As I reflect on my time at Human Rights Watch (HRW) with the International Justice (IJ) team this summer, I am overwhelmed by the amount I have learned. As we start a new semester here in Canada, three lessons continue to guide my reflections on the world of international human rights law. 

Team is Everything

International law, especially human rights law, is a team sport. While it may not seem that way in law school, with individualized exams and hours spent skimming case law and theory alone with one’s mind, it truly takes a team to tackle the world’s most complex issues. The group I had the pleasure of working with this summer is an admirable example of this fact: kind, thoughtful, driven and incredibly hard-working. While many of my learnings this summer were grounded in law, I absorbed so much from simply observing the thoroughness and deep care with which my IJ team colleagues approached their work. 

For the first time in my short career, I worked on a team that deeply embraced a “care first” approach. As interns, we felt seen and listened to despite our youth and evident lack of experience. I was struck with how often this approach went beyond international law. When one of my co-interns found out she was pregnant with her first child, the team rallied around her and prioritized her health before leaning in with new assignments. When an intern would fall ill or needed time to tend to personal matters, the team would pick up any pending tasks – no questions asked. The ripple effect from these dynamics of support allows this group to best leverage its skills to advocate for the victims of the world’s most heinous crimes, despite the heavy emotional and psychological tolls which are a reality of this work.   

The questions taken on by the International Justice team at HRW are broad, significant, and often have no easy solutions. Without deep-rooted team spirit and mutual support, this field could eat you up and spit you out in unpleasant ways. By being a witness to the IJ team at HRW, I’ve gained so much respect for all those who take on the difficult mission inherent in international justice work.

Lady Liberty waving goodbye.

IJ in Flux

As with many other fields dealing with ‘the international’, the world of IJ is often tainted by questions of double standards. Historical dynamics of power are a reality in this field, and not acknowledging such facts is detrimental to justice efforts. For example, powerful states such as the United States, China, India, and Russia remain among the few countries not parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Unequal circumstances can be found throughout the field of IJ and are sometimes used to justify backlash against international institutions aiming to fight against impunity. 

But these dynamics are changing, albeit slowly. 

With the growing eminence of third-world approaches to international law (TWAIL) and increased recognition of the deep roots of colonialism, organizations working in IJ need to and are adjusting their practices to better integrate a decolonization lens to their work. This will help maintain their roles as active and impactful players in the field. 

Advocacy targeted at a renewed focus on national jurisdictions will also no doubt gain prominence in the years to come. This summer, I witnessed first-hand how the International Criminal Court could help mobilize national trials, notably with the ongoing relationship between the ICC and Guinea in light of the trial for the 2009 Stadium Massacre. As the field continues to grow, these realities will continue to evolve and force all actors to evolve and work together in new and effective ways in the fight for justice. 

I found myself consistently surprised at how big, yet also at how small, everything felt at UNHQ.

Two to Tango

As has been outlined by many of my colleagues in previous blogs, the works at the intersection of law and human rights cannot be achieved without trust. Trust in your teammates of course, and in your organization, but also trust in the system – a belief that the legal frameworks in place can serve communities in their best interest. 

One of the ways this was evidenced over the summer was through our relationships with domestic actors. Whether it be through discussions on different perspectives of justice, an interview with associations of survivors, or a deep dive into domestic legal frameworks, I quickly came to realize that the work of an organization of the size of HRW could not be accomplished without these relationships. Within the projects I was able to work on this summer, I learned so much about the important inherent balancing act between the global and the local in tackling impunity for the world’s most serious crimes. It is often the under-recognized local activists, lawyers, and community organizations who are leading the charge toward justice, often at great risk. As I move forward on my own law school journey, I will continue to be reminded that justice takes place both inside and outside our formal legal institutions.