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By Paul Wachter
New York, April 29, 2009 -- Human rights advocates interested in learning more about the legal theory behind the practice – and how to bridge the two – come from countries around the world to pursue an LL.M. degree at Columbia Law School. Four of those students recently spoke at a panel sponsored by the Human Rights Institute and Rightslink, the University’s international human rights student organization.
Morgane Landel, a graduate of the College of Law in London, spent three months in 2007 as a human rights abuse investigator in Colombia, working on several cases alongside local lawyers and human rights advocates. Not long into her stay, she met Luis Miguel Gomez Porto, a trade union activist, who had been arrested in 2005 and accused of membership in the FARC guerilla group. He spent a year in prison, but ultimately was acquitted by the court.
“These were trumped up charges by the government because they didn’t like what he was doing,” Landel said. Porto remained worried about his safety, having had received threats from authorities in Coloso, a town near his village. On May 3, 2008, he was arrested by army soldiers, shot, and killed.
“The authorities often use the legal system to take out people they don’t like, and will resort to worse if that doesn’t work,” Landel said.
Landel also worked in the United Kingdom, which, though a mature democracy, has its share of problems, Landel said. She pointed to racism within the legal system.
“For instance, in the U.K. the penalties for crack and cocaine are the same. But people arrested for having crack, who tend to be minorities, typically get longer sentences than whites with cocaine,” Landel said.
Tyler Gillard, a graduate of the University of London’s law school at the School of Oriental and African Studies, moved to northern India in 2002 to start an organic farm, working closely with Tibetan exiles. “While I was there, it worked, but when I left it failed,” he said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”
But it was good experience for Gillard’s next venture, Glocality, a non-governmental organization that cultivates microdevelopment in India. “We send researchers to work with local communities to determine appropriate project proposals for development,” Gillard explained.
Meanwhile, he continued working with Tibetans in an ongoing lawsuit before Spain’s top criminal court, accusing several Chinese leaders of genocide against its Tibetan minority. “In London, I took witness testimonies, working with Human Rights Watch on Tibet.”
The rights of migrant workers was the focus of Jonathan Berman, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law. Before coming to Columbia, where is a Human Rights Fellow, he served as the legal advisor of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli human rights organization based in Tel Aviv.
The organization, established in 1998, helps refugees and asylum-seekers, who are coming to Israel in increasing numbers from North African countries. “In 2000, there were 165 asylum seekers, and in 2008 there were more than 7,000,” Berman said. “The system meant to adjudicate asylum claims was overrun, and Israel has been left with a lot of asylum seekers stuck in improvised detention shelters.”
Under a 2002 Israeli law, Sudanese refugees were denied refugee status and designated “enemy nationals,” whereby they could be detained without hearings or recourse to judicial review. In March 2006, Hotline sued, claiming such detentions were unconstitutional. The Israeli Supreme Court skirted the constitutional issue, but said Sudanese refugees were entitled to the review process. A year later, hundreds of Sudanese asylum seekers were released from detention, and Israel reformed its detention laws.
“Not every case is successful, however,” Berman said. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court rejected a Hotline petition to close a children’s section of a desert detention center. “Again the Court evaded the relevant legal issues, saying it didn’t think it was appropriate to weigh in at this time,” Berman said.
Another Human Rights Fellow, Alma Luz Beltran y Puga, has spent most of her young career working for women’s rights. A graduate of the Technological Autonomous Institute of Mexico Law School, she was a staff attorney at the Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE), a Mexican NGO, and a legal consultant for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico.
“In 2007, a bill was put forward in Mexico City to legalize abortion for the first trimester,” Beltran y Puga said. “But we had no idea that it could pass. While the Mexico City legislative assembly is left wing, the country is almost entirely Catholic and the Catholic Church opposes abortion.”
It was estimated that more than 200,000 women sought out illegal abortions each year in the country. Along with the advocacy of groups like GIRE, the legalization bill was bolstered by the support of Mexico’s largest political party. The bill passed and was upheld the following year by Mexico’s Supreme Court.
“This was the culmination of many feminists’ work that began in the 1960s,” Beltran y Puga said. “And it’s a precedent for all of Latin America.”
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