Are McGill Law Grads Taking over Human Rights Watch?

November 2013

Why do so many McGill law students and alumni congregate at HRW’s International Justice Program?

By Bridget Wayland

Marika
Entretien avec Marika Tremblay

Originaire de Clermont, près de La Malbaie, Marika Tremblay effectue actuellement sa troisième année du programme BCL/LLB. Nous lui avons demandé de nous parler de son expérience comme stagiaire en droits de la personne auprès de HRW à New York l’été dernier.

1. Le stage que vous avez fait l’été dernier correspondait-il à vos intérêts académiques?

Je m’intéresse surtout au droit criminel et aux questions liées aux droits de la personne et au droit international—le droit pénal international plus précisément. Alors la réponse est oui : cet été, je travaillais dans la division Justice internationale chez HRW. Il y a aussi plusieurs divisions régionales qui traitent d’enjeux propres au Moyen-Orient, à l’Asie, à l’Europe, etc. Ces divisions sont les plus grosses. Les divisions thématiques, comme celles sur la Justice internationale, travaillent sur des enjeux spécifiques mais qui souvent chevauchent les problématiques traitées par les divisions régionales.

2. Est-ce que l’expérience a répondu à vos attentes?

Mon expérience à HRW a été au-delà de mes attentes : j’ai pu faire du travail super intéressant et j’ai vraiment été impressionnée par la qualité des gens qui travaillent pour cette organisation. En même temps, j’étais bien préparée pour ce type de stage. J’avais fait du travail similaire dans des organismes internationales qui ont plus ou moins la même structure—par exemple, j’ai travaillé deux années comme agente politique pour OXFAM International dans le territoire occupé palestinien et en Israël.

3. Quelles étaient vos responsabilités?

La Faculté a un partenariat avec la division de Justice internationale de HRW depuis plusieurs années. Les étudiantes sont en quelque sorte des assistantes de recherche. Une partie du travail consiste donc à analyser les affaires qui sont actuellement devant la Cour pénale internationale, dont ceux associés à la Libye, la République démocratique du Congo ou au Soudan. Mais aussi, HRW émet des recommandations sur des situations spécifiques, telles que sur la guerre en Syrie. Par exemple, cet été, HRW a demandé au Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU de référer la situation syrienne à la Cour pénale internationale. J’ai donc aussi participé à ce processus de réflexion.

4. Qu’est-ce qui vous a le plus intéressée?

Ce qui m’intéressait dans le stage, c’était d‘apprendre et de comprendre les méthodes de recherche et d’analyse de HRW. Le mandat d’HRW est la défense des droits humains. HRW est aussi reconnu pour la rigueur de sa recherche. C’est entre autre pour ça que HRW a autant d’autorité quand ils prennent position dans l’espace public—c’est la qualité de leur banque de données, la rigueur de leur analyse. Donc, ce qui m’intéressait, c’était de comprendre leur approche mais aussi de comprendre où l’organisation se situe—tant sur le plan politique que juridique—vis-à-vis les institutions internationales telles que la Cour pénale internationale.

5. Cette expérience vous sera-t-elle utile sur le plan professionnel?

Je l’espère! J’aimerais bien travailler pour une organisation de défense des droits humains. J’espère donc que je pourrai mettre à profit l’expérience que j’ai eue cet été. Une des choses dans lesquelles HRW excelle, c’est la représentation et la promotion pour faire pression sur les décideurs politiques. J’espère donc m’être bien familiarisée avec ces méthodes de façon à m’en inspirer dans un futur rapproché. J’ai aussi beaucoup appris sur le plan juridique.

6. Le programme bilingue et bijuridique de McGill vous a-t-il bien préparée pour ce stage?

La division Justice internationale de HRW travaille surtout sur des questions de droit pénal international, qui est un type de droit hybride. Je pense donc qu’il est vraiment avantageux d’être familière avec un système juridique qui se développe par la jurisprudence, comme la common law, mais également de comprendre l’interprétation de textes de loi et de lois. En outre, comme plusieurs des cas qui sont devant la Cour pénale internationale proviennent de pays de droit civil, c’est très utile d’avoir cette formation.

La formation bijuridique est un avantage, et je pense que c’est la raison pour laquelle les stagiaires de McGill sont appréciés. Voir Balkees évoluer dans cet espace professionnel a confirmé pour moi que notre formation juridique était reconnue et qu’elle avait de la valeur. Balkees était d’ailleurs très inspirante par sa rigueur, son intelligence et son dévouement.

Je pense que la Faculté devrait encourager encore davantage les occasions de ce genre. C’est une façon de présenter des carrières non pas seulement comme des « alternatives », mais comme des carrières viables et intéressantes.

A full third of the lawyers working at the International Justice Program, a small division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), are McGill Law graduates. It’s a particularly impressive statistic, points out Dean Daniel Jutras, as HRW “gets the best of the best from the Ivy League schools.” But then, he adds, “the transsystemic and bilingual element does add something special to our students.”

Nadim Houry (BCL/LLB’02) is a deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division based in Beirut, while Param-Preet Singh (BCL’00, LLB’00) and Balkees Jarrah (BCL/LLB’09) both work in the New York offices of the International Justice Program (IJP). In October, we sat down with Singh and Jarrah to ask how they got there from here.

