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The Good Fight

For nearly six years, the DU Human Rights Advocacy Center has been sending law and international studies students to places like Nigeria to promote and enforce human rights. Photo: Tim Ryan

Your in-laws arrive in town upon the death of your spouse. But instead of helping you cook meals, plan a memorial service or bury your husband in the family plot, they lock you in a room with the corpse for three days. They make you drink the water the body was washed with. They force you to have sex with other family members.

They say they want to “cleanse” you and prove that you’re innocent of your husband’s death. But before leaving, they take away the house and all your property, hurling you into a state of poverty and shame.

Even though the Nigerian constitution gives you the right to inherit land, and even though the country has ratified statements protecting human rights and condemning discrimination against women, no authorities intercede on your behalf.

The laws are there, the enforcement is not.

Sound hopeless? University of Denver law and international studies students don’t think so. For nearly six years, the DU Human Rights Advocacy Center has been sending students—armed with knowledge of the law—to places like Nigeria to promote and enforce human rights.

“Unlike the United States, human rights culture has yet to take root in several developing countries,” says Vice Provost for Internationalization Ved Nanda, a law professor who helped establish the Human Rights Advocacy Center in 1998. “There are few checks and balances, and there is little capacity to provide protection. In many instances, people have to be made aware of their rights. That is why it is vital to promote and protect human rights.”

“Advocates are needed for the people whose rights are being violated,” says center Director Bob Golten, who has done human rights work in Slovakia, Uganda and Azerbaijan. “We try to address the needs for advocacy. One way is to establish law school clinics and breed a new group of public interest advocates. And the other way is to bring cases to the courts to make governments accountable to the law.”

With startup money from the New-Land Foundation, DU’s Social Science Foundation and the Hunt Alternatives Fund, the center was created as a joint effort of the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) and the College of Law. The center functions as a “home base,” helping students connect with human rights cases and international contacts. It also sustains projects from year to year, so that even when students graduate, their work can continue.

Although the University contributed financial support last year, Golten notes that international work is expensive and that the center still relies on outside sources to keep it running. When projects take students abroad, the students get some funding from the center, but mostly they dip into their own pockets, fundraise and apply for scholarships and grants.

In addition to human rights work abroad, the center sponsors an asylum project, directed by international studies doctoral candidate Sharon Healey, through which students use the law to defend asylum seekers who have escaped to the United States.

“We have a current ‘live’ caseload of 30–35 asylum seekers, most of them coming from Africa, and a few from Russia, Tibet and Iran,” says Golten, noting that they’re winning a fair share of the cases.

Additionally, more than 120 students have completed the human rights course that Golten teaches each winter quarter. The course not only provides students with a truncated history of human rights, but also allows them to explore their interests by researching and writing advocacy and litigation reports, which each explore one human rights infraction. The reports identify the laws and options that can be used to challenge the infractions and recommend remedial action.

“Ideally, if the country’s security and finances and time permit, the student follows his or her report overseas to begin to implement the report’s recommendations,” Golten says.

Kumasi Adoma, MA international studies ’03, did just that. She became interested in the abuses of Nigerian widows during Golten’s course and was one of more than a dozen students who have pursued human rights work abroad on behalf of the Human Rights Advocacy Center. (Five more will go abroad this summer.)

In the winter of 2002, Adoma traveled to Enugu, Nigeria, to work with the Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL), a grassroots organization that assists women, children and adolescents who are victims of abuse.

“Death in traditional Nigerian society is seen in many cases as being unnatural, regardless of the cause,” explains Adoma, who met one widow who was given an acid bath by her husband’s family. “Mourning rites were developed as a way to prove women’s innocence from participating in witchcraft or sorcery contributing to a man’s death, to appease family spirits connected to the land and ancestry, and to reinforce the woman’s loss of societal status without her husband.”

When widows are made to do things like have sex with family members, endure a trial by fire or are prevented from bathing and eating, Adoma says the health ramifications are harsh: AIDS, pneumonia, skin diseases, typhoid and malnutrition as well as depression, hypertension, stroke, sudden death and suicide.

“Lack of access to human rights education and advocacy is a big problem,” she says. So, Adoma helped WACOL provide rights awareness for tribal women and sat in on legal consultations that the collective provides. “In these developing countries, the problem is not so much with the state of the law, but with the enforcement of the law,” Golten confirms. “New constitutions in post-communist and post-colonial countries uniformly say ‘the right thing.’ However, enforcement mechanisms are grossly deficient.”

As with many areas of law, most human rights advocacy work takes place outside of the courtroom. Researching, interviewing and writing are time consuming but are essential to bring a case to trial or to support a cause.

Last summer in Kampala, Uganda, law student Cara Dilts spent most of her time gathering information on women’s rights and development by going to meetings, reading reports and interviewing political and social leaders like Rose Krugyendo, director of the Kampala Women’s and Children’s Crisis Centre.

Krugyendo says that Uganda’s proposed domestic relations bill is supposed to make families stronger. But while the bill addresses marrying age, sharing of property, inheritance and bride price, there aren’t systems in place to enforce the laws.

For instance, when police arrive at a home where the wife is being beaten, they dismiss it because of strong beliefs that what happens in the home is private, Krugyendo explains.

“Uganda perpetuates violence because it leaves women in an inferior position and exalts the men,” she says. “The patriarchic society will not die out, but hopefully attitudes will change.”

Dilts’ final report may help change those cultural attitudes. While in Kampala, Dilts interned at the International Law Institute (ILI) African Centre for Legal Excellence, which trains East African leaders—judges, ministers, legislators and educators—through seminars and formal coursework.

“We don’t have a lot of information on gender issues here in Uganda,” says ILI Senior Attorney Navine Karim, noting how Dilts’ report will allow the institute to integrate gender issues into its current course offerings.

“My research will affect the decision makers of this country,” Dilts says. “Realistically, you can’t go into this thinking, ‘I am going to make a huge impact,’ because a foreigner can only do so much. But if I can bring a gender aspect to the leaders’ training, I think it has the potential to make an impact in the long run.”

But the ultimate goal of the Human Rights Advocacy Center, Golten says, is to bring cases to trial to keep governments accountable.

Victor Ullom, JD ’01, