The many roles of the international human rights lawyer

Editor's note:

The following post discusses the many different types of work undertaken by human rights lawyers around the world. Check out the list of links at the end for opportunities to find out more!

Melanie Scheible
October 20, 2014

So you want to be an international human right lawyer? Many, if not most, work for NGO’s based in their home countries or abroad. You’ve probably heard of some of these large organizations, like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the World Health Organization. Other, smaller organizations also employ attorneys to litigate, lobby, and advocate for human rights.

Over the summer, I worked for a small civil rights organization in Kampala, Uganda, doing what most people would characterize as “international human rights” work. I drafted position papers, policy memos, and research reports on human rights issues ranging from developing the extractives industry to preventing HIV transmission. I was also lucky enough to work with one of the lead attorneys on a landmark civil rights case in which Ugandan human rights activists successfully argued for the repeal of Uganda’s sweeping Anti-Homosexuality Act, which made being gay punishable by life imprisonment.

Human rights lawyers who are not employed by non-profits may work for a government agency, an international governing body, or even a private firm. Again, you’ve probably heard of these organizations, such as the UN and EU, already. Also, many other countries have established Human Rights Commissions, whose task it is to ensure that the International Declaration of Human Rights is enforced and upheld through the national government. Lawyers for the Human Rights Commission may be called on to assess the validity of a law, provide counsel to other government agencies, or to set policy. In large, international government organizations attorneys also take on a variety of roles, which involve interpreting national and international law and, in some cases, proposing new laws or standards.

My experience as a summer intern was fairly representative of that of many human rights attorneys. Many spend the majority of their time researching and writing in order to effect change at the policy level. The projects they work on have very long term goals and it may be difficult to see progress for weeks, months, even years at a time. Even those who are engaged in litigation are generally working on appellate-type procedures which require intensive research and writing. For someone who enjoys an academic environment where they get to engage with a topic both deeply and broadly, working for a human rights advocacy organization could be very rewarding.

Certainly, there are also “international human rights lawyers” who spend more time “in the field” or interacting with clients. These types of roles usually focus on a particular issue, region, or population. For example, an attorney working at a non-profit that provides counsel at no cost to members of a marginalized ethnic group is also a human rights attorney. If that person works with partners in multiple countries, or handles international immigration issues, they could easily be characterized as an “international human rights lawyer.”

For a law student interested in human rights lawyering, it is equally important to assess the issues you want to work on and the pace at which you want to work. Knowing whether you are more suited to policy research or client interaction is just as important as knowing what human rights issues you care about most. Even working on the most important project in the world will not be rewarding if you do not enjoy your daily responsibilities.

This is the part where I’d like to give you some advice on pursuing a career in international human rights law, but the field is so huge it really depends on your personal interests. I hope you will chime in in the comments section with resources you’ve found helpful, international human rights experience you’ve had, and with questions!

If you are interested broadly in human rights issues, but haven’t a clue what kind of role you envision yourself taking, here are a few resources to get you started:

Big NGO’s (hint: notice staff assignments by region and by topic, what speaks to you?)

International Governance Organization

Opportunities for Columbia Students