Dounia Hattabi ’18 LL.M. was named the 2017 recipient of the Baker McKenzie Scholarship at Columbia Law School. An LL.M. Human Rights Fellow, Hattabi has served as a legal assistant at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon at The Hague. The scholarship, established in June 2015, awards $50,000 to an LL.M. student who demonstrates academic success and financial need.
"We are thrilled that Dounia will receive this Scholarship," said Christie Constantine, CSR Director at Baker McKenzie. "We are proud to provide this opportunity at such a prestigious school, which helps to nurture our future leading human rights lawyers, and to promote greater diversity and inclusion in the legal profession."
With parents living on two continents, Hattabi spent much of her childhood dividing her time between Western Europe and North Africa. Living in France and Morocco, she says, has helped her to value cultural diversity and open dialogue. It also propelled her interest in human rights. Seeing that many children in Morocco worked as domestic helpers while French children attended school, for instance, instilled in her a sense that she had an obligation to work for equality.
“I think that’s what has fueled this vocation—the chance I had to have a good education,” she says.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Political Science from Sorbonne Law School in Paris, Hattabi earned two master’s degrees from the school: one in international law and the other in public international law and international organizations.
Then, in 2013, she joined the International Criminal Court at The Hague as an intern in the Legal Advisory Section of the Office of the Prosecutor. Just six months later, Hattabi was chosen to work for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, assisting with a criminal investigation into the Khmer Rouge. After seven months, she went to the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to work on the defense of Hassan Habib Merhi. He was indicted in absentia on charges of murder and terrorism in connection with the 2005 bombing that killed Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. (The case is ongoing.)
Hattabi says the experience strengthened her conviction that all people deserve the right to a fair trial. While pursuing her LL.M., Hattabi plans to dive deeper into human rights law, particularly strategic litigation and advocacy.
“In our era, there is a tendency to infringe on basic rights in the name of fighting against terrorism,” she explains. “[The right to a fair trial is] a sign of a mature international criminal system. It’s justice only if it was a fair trial.”
At Columbia Law School, Hattabi is assisting Professor Sarah Knuckey and other students on a Human Rights Clinic project focused on war crimes accountability in the Central African Republic. She is also working on a Law School project, conducting intake interviews with potential victims of human trafficking who have been arrested for prostitution-related offenses. Her role is to provide immigration screenings for foreign-born individuals with cases before the Brooklyn Human Trafficking Intervention Court, and identify whether potential victims have trafficking-based or immigration relief available to them.
“If you’re a victim, you should be able to seek redress,” she says. “You should be able to go to court and have some acknowledgment of wrongdoing. I like the fact that there are mechanisms helping human trafficking victims within New York’s justice system.”
Hattabi is interested in using strategic litigation—the process of bringing cases to court with the goal of creating long-lasting societal changes—to advance human rights. Eventually, she would like to have her own transnational strategic litigation practice. For now, she is focused on working with advocacy organizations to gain the skills needed to “identify potential risks for human rights and react, take initiative.”
Priority for the Baker McKenzie scholarship is given to international students who have overcome barriers to achieve in the field of law, particularly those raised or educated in emerging nations.
Last year’s scholarship was awarded to Sofia Jaramillo Otoya ’17 LL.M., a human rights lawyer from Colombia.
“I know that I’m lucky to have a place here [at Columbia]—that shouldn’t be a luxury, but it’s something I’m grateful to be a part of, so I should do something good with it,” she says. “[The Baker McKenzie scholarship] is going to help me tremendously. It’s an amazing opportunity for me.”
Published October 27, 2017