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The Role of Lawyers in Human Rights Advocacy Work

Date: January 7, 2021
Country: Maldives
Type: Post
Issues: International Advocacy

When I began law school, I knew that I would like to one day work in advocacy or human rights work, preferably in the space of international law. While I was aware of organizations like The Advocates for Human Rights where these kinds of legal positions were available, I did not really understand the role of lawyers in advocacy work or how their work fits into international law spaces.

Since becoming an intern at The Advocates, one of the most valuable things I have gained is an understanding of what it means to be a lawyer in the field of human rights advocacy and how important all aspects of a civil society organization are in that work.  

The first and most obvious way that lawyers have an impact in advocacy work is through direct representation of someone who experiences a human rights violation. Direct representation is one way to help someone seek justice for a human rights violation they experienced, either in the form of reparation or punishment for the perpetrator. As an intern in the International Justice Program, I knew that this sort of direct advocacy would not necessarily be in our realm of work; direct service is more in line with programs like The Advocates' Refugee and Immigrant program.  

I was surprised to learn that in the International Justice program there are opportunities, slightly different from representation, to directly help someone who has experienced a human rights violation. For example, the International Justice Program works with the Maldivian Democracy Network, a human rights organization that the Maldivian Government arbitrarily shut down in 2019. Providing support to and advising them during their legal proceedings to challenge the government's actions is an aspect of advocacy that I had not thought about as part of a lawyer's role before my internship. Although it is not direct representation, it still is an explicit way to help someone who has experienced a human rights violation.

I have also discovered a big impact that lawyers can have by effecting change on a big picture level, rather than the individual level that I just mentioned. Coming into the internship, I knew what some of the overarching goals of The Advocates were, but I was not sure about the role of a lawyer in achieving those goals. After a semester of observing this process, I think a lawyer's role can be best described as someone who figures out how to get from where we are now to the end goal by navigating through existing law and finding the best path to make change happen. I have observed and participated in this part of the process by engaging with UN mechanisms designed to bring about change. Sometimes, this path can be very straightforward in that we just need to advocate for a country to uphold its international obligations. The path toward change can be more complicated when organizations lobby a country to adopt new international obligations. I've learned this process takes longer and its effects can be harder to see than direct representation. If  you are successful, your efforts will prevent a rights violation from even happening in the first place.

Overall, it has become clear to me in my time at The Advocates that lawyers play a prominent role in human rights advocacy and international law. The path from recognizing the need for change and getting that result can be long, arduous, and likely impossible without a person specialized in knowing how to do so. YetI have also learned that a lawyer's role is just one piece of the process of advocating for change and that all members of civil society and civil society organizations play a role that is just as important as a lawyer's role.. The entire advocacy process would not be possible without people who recognize a problem and push for change, which provides space for lawyers to work toward a solution. Further, people who ensure implementation of a solution are also vital to the advocacy process.

My time at The Advocates so far has given me immeasurable experience in understanding the framework and process of human rights advocacy on an international scale. Understanding the role of a lawyer in this field has been extremely beneficial to honing a career path and has prepared me for any future endeavors in advocacy work.

By John Weber, University of Minnesota Law student and legal intern in The Advocates' International Justice Program