We also spoke with current 3L student Marika Tremblay (see column on right), who was selected for a human rights internship there during the summer of 2013 and proved to be, according to Richard Dicker, Director of the IJP, “another in the series of stellar McGill summer interns we’ve had over the years.”

“She was an excellent intern,” agrees Jarrah, who worked very closely with Tremblay this summer —Singh was away on sabbatical at the time, completing part-time fellowships at both Yale (Schell Center for International Human Rights) and Harvard (as a Visiting Wasserstein Fellow), where she mentored law school students on how to pursue a career in public international law.

Working at HRW

“Ultimately,” says IJP Senior Counsel Param-Preet Singh, “our goal is to end the impunity for war crimes and genocide. We have to push the international community to make it a priority. I work a lot to press for national prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity in post-conflict countries struggling with the human rights abuses that have been committed there. They are obliged to hold people accountable, but if they can’t or won’t do so, the International Criminal Court may be able to prosecute the crimes. Most recently, I was in Côte d’Ivoire, looking at the obstacles to prosecuting and trying alleged perpetrators of these crimes, and pressing the Ivorian government to show their willingness to try these kinds of crimes. We released that report earlier this year.”

Param-Preet Singh

Param-Preet Singh

There is also an important research angle to the work of the IJP, as explained by Balkees Jarrah. “In my day-to-day work,” says Jarrah, “I am responsible for a particular region of the world—the Middle East and North Africa. I closely follow cases related to justice and accountability for serious crimes committed there. When Marika was working with me, we pared some of these cases down into terms the general public and others could understand—it’s painstaking work, making complex legal issues accessible. At HRW, we also do a lot of lobbying with government officials and others—if our research can influence policy, the result can be better protection of human rights.”

Impactful Internships

Both Jarrah and Singh did human rights internships while studying law at McGill. “I remember being very nervous for my interview with Professor Provost,” recalls Singh. “I went to Sri Lanka for the summer after my second year, and it was life-altering for me. It opened my eyes to what it is for people to live with human rights abuses, where the rule of law is not a given. I did another internship, in Turkey, in my third year. I always knew I wanted to do public international law, but those internships solidified my commitment to human rights and international human rights.”

Balkees Jarrah

Balkees Jarrah

Jarrah also obtained a human rights internship at McGill, for which she was placed at HRW. The rest, as they say, is history: “I absolutely fell in love with the work,” she says. “ I found it very challenging and stimulating, and I felt I was being exposed to a range of issues in many places around the world.” Jarrah so thoroughly enjoyed the experience that she returned to HRW for a second summer, on a fellowship she obtained through a law firm in New York.

Getting There from Here

“After graduation in 2000,” recalls Singh, “I knew I wanted to do international rule-of-law work, but I couldn’t find a job! It is a very competitive field: we want people who can hit the ground running.” Singh ended up taking an articling position with the Department of Justice in Toronto for two years. “That gave me a foundation in writing, in being an effective advocate, and in all the things that make for professional success,” she says. She then worked for a few more years as a legal officer for the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, doing international legal criminal policy. “That experience laid the groundwork for my interest in working in human rights: I saw how war crimes completely undercut the fabric of the rule of law—and how important it is to have accountability and closure for these crimes.” Before long, Singh found herself in New York, and has been working for HRW since 2005.

Meanwhile, Jarrah was completing her law studies at McGill, after completing a Master’s degree at Oxford and spending a few years at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington DC. She worked for the McGill International Criminal Justice clinic supporting the Chambers of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and spent her last semester in Cambodia, at the Khmer Rouge tribunal. “I wanted to accumulate experience in the field of international justice, which really interested me,” she said. She then came back to Montreal, graduated from the Faculty, wrote the Bar exam, and completed a clerkship in Ottawa. “And just as my clerkship was ending,” she recalls, “I got a call from a former colleague at HRW saying that someone was going on mat leave for three months: I covered for her, and I’ve been here ever since! I was very lucky.”

The McGill Advantage

Both Jarrah and Singh are convinced there is a clear fit between their work in the field of international justice and the bilingual, transsystemic legal education they received at McGill. “For our work in the IJP, it’s a real advantage to be proficient in French,” says Jarrah. “It is an official language of tribunals, and it’s very helpful to be able to quickly read decisions and other documents.”

What’s more, people who work in international law are required to have an understanding of many legal systems. “I’m working on national prosecutions and trials for serious international crimes in Côte d’Ivoire, which is a civil law jurisdiction, like a lot of Africa and the Middle East,” says Singh. “When evaluating these other legal systems, you need a certain kind of mental flexibility. It’s the transsystemic McGill education that gave us that flexibility—we are analyzing other legal systems through that lens.”

Singh and Jarrah also stressed the importance of McGill’s human rights internship program, which gives our graduates an advantage when entering the field of international justice. “We have consistently had very good interns from McGill,” said Singh. “They are very well vetted, and come to us with a good attitude and valuable skills that can be put to use in legal research at HRW. Balkees is a perfect example of how great the internship program is. And, as I said, my own internship changed my worldview.”

 

 

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