Kaitlin Y. Cordes leads the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment’s work on investments in land and agriculture, as well as the Center's work on the intersection of human rights and international investments. Prior to joining the Center, she worked with the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, focusing on farmworkers in South Africa, and served as an advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food (Olivier De Schutter). She also has worked with a range of social justice organizations in the United States and India, and clerked for Justice Virginia A. Long of the Supreme Court of New Jersey. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Studies from Northwestern University and a J.D. from Columbia Law School, where she was a James Kent Scholar, Harlan Fiske Stone scholar, and recipient of the Valentin J.T. Wertheimer Prize.
What human rights work are you currently involved in?
I’m increasingly focused on human rights in the context of international investment. Investment is critical and can do a lot of good, but it needs to be rights-compliant for it to be sustainable and not harmful. My work on human rights and investment includes working to advance the protection of human rights at the nexus of different international legal regimes, and working to improve human rights outcomes at the project level and contract level. For example, at the international level, we’ve seen that international investment law can, in specific situations, raise the threat of legal liability for governments’ actions to protect human rights, and that it can provide heightened protection for investors even when they have flouted their human rights responsibilities. This is deeply concerning, and we’ve been focusing on ways to promote stronger rights protections despite the governance gaps arising from this fragmented legal landscape. This includes, for instance, seeking to file an amicus brief last year in an investment dispute between a Canadian mining company and the Government of Peru, in which we raised arguments about the implication of international human rights law for the interpretation of investment treaty standards, and supporting UN experts looking to better understand how international investments, and the regimes that govern them, can affect human rights. At the project level, we recently partnered with the Danish Institute for Human Rights and the Sciences Po Law School clinic to develop a new collaborative approach to human rights impact assessments, which would bring together project-affected people and a company, potentially with other stakeholders, to jointly undertake an assessment that is considered credible by all sides. This type of approach wouldn’t work in all situations. But we see it as one way to potentially address a common challenge of current HRIAs, which is the distrust of assessments that the “other side” has initiated. And at the contract level, one example of how we’re approaching the issue is a current partnership with Namati, a legal empowerment organization, to develop community-oriented resources to support communities and their advocates as they interact with investors who want to use their land. Communities are increasingly finding themselves in this situation, but generally are in completely unequal bargaining scenarios, raising risks that their human rights and land rights might not be fully respected.
In what ways were you involved in human rights during your time at Columbia Law School?
I got such great human rights experience while I was a student. The most formative was probably my participation in the Human Rights Clinic, taught by Peter Rosenblum at the time, which provided me with practical experience working on human rights issues, including field work in India, and also pushed me to think critically and carefully about human rights work. I also took a great research practicum with Susan Sturm that wasn’t technically a human rights course, but that gave me great tools for research and analysis, and I was enrolled in a number of other excellent human rights courses. I had several interesting internships, including working with the Center for Constitutional Rights on human rights litigation, with the Brennan Center for Justice on economic justice issues, and with a labor organization in India. And I was involved in various student organizations, including leading the Public Interest Law Foundation, which gave me some insight into running a small non-profit. I was also a Managing Editor of A Jailhouse Lawyers’ Manual, which I really liked because it felt like a very practical contribution towards legal empowerment right here in the US. I’d be remiss to not mention some of the ways that Columbia also supported me after I graduated: I received a Leebron fellowship, which enabled my work with the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and with a women’s human rights organization in India, and subsequently was a Sandler Fellow at Human Rights Watch.
What motivates you to be a human rights lawyer?
There’s a lot of injustice in the world, but I have to hope that it’s possible to progress, with fits and starts and at times incrementally, towards a more just world, and I can’t imagine not trying for that. Human rights law provides norms, frameworks, legal obligations, and redress mechanisms that can serve as tools in the fight for justice. They aren’t the only tools, and too great of an emphasis on the legal aspects creates risks of the human rights field becoming too professionalized or elitist. But for me personally, as someone coming from a place of relative privilege, born in the US and with a degree from a top law school, human rights law provides one way that I can use my training and skill-set to advocate for good.
What advice would you have for students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
Find your passions and follow your interests. Don’t be too worried about what other law students say you “should” do. Get as much hands-on experience as you can while still a student, whether through clinics, internships, externships, or other means. Seek advice widely, but make decisions based on what speaks to you. When I was a 3L, I was agonizing over which class to take in my final semester. One of my mentors advised me to take a more traditional black letter law class, but I was so glad that I ended up going with my gut – enrolling in yet another human rights class, which gave me the opportunity to work with Olivier De Schutter, who was just being named UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. I ended up co-editing a book with him and working with him after I graduated, and that experience helped shape the path I’m on today. Also, don’t be dissuaded from pursuing the type of job you want because you think it’s too hard to get. Finding a human rights job is doable, even if it requires more upfront work than corporate firm recruiting. If you ever want to work in human rights, you’ll probably have to do that work at some point, whether you’re still in school or ten years out. Absolutely no judgment on what anyone does right after graduation, because there are so many factors to consider, but ignore anyone who says you have to go to a firm to get “experience.” If you do start at a firm, doing pro bono work might help make any future transition to human rights work smoother. In any event, your first job after graduating won’t define your career. Finally, take care of yourself so you don’t burn out. Sprinting is fine at times, and expected at times, but it’s hard to build a sustainable career or a sustainable life if you never slow down.