Law school students learn first hand about human rights

HALF a century ago, if one nation complained to another about the way it was treating its citizens, ``that nation could say, with the total blessing of international law, `Don't butt into my business,''' says Harvard law professor Henry Steiner. ``That, now, is not an adequate answer,'' he continues. Though human rights is still a sapling among the sequoias of established legal traditions, it is vigorous and growing. The politics of human rights now looms large on the international scene.

The idea behind Harvard Law School's Human Rights Program ``is to acquaint students with the international standards that exist,'' says Jack Tobin, the program's administrative director. ``What are the mechanisms that exist for supervising or monitoring the compliance of states? What remedies are there? To which bodies can you go to lodge complaints about violations of human rights?'' A recent, intensive course on human rights protection mechanisms in the United Nations featured a sheaf of mimeographed reading material four inches thick.

As a discipline, human rights is a little younger than the UN. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Various human rights covenants followed. In the past decade and a half, human rights has become an integral part of US foreign policy, and grass-roots organizations monitoring rights worldwide have grown phenomenally, according to Mr. Steiner.

The Harvard program traces its academic roots to Clyde Ferguson, a black law professor who taught the first human rights course there. The program joins a handful of similar courses on campuses across the United States, as well as in Europe and Latin America.

The centerpiece of the Harvard program, the internships, began five years ago with a student initiative. A first-year law student asked vice-dean David Smith about an internship abroad with a human rights group. He liked the idea, and offered to find funds if the student, Diane Archer, could help set something up. Nine students interned with human rights groups that summer.

Returning students talked to other students, and the summer program grew. ``This is very much the transmission of excitement from student generation to student generation,'' says Steiner.

The first interns served in large, intergovernmental bureaucracies: the International Labor Organization in Geneva, the many UN human rights organizations. Today, about 25 interns spend six to eight weeks mostly with smaller, nongovernmental organizations in developing countries. Last summer, interns worked in such places as Brazil, Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Nicaragua, as well as in New Mexico and Washington, D.C.

``It's been one of the two greatest education experiences I've had here,'' says Hillary Richard, who spent last summer as an intern in El Salvador. (The other significant time was her work at the Harvard-supported Legal Services Center, a clinic for low-income clients in nearby Jamaica Plain.) Her report on the use of habeas corpus in Salvador's legal system - she found the provisions of it were overwhelmingly ignored - is likely to be used in a lawsuit soon to be brought before the International Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica.

Elizabeth Rolando went to Chile on a summer internship in 1986. ``I think this program is tremendous. I've really found my place here,'' she says. (See accompanying story.)

Student interns play an important role: ``Unlike most [law] disciplines, which are largely theoretical,'' says student Morris Panner, ``human rights is certainly an area where you need fieldwork to complement any kind of theoretical work.'' In most cases, summer interns ``teach the faculty as much or more than the faculty are able to teach them.''

A human rights program here seems at odds with the popular view of Harvard Law School as a place students go so they can cash in at some big New York law firm. High-paying careers may be a major concern for many students; all the more reason that human rights courses should be taught here, Steiner suggests. He has three goals for the program:

``If we can change ... the idea of the school to one that also values human rights as something very important to what a lawyer should think about ... and if we can get some of our students thinking in terms of this as a primary career, and many of those students thinking of it as part of their public interest concerns ... then I think we've succeeded.'' Many law firms devote a proportion of their time to free legal work done pro bono publico - ``for the public good.'' Twenty years ago, civil rights became a focus for such work.

Today, 200 or more of the law school's 1,700 students will choose from among seven human rights courses, according to Steiner. About 50 of them devote a substantial portion of their free time to the human rights field - working on the human rights yearbook (the first issue is due out this spring), going on internships, helping with symposia.

What's a lawyer's incentive for getting involved in human rights in the first place?

``I guess conscience is the first reason that I do this,'' says Mr. Panner, a co-editor of the yearbook. ``And it's a strong feeling that we have a responsibility, not just as citizens, but a special responsibility as lawyers, to uphold the rule of law....

``I think it's important to show that you're committed to what is really the cause of law,'' he says. ``That's what law is all about. And human rights is probably the purest expression of that.''

The financial roots of the Harvard program are still delicate: Its three-year grant from the Ford Foundation expires next summer. The program's organizers have received money from alumni, and plan to ask for an extension from the foundation. Steiner is hoping that more secure funding will be found, perhaps in the form of an endowment.

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