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Arjun Sethi is a legislative and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”).[1] At the ACLU, he serves as an advisor for national security, human rights, and domestic and overseas surveillance related issues. Mr. Sethi frequently writes about civil rights and social justice issues, including post 9-11 backlash against Muslims Americans, Arab Americans, and Sikh Americans, government surveillance, privacy, and human rights issues. Prior to joining the ACLU, Mr. Sethi worked at Covington and Burlington, a private law firm, where he represented asylum seekers and detainees on death row. Mr. Sethi is an alumnus of Georgetown University where he graduated magna cum laude and received his Juris Doctorate from the New York University School of Law. Mr. Sethi’s work has been published in numerous outlets including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, USA Today, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera America, and The Guardian.

Pious Ahuja [PA]: How did you get involved in your line of work?

Arjun Sethi [AS]: I studied at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, focusing on Culture and Politics, and always aspired to be a human rights lawyer. During law school at New York University, I studied international human rights law and participated in the Human Rights Clinic where I represented detainees who were subject to extraordinary rendition by the Central Intelligence Agency. After 9/11, in addition to sending detainees to Guantanamo Bay, President Bush authorized the CIA to send detainees to “black sites.” As a student attorney, I represented three Yemeni detainees who were disappeared, deprived of human rights, and tortured.

After law school, I joined Covington & Burlington where I was a litigator and also assisted with pro bono litigation.  My clients included asylum seekers and Guantanamo Bay detainees. During my last few years in private practice, I began to write and comment on human rights and social justice issues. Presently, I am a legislative counsel at the ACLU, where I serve as their liaison to Congress, the White House, and other executive agencies on a variety of human rights issues.

PA: What human rights issues do you work on at the ACLU?

AS: The ACLU is presently working to ensure that the U.S. ratifies treaties like The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), The Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC), and The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICPRD). The ACLU is also advocating for implementation of treaty obligations. A crisis currently exists in the United States.  The U.S. signs treaties, appears before treaty bodies, these bodies make recommendations, but the U.S. does nothing in response. Since the U.S. is on “repeat mode,” I work to ensure that the U.S. acts upon these recommendations and adopts legislation implementing these recommendations.

Programs designed to counter violent extremism represent an additional human rights issue. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, the White House convened a summit to discuss best practices for countering violent extremism. The current U.S. program asks Muslim and Arab American community leaders to be the “eyes and ears” of law enforcement and to identify individuals who are at risk of engaging in violent extremism.  The problem with this program is that the alleged predictors of violence are often activities that are protected by the First Amendment. Praying five times a day, wearing a hijab, going to the mosque, or refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance may be construed as predictors of future violence, but the First Amendment nevertheless protects these acts.

Moreover, the U.S. government shouldn’t be in the business of turning community leaders into informants. If the U.S. is serious about combatting violent extremism emanating from Muslim and Arab communities, it should focus on education and community development, not doubling down on law enforcement

Another issue that is of particular interest to me is watchlist reform. When the Terrorist Watchlisting Guidance was leaked to the media last year, we learned that roughly 700,000 people are on the master watch list.  This is because the government uses exceedingly broad criteria to determine who can be added to the list.  Under the current guidance, an individual can be watchlisted if there is reasonable suspicion to believe that he or she is a suspected terrorist.  This is an absurd standard. Indeed, a single Facebook or twitter post can be enough to get you on the watch list. There is also evidence of racial and religious profiling. For example, Dearborn, Michigan, a city known for its large Arab and Muslim American community, has more people on the Terrorist Watchlist than any other city in America, except for New York.

PA: What is the ACLU working on to make the U.S. comply with its international treaty obligations?

JA: The ACLU submitted a shadow report to the Human Rights Council in anticipation of the Universal Periodic Review of the U.S.’s human rights record later this year.  In our submission, we’ve raised issues like NSA surveillance, the death penalty, reproductive rights, torture, at Guantánamo Bay, as well as other human rights issues. The UPR is the only time when the U.S.’s entire human rights record is discussed at the international level.

