Where are you from?
I grew up between New Haven, Connecticut and our family ranch in Tom Miner Basin, Montana.
What made you want to become a human rights defender?
I do not consider myself a human rights defender, per se, but a lawyer for human rights defenders. I know that is a fine line, but to me, the defenders are the advocates who are working on the front lines to protect human rights. As lawyers with the Justice Defenders Program (“JD Program”), we are able to provide assistance to these defenders when they are retaliated against for their advocacy efforts.
So to address the question of how did I pick this path, even before I started my undergraduate degree, I knew I was interested in possibly becoming a lawyer one day. I decided to earn my B.A. in Law, Letters, and Society at the University of Chicago, which allowed me to take law classes as an undergraduate student. I remember in one class in particular, examining the rhetoric around race in judicial decisions in the United States from colonial times through modern Supreme Court cases. The early cases really centered on the idea of black people as slaves and property and what was chilling was how “reasoned” and well written these judgments were. These were intelligent men using the law to dress up the most barbaric and inhumane practices. You could trace the inexcusably slow progress of the law’s recognition of their humanity and basic rights in the way the courts addressed a variety of legal issues, from the right to act in self-defense to property and contract rights. It highlighted for me, that the law was a subjective entity that reflected the best and worst of human nature, and was not some objective entity that lived outside of human influence. This was when I knew I definitely wanted to become a lawyer.
During my time as a Georgetown Women in Law and Public Policy Fellow, I had the opportunity to work with community activists advocating for greater inclusion of women’s perspectives in global policy and practices. I loved that my role was to support their work, and their voices, in these spaces and to help bring the strength of legal perspectives and arguments to their advocacy. During that time, I met a lot of advocates from around the world who were demanding greater accountability from their governments in recognizing the basic rights of the LGBT community and access to healthcare, such as HIV prevention, care, and treatment services. Some of these activists were being thrown in jail for their advocacy. Around this same time, the American Bar Association (“ABA”) Center for Human Rights JD Program was just starting up, and I was given the opportunity to join their team and support activists facing retaliation around the world. I have actually now been working in the JD Program for five years. Through the Program, I get to continue to support activists in their communities who are on the frontlines of preserving human rights.
What continues to inspire you today?
It is still the activists I work for. They are incredible and committed. They face real penalties for what they do, but they keep going, and so I think we owe it to them. There are cases, where you are looking at it, and you think, I don’t actually know that you are going to change very much, your government is entrenched, has a lot of money; but, as long as they are willing to do it, we owe them our support. As long as there is a person out there willing to fight for peaceful reform, for basic rights and human dignity, we have to help them and give them the best legal tools to do it. At the same time, we have seen some incredible wins: detained activists released due to international outcry, laws reformed after successful litigation, etc. It can be a slow process but it is absolutely vital we keep supporting each other as civil society, as lawyers and advocates, to demand the best of our governments, corporations, and other institutions. I can tell you about one hugely inspiring advocate who is also an American University (“AU”) alum – Thulani Maseko. He is a lawyer in Swaziland, the last absolute monarchy in Africa, who has consistently brought cases against his government and called for reforms to increase political participation, judicial independence, and recognition of basic rights. He continues to bring these cases and be a vocal advocate at intense personal cost – he has been imprisoned for publishing an article questioning the qualifications and impartiality of a judge, and although he was released and his conviction thrown out, he has since been charged with criminal defamation in a similar case. But he is still bringing human rights cases into courts and challenging laws that violate basic rights in Swaziland. Working with advocates like Thulani is inspiring because they have a fundamental level of optimism and belief that their work will bring about change, even in the face of incredible odds and retaliation. Constantly fighting these sorts of frivolous charges, even with international support, is incredibly draining. Emotionally, but also in terms of the time you have to devote to your actual work and life outside of your activism. Imprisonment is one of the worst things that happen to you, but there are other consequences that are just as devastating that we do not always see or think about – loss of income, isolation from family and peers who view you as a troublemaker, and security threats. But, the advocates we support find a way to keep going because they truly believe this is how they make the world better for their children, and for their communities. And this keeps us going and inspired.
What was it like working on an Amicus Brief for a case that had such a big impact on human rights law in Africa; the Konate case, which essentially condemned imprisonment for Defamation?
In the Konate case, we supported a group of NGOs filing an amicus brief in a case challenging criminal defamation laws. We recruited pro bono counsel, based in the U.S. but also in Tanzania and South Africa, to draft and present their brief, while Media Legal Defense Initiative actually represented the journalist who was in prison. At issue here, were Burkina Faso’s colonial-era laws criminalizing defamation of a public official. The petitioner in that case spent a year in prison after publishing an article critical of a government official, a prosecutor actually. The African Court held that the laws violated the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and that imprisonment for defamation is never an appropriate punishment. The Court also reemphasized its earlier case law, finding that public officials must put up with more criticism, even potentially defamatory statements, than private citizens. Unfortunately, there are many jurisdictions where the opposite has been happening. So, it was a very important case and we were happy to be able to support the coalition of organizations that came together. It was a group of African and international NGOs who work on press and media freedom, but also included human rights NGOs who were able to broaden the scope of the amicus to examine how these criminal defamation laws not only affect journalists, newspapers, and the press, but also affect labor activists, women’s rights activists, and lawyers such as Thulani – really anybody who wants to speak out against public officials or government actions.
I see that throughout your career you have worked on a lot of causes, is there one issue or project that you are especially passionate about?
Recently, I have been particularly concerned about threats to lawyers themselves. Lawyers are human rights defenders, even when that is not what they get up and call themselves every day. And once you start to go after lawyers, once you make it difficult for people to have access to legal counsel, it really does become a free for all. Lawyers stand guard, they hold the line around the most basic rights and liberties. For me, our work to support human rights defenders is rewarding because it allows us to support advocacy on behalf of diverse communities and human rights issues. Once you cut off the lawyer, you cut off access to remedy and legal counsel to all of those different groups. Right now, I know a lawyer in one African nation who is one of a very small group who will defend the LGBT community or political opposition leaders who are being charged with frivolous crimes. He has had to relocate his family to another country because of the number of death threats he has received. We have also worked with lawyers and judges who have faced politically motivated disbarment and disciplinary proceedings after working on government corruption cases or ordering political prisoners released. Having done this for a few years, I feel there is an increasing retaliation against lawyers and independent judges, and the protections we have fought for in the past – basic respect for the role of the independent lawyer, for example, and not to be associated with the client’s cause – are being eroded. In the same way that journalists are under threat around the world, lawyers are facing increased hostility from governments and societies who view their work as undermining various strongly held beliefs of national unity. I am encouraged, though, that more and more of the international legal associations are starting to publicly advocate on behalf of lawyers at risk.
On a more personal note, what is a hobby of yours?
I love to bake with my little girls. They are at the age where I can measure things out and they can pour it in the mixer and push the button. If I am not at work, I am with my kids, and that is something we like to do together. My favorite thing to bake right now is banana bread because bananas are very popular with the under four set. But, I think for Christmas we are going to let them go crazy and make eclairs and all kinds of delicious treats.