Overview of the Human Rights Clinic
The Human Rights Clinic prepares students for lifelong careers in social justice advocacy around the globe. Through the Clinic, students join a community of advocates working to promote human rights and to recalibrate the global power imbalances that drive economic and political inequality, exploitation, threats to physical security, poverty, and environmental injustice. Through fact-finding, reporting, litigation, media engagement, advocacy, training, and innovative methods, the Clinic seeks to prevent abuse, advance respect for human rights, and promote accountability for violations. Embedded in the Clinic’s work is a commitment to the values of equality and mutual exchange in transnational partnerships; respect for rights-holder autonomy, voice, and power; and diversity, inclusion, full participation, and justice within the human rights field.
Through a combination of Seminars and Project Work, and with the mentorship of the Clinic’s professors and supervisors, students develop the wide range of skills necessary to be strategic and creative human rights advocates, critically analyze human rights, and advance the human rights methodologies of the Clinic and the human rights field.
Clinic Seminars provide a map of the terrain of international human rights advocacy, including the field’s dominant forms of action, strategies, methods and critiques, which equips students with the knowledge and the tools to navigate the field with confidence and critical reflection. Students learn to assess where they and human rights projects are positioned, the available tools or routes for action, and how to ethically, pragmatically, and responsibly choose which steps to take toward which ends. They learn project selection, design, and strategy; choice and sequence of advocacy tactics; fact-finding methodologies and evidence assessment; interdisciplinary research methods; interviewing witnesses, experts, and perpetrators; digital and physical security; report and brief-writing; using judicial and quasi-judicial processes; advocacy options at the local, national, regional, and international levels; engaging the press and using social media; mitigating vicarious trauma and promoting resilience and well-being; ethical frameworks and the navigation of ethical dilemmas; and accountability and project evaluation. The Clinic engages students in an active and co-creator mode of education, and students are taught to self-assess and monitor their own progress, and are involved in building the methods, pedagogy, and institution of the Clinic itself.
Students work in teams on projects that are designed to pursue social justice in partnership with civil society and communities. The Clinic Projects vary from year to year, each addressing marginalized, urgent, and complex human rights issues around the world, including in the Central African Republic, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Yemen, and the United States. This year’s projects focus on corporate accountability for human rights violations and environmental harms in the extractives industry, labor and education rights of immigrant communities and religious minorities, human rights and humanitarian law violations in counterterrorism operations and armed conflict, the right to mental health during armed conflict, abuses by international peacekeepers, and sexual violence. Through its project work, the Clinic functions similarly to a non-governmental organization, with students implementing advocacy projects.
Drawing upon its seat at the intersection of theory and practice, the Clinic is also a laboratory for testing and modeling new and innovative modes of human rights work, and seeks to be a model of rigorous and critical human rights advocacy. This includes a focus on enhancing human rights methods through interdisciplinary partnerships, critical reflection on human rights practice, and sustainable advocacy through attention to vicarious trauma and resilience.
To provide a support structure for these goals, and to contribute to a strong and collaborative human rights community at Columbia Law School and beyond, the Clinic builds a network of current students, alumni, scholars, and advocates who support one another and collaborate toward the advancement of human rights.
** Human Rights Clinic Mentorship Program**
Accountability for “Targeted Killings” and Drone Strikes: In September 2014, the Clinic launched a new project to promote accountability for US “targeted killings” and drone strikes. This work built upon prior work undertaken by the Clinic under the direction of Naureen Shah. The Clinic worked with U.S. and international civil society groups to develop joint NGO letters to both the UN and the US government urging greater transparency, accountability, and compliance with international law in the use of drones for lethal targeting. The Clinic also prepared extensive research on advocacy work and strategies, hosted strategy meetings with civil society organizations, and conducted consultations with military, civil society, UN, and international law actors, as well as journalists and Yemeni experts to develop new advocacy projects to address drone strikes.
Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic: In 2014-2015, the Human Rights Clinic developed a new partnership and project with a Central African Republic (CAR) NGO to support their work related to war crimes investigations, accountability, and the promotion of peace and reconciliation in the country. In December 2013, a brutal civil war erupted in the CAR, with frequent occurrences of war crimes and widespread displacement of the civilian population. There is now a UN peacekeeping mission in the country, although humanitarian conditions remain poor for many residents, and there is widespread impunity for war crimes. The Clinic designed a joint project with CAR civil society to develop a secure war crimes evidence database, prepare legal advice on the elements of war crimes and international humanitarian law violations, and guidelines on gathering and storing evidence. In June 2015, Knuckey traveled to the CAR to support the domestic NGO’s investigations.
Business and Human Rights in the Global Economy: Peru. In 2014, the Human Rights Clinic launched a new effort to support communities and social organizations mobilizing against a proposed gold mining project known as Conga in Cajamarca, Peru. Community members fear that the project, if allowed to go forward, will result in negative impacts to the environment and human health stemming primarily from harm to water quality and access. Local communities say that the mere existence of the project has already adversely impacted human rights, calling attention to violence against protesters by security forces acting on behalf of the company, and harassment and efforts to forcibly displace those living near the mine concession area. The Clinic is supporting the affected communities through an exploration of the responsibility of the different companies and institutions involved in the project (including a U.S. mining company and the International Financial Corporation of the World Bank) in light of the application of international legal norms and standards. In March 2015, the Clinic traveled to Lima and Cajamarca to meet with organizations, activists, and affected communities to discuss and advance legal strategies seeking to stop the project. The Clinic also supported a legal action in a U.S. federal court seeking discovery of information held by the U.S. company regarding an incident of violent repression of protest activity at the mine site in November 2011 that left many protesters injured.
Business and Human Rights in the Global Economy: Papua New Guinea. HRI and the Human Rights Clinic support communities dealing with the environmental and social consequences of the Porgera Gold Mine, a mine owned by a Canadian company, in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea. The thousands of indigenous people living in villages surrounding the mine fear that mine operations have polluted their rivers and streams, contaminated rainwater, caused erosion and landslides, and contributed to poor air quality and low crop yield – but have had little access to independent assessments of these environmental concerns. Residents requested the Clinic to carry out independent research of any environmental and health impacts. After extensive research and preparation – including on rights-based mixed-methods research, the rights to water and health, international and domestic environmental law, and interviewing technique – in December 2014-January 2015, the Clinic traveled to the region along with environmental scientists from the Earth Institute of Columbia University, as well as a film-maker. The team conducted an interdisciplinary rights-based study, blending physical science and human rights methodology, to assess the mine’s environmental and human rights impacts. Sarah Knuckey also traveled to the region for a month in July 2015 to carry out additional research. The results of the study will be published and shared with the communities in early 2016.
Separately, the Clinic also works on issues related to physical abuse by the mine’s security guards. For years, residents have alleged that mine security guards engaged in beatings and sexual assault, including gang rapes, of local residents. After earlier work investigating these violations, the Human Rights Institute and the Human Rights Clinic have been analyzing the mining company’s recent efforts to compensate sexual assault victims through the creation of a non-judicial remedy mechanism. A major report and an academic article will be published in 2015 as part of a multi-pronged analysis of corporate non-judicial grievance mechanisms for human rights abuses. In October 2014, the Institute and Clinic also hosted with EarthRights International a workshop of international experts to discuss community-led grievance mechanisms, as an alternative model for remedying these types of abuses.
Faculty and Staff
Sarah Knuckey, Director, Human Rights Clinic; Faculty Co-Director, Human Rights Institute
To read Sarah Knuckey's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the faculty webpage.
Benjamin Hoffman, Senior Clinical Teaching Fellow, Human Rights Clinic
To read Ben Hoffman's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the HRI webpage.
Alex Moorehead, Director, Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights; Lecturer-in-Law
To read Alex Moorehead's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the HRI webpage.
JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director, Human Rights in the U.S. Project; Lecturer-in-Law
To read JoAnn Kamuf Ward's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the HRI webpage.
Rahma A. Hussein, Legal Fellow, Project on Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict, and Human Rights
To read Rahma A. Hussein's full biography and to find her contact information, visit the HRI webpage.
Anjli Parrin, Legal Fellow, Advancing Reconciliation and Accountability through Forensic Investigations in the Central African Republic Project