PA: You work with significantly with the governmental collection of American data and surveillance of Americans. Can you speak more on this issue?

JS: Through Section 215 of the U.S.A Patriot Act, the U.S. collects the metadata of every phone call made by Americans. Metadata reveals intricate call data: the duration of your calls, whom you called, and the time of your calls. Though the program does not capture the content of phone calls, metadata can be extraordinarily revealing.   For example, metadata can reveal whether you called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an abortion clinic, a psychiatrist, or even the ACLU. A person has the right to call these organizations or individuals absent government intervention. Individuals have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the government should only be authorized to collect metadata if there is a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a particular number is associated with a terrorist enterprise.

Another program the U.S. government is using to spy on U.S. citizens is Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Through this program the U.S. is targeting non-Americans located overseas who possess “foreign intelligence.” Foreign intelligence, however, is defined broadly, and it includes information relating to U.S. foreign affairs. Thus, the U.S. can target ambassadors, human rights workers, and journalists simply because they may have information relating to U.S. foreign affairs. This violates the privacy of non-Americans as well as Americans who are in touch with foreign, overseas targets.

PA:  Post 9/11, the U.S. passed several laws within the Patriot Act that seriously curtailed civil liberties. Can you speak about the implications of 9/11 on civil liberties and what actions ACLU has taken against them?

JS: Since 9/11, many Muslim and Arab Americans have lived under an umbrella of fear because various government programs disproportionately target them.

Take the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Program, for example, this program encourages local and state law enforcement to report “suspicious activity” to fusion centers, which then shares the information with federal law enforcement. Suspicious activity, however, is defined very broadly. For example, Muslim Americans taking pictures of historic sites or bridges, or engaging in protected speech at protests can be categorized as suspicious activity and passed on to federal authorities.

There’s also the NYPD mapping program of Muslim Americans in both New York and New Jersey.  Through this mapping project, the NYPD monitored cafes, university groups, mosques, and other commercial and religious establishments frequented by Muslim Americans. For example, the NYPD infiltrated a rafting trip in New Jersey that was planned by a Muslim student group. It also infiltrated a charity called Muslims Giving Back, which subsequently witnessed a decline in membership and support when the government infiltration was revealed.

The NSA surveillance programs, CVE programs, and the growth of the U.S. terror watchlisting regime are likewise concerning.

These police practices have chilled religious expression and free speech, and stigmatized Muslim Americans. They also set a dangerous precedent. If the government can single out Muslim Americans, what’s to stop them from singling out another community in the future?

PA: What advice would you provide to future human rights activists interested in working for an organization like the ACLU?

AS: The most important assets of a human rights lawyer are sensitivity and empathy — sensitivity to the diversity of the human experience as well as the ability to empathize with your clients. Excellent human rights lawyers are likewise good listeners – listeners who are attentive to the nuances of each particular client’s experience. Patience and resilience are likewise important. By historical standards, the human rights field is still young, and change is sometimes slow. In the face of adversity, human rights lawyers must remain at once patient and strong and forthright about their beliefs.

These are the concrete steps I would recommend for future activists. First, get experience in the field.  For example, Ferguson is a civil rights crisis that implicates numerous human rights issues, including infringement of free speech, excessive use of force, racial profiling, and police militarization. Second, write and get your voice out there. There’s a paucity of clarity on many of human rights issues, and your voice would be a welcome one.

PA: What are some of the biggest challenges that you faced working in the field?

AS: Again, progress is slow, especially in the U.S. Since 9/11, the U.S. has undermined the field of human rights in immeasurable ways: Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition by the CIA, torture, NSA surveillance, and watchlists, to name just a few. Yet, despite this negative momentum, resilience is paramount. One must press on, be creative, and always ready to articulate why human rights make the world a better and safer place for all.

PA: Thank you for your time and for speaking with us, Mr. Sethi.

For more information on the ACLU, please visit the website at https://www.aclu.org/.


[1] A few weeks after the interview was conducted, Mr. Sethi left his position with the ACLU and is now pursuing a career as a full-time writer on human rights and social justice related issues*