configure an international human rights law clinic, given that such clinics are widely perceived to be substantially different from their domestic law counterparts. This perception has led many U.S. human rights clinicians to favor the non-legal dimension of human rights advocacy in their teaching, such as fact-finding and reporting. In this context, we address a number of threshold questions: How different are clinics of the human rights variety from more traditional models that center on providing legal services to clients? Should the focus of the former be litigation, or is it preferable to emphasize other types of nonlegal advocacy? Does it make sense, for example, to teach classic lawyering skills such as client interviewing and counseling to human rights clinical students who have systemic change and broader advocacy objectives in mind? In short, should we be training lawyers or human rights activists?
Our approach is first to present a summary of the evolution, focus, and function of public interest and human rights clinics in Latin America. While some variation naturally exists among the different manifestations of this model, there are also common denominators of shared purpose, perspective, and practice. Having defined the Latin American model, we analyze and illustrate it with select case studies from the aforementioned countries before outlining a number of useful lessons to be drawn from the Latin American experience. And while we recognize that there were important differences between the two clinical worlds we compared, we conclude there are even more similarities that, to our minds, help to bridge the geographic divide and allow for productive comparison.
Based on the Latin American model and our own experience in the field, we conclude that the same core skill set embraced by most traditional law clinics in the United States – legal interviewing, counseling, negotiation, and oral advocacy – can well play an important role in the configuration of U.S. human rights law clinics too, more than is generally recognized. Whether these basic lawyering skills are taught is, at bottom, a pedagogic choice made by the clinical professor, not a limitation inherent in human rights clinics per se or a function of any particular definition of human rights advocacy. We argue, moreover, that these basic legal skills are highly transferable and thus invaluable to all kinds of advocacy, human rights included, and not just in the litigation context. In short, we take the view that international human rights clinic could, and should, be configured to train skilled and ethical legal professionals capable of practicing competently in any legal field, including but not limited to human rights
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