The uOttawa Human Rights Clinic: Offering students the opportunity to make a difference through a truly immersive experience in the field of human rights
For the last seven years, the Human Rights Clinic (Clinic) of the Human Rights Research and Education Centre (HRREC) at the University of Ottawa has quietly and steadily established its reputation as a solid and invaluable partner to NGOs, government offices and international actors seeking assistance to advance their Human Rights (HR) projects across Canada and the world.
A Clinic to Advance Human Rights
“My goal and mandate were to bring a practice orientation to help develop a new generation of young people who are thirsty to develop these skills and knowledge. In other words, to develop a cadre in which to train students who want to make a difference, not just to study and know the world but to be able to engage with and affect the world,” explains Professor of Law and HRREC’s Director, John Packer.
The Clinic was born out of Packer’s vision in 2014, the same year he took the helm of the HRREC. It was established with a couple of graduate students and professors to provide students in the field of human rights with hands-on work experience. It was modelled after a similar clinic that Packer had launched previously (in 2007) at the University of Essex.
He is quick to conjure up the metaphor of riding a bicycle to convey the mission of the Human Rights Clinic: “I can explain a bicycle to you, you can read a book about it … but the only way to learn to ride a bicycle is to actually ride it! To develop a sense of balance, speed, direction and develop your confidence, so that you are increasingly able to navigate the roads!” says the Winnipeg native.
As the Director of the Clinic, Adjunct Professor of Law and Human Rights lawyer Salvador Herencia Carrasco has overseen the development of the Clinic’s activities since day one. “The University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Clinic was created so that the world-class education that our students receive can be leveraged to help victims or help advance Human Rights in different contexts and different geographies,” he says.
A Clinic of its Own
What makes the Clinic stand out is that students get unique opportunities to participate (on a volunteer basis or as a for-credit course) in real-life projects for the protection and advocacy of HR around the world, allowing them to make a real impact on HR. Such opportunities include:
- research and analysis
- drafting amicus curiae submissions (elements to inform the court’s reasoning) on pressing human rights issues
- major reports on HR situations, and
- investigating, advocating for and defending HR
for HHREC partners such as United Nations Special Rapporteurs, NGOs like Scholars at Risk, governments, or judicial bodies such as national Supreme Courts.
“What also differentiates the Clinic is that we envisaged it as a human rights clinic—not a human rights legal clinic. That means that students from all Faculties can apply to the Clinic,” says Herencia Carrasco.
Both the conceptual and applied nature of its HR activities is multi-dimensional, spanning areas beyond the law, including communications, social science research, legal analysis and normative developments. As a result, the Clinic can pair students with different academic backgrounds to HHREC partners whose projects match their area of interest and knowledge.
According to Herencia Carrasco, the Clinic’s project-based approach developed with partners provides students with an opportunity to gain a unique experience. “They can interact in a professional environment and fulfill a mandate that has been negotiated with external partners. They can also have a glimpse of the pressure and responsibilities that come with working in the HR professional field,” he says.
Fostering Students’ Passion for Human Rights
The Clinic’s hands-on, multi-faceted approach is precisely what attracted Emilie Di Grazia to the Clinic. Di Grazia, who is now an HR agent for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, was active at the Clinic while studying as a political science major at uOttawa. During her time at the Clinic, she helped set up the International Human Rights and Canada Database (IHRCanadaDb) platform, a joint project with the NGO Human Rights Internet coordinated by lawyer Janine Lespérance in order to track Canada’s HR commitments and obligations.
For Caitlin Wardrop, a current International Development and Law student, the Clinic was an opportunity to apply her academic knowledge to projects such as the Handbook on International Standards to Address Crimes of Sexual Violence for the NGO Lawyers without Borders Canada. Working on a project on military tribunals in Mali also helped her hone her research skills.
“I felt that it was like a trainer version of what it would be like to be a researcher or a consultant, and it was fulfilling to know that my work would help practitioners apply and promote human rights internationally,” she says about her experience with the Clinic.
Mary Kapron is proud to have worked on projects, including the project Business and Human Rights in Latin America, that presented Amicus briefs to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court of Mexico, which have had tangible impacts on the promotion and protection of human rights.
Helping as a Raison d’Être
“HR work is essentially about helping and learning how to help … and this is not the same thing as knowing the law or the explanation for the cause of the problem”, explains Packer. One telling example is a report done for the Canadian Human Rights Commission on substantive problems of inequality, which required more knowledge about poverty and the elderly than about the existing law.
According to him, the value of the Clinic’s work and approach is that it helps students understand how different things connect and allows them to gain insights about what HR work is about. For him, such an educational added value is only possible by working on actual issues and together with others.
As the HRREC is celebrating its 40th anniversary (1981-2021), it can boast that in recent years some 200 students from various academic backgrounds have been (and are continuing to be) trained through the Clinic as HR practitioners. “After 6-7 years of existence of the Clinic, there are a lot of people who are already making quite impressive careers,” says Packer.
A Magnet for Young People
Right from its inception, the Clinic was a success with students. “The first call for applications brought in over one hundred students! A crowd that was larger than what could even fit into the Centre’s meeting room!” says Packer. The Clinic now recruits students twice a year via an open house and referrals from several professors.
“It is a wonderful thing for students to collaborate with UN Special Rapporteurs or with other important entities’ major reports for which the Clinic gets credited, and which the students can list among their accomplishments,” says Packer. The practical skills which the students acquire with the Clinic also make for greater employment opportunities, as employers seek this kind of training and background.
“Our partners are fully engaged, real world entities who have real needs to address, instead of us inventing them” says Packer.
Jesse Levine, a senior lawyer with the international advocacy network Scholars at Risk (SAR), considers the partnership with the HRREC’s Clinic to be very productive. “They have been instrumental in taking a leadership role in amicus curiae briefs with cases in the Americas, including in the Monica Godoy whistleblowing case, in which a professor at the University of Colombia had been fired for exposing a pattern of sexual harassment,” he says. Levine credits the Clinic for helping to win this case of infringement of the scholar’s academic freedom before the Constitutional Court of Colombia. The case is now considered a regional benchmark. The team is also working on setting international standards within the Inter-American Human Rights System regarding academic freedom, in the context of a partnership with SAR and Universidad de Monterrey (Mexico) funded through the Open Society Foundations.
Working on submitting amicus curiae briefs related to the rights of Indigenous Peoples submitted to national courts and to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has been the core of the partnership between the Clinic and the Washington-based Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF), an NGO with a mandate to strengthen the rule of Law and democracy in Latin America through the use of HR standards. “The Clinic has been a key partner for my organization for the past seven years,” says Daniel Cerquiera, who coordinates the DPLF Human Rights and Natural Resources Program. “Our partnership has led to bring support to legal decisions of local courts halting extractive projects, including some of which were run by Canadian companies.”
Building the Clinic and the HRREC’s Reputation
Notable projects to which the Clinic has contributed and been cited include work done for the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers on major global issues like corruption in the judiciary and the participation of women in the judiciary.
The Clinic’s team focusses on drafting texts for submission to the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council and has dealt with matters addressing the Security Council.
To ensure the quality control of the work it delivers to its partners, the Clinic assigns senior students or fellows to act as project coordinators.
Janine Lespérance, who took that role at the onset of the Clinic’s activities and coordinated a research project on “Legal Barriers Affecting Older Workers in the Workplace” for the Canadian HR Commission, is now a lawyer working in correctional oversight at the federal level.
HRREC Fellow and Professor of International Law and Human Rights Law at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Dr Jordi Feo Valero, is the coordinator for Independence of Judges and Lawyers project. “As a coordinator my focus has always been to ensure that students would feel fully integrated in the team and that they could benefit from the best learning experience to be derived from the cases with which they were involved,” says Feo Valero.
Projects remain under the academic supervision of a professor, the stewardship of the Clinic’s Director, Salvador Herencia Carrasco, and the overall leadership of HRREC Director, John Packer.
A Potential to Deliver More
“Despite a requirement for a clear commitment on their part, there is no shortage of student interest nor of causes needing support, and we could deliver more if we had more support!”, remarks Packer.
In comparison to most US-based HR clinics, which have full-time professors and staff, the Centre’s HR Clinic functions on a shoestring and a lot of goodwill, thus limiting how many cases it can manage.
The 40th anniversary of the HRREC is an occasion to showcase the considerable work accomplished by the Clinic in training leading HR practitioners, and its impact in the HR community at large. So far, the success of the Clinic has been remarkable as can be attested in the new 2014-2021 Human Rights Clinic Report.
HRREC Director Packer is confident this is just the beginning for the Clinic, and that there is much more to come!
“Everyone involved feels that we are making a difference,” he says. The trailblazing Human Rights scholar-practitioner is optimistic that the Centre’s 40th anniversary offers an opportunity for the Clinic’s many stakeholders and alumni to support the Clinic’s vision and mission into the future as a shared endeavour for the global advancement of Human Rights.