Miami Law Human Rights Clinic and Partners "Bring Human Rights Home"


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Professor Rebecca Sharpless leading a discussion (Photo: Miami Law) 

Students, lawyers, community organizers, social justice advocates, and Miami Law professors came together on August 16 and17 for the unique training session Human Rights Advocacy in the U.S. on integrating human rights into legal practice and advocacy.

The two-day workshop was sponsored by the Local Human Rights Lawyering Project at the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law and the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law. Attendees learned how to incorporate human rights arguments into advocacy before judges and policymakers and how to integrate human rights principles into the client-lawyer relationship, as well as organizational decision-making systems.

Miami Law Professor Stephen Schnably, started the training session with a broad overview of international human rights law and its role in the United States.

Attention was drawn to the fact that the usual legal research routes, such as LexisNexis and Westlaw, provided little help in the realm of international law.

Lauren Bartlett, Director of the Local Human Rights Lawyering Project at American University, gave a useful tutorial on how to use Human Rights in the U.S.: A Handbook for Legal Aid Attorneys. Bartlett explained the concept behind the handbook, a working document that continues to expand as human rights arguments are made and successes are achieved. The Handbook, which can be found online, is meant to serve as a starting place for legal aid attorneys who are seeking practical and useable human rights information. The guide contains simple language that makes it easy for attorneys to explain human rights concepts to their clients.

Nelson Mock, Human Rights Coordinator at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, stressed the importance of properly building human rights arguments. His central theme was that attorneys must know their forum and be able to explain why human rights law is relevant to the court and the case presented.

Jessica Carvalho Morris, Director of International Graduate Law Programs at Miami Law and General Secretary on the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA, and Cathy Albisa, Executive Director of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, focused their presentation on the role of Special Rapporteurs, Treaty Bodies, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ("IACHR"). Participants learned how to work with entities and to use best practices for selecting cases and issues to bring before each type of international mechanism.

The training took an emotional turn when Professor Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Miami Law, presented the case of Jessica Lenahan (Gonzales), whose daughters were abducted by her estranged husband in 1999 and killed after the police repeatedly refused to enforce her domestic violence restraining order against him.

Ultimately after all domestic avenues of justice were exhausted (see Castle Rock v. Gonzales), Bettinger-Lopez and others brought Ms. Lenahan's case to the IACHR in 2005 (see full IACHR decision or key excerpts). In 2011, the Commission found the U.S. responsible for human rights violations against Jessica Lenahan. The IACHR underscored that violence against women is a human rights violation involving state responsibility in the U.S. and around the world. The IACHR's decision highlights the U.S.'s failure to fulfill its legal obligation to protect women from domestic violence.

An interactive group exercise on human rights strategies and arguments afforded attendees the opportunity to simulate the exercise of incorporating human rights strategies and arguments into their legal practice. From client intake to case strategy, participants were asked to discuss the ways in which human rights themes could effectively permeate the various parts of their organization.

Emphasis was placed on coming up with creative ways to use non-legal means to achieve client goals and social justice. Professor Rebecca Sharpless, Director of the Miami Law Immigration Clinic, led participants through a discussion of how to use legal and non-legal means to achieve the end goals of their advocacy projects.

Human rights messaging, if done carefully, can create effective campaigns and arguments for public rallies or international courtrooms. Kelleen Corrigan, Practitioner-in-Residence and Lecturer in Law at the Human Rights Clinic, outlined the seven steps of human rights messaging: (1) define the issue; (2) decide what the goal is; (3) define the audience; (4) develop strategies for reaching the target audience; (5) develop the advocacy message; (6) develop an implementation plan; and, (7) monitor and evaluate.

At the close of the training, participants were asked to write down three different ways they would incorporate the lessons learned into their work. While there were many ideas shared, one theme stood out —international law and human rights strategies can have a significant role in domestic advocacy efforts. A concept that seemed so abstract at the start of the session became one that the participants could translate into action; now, they have strategies to bring human rights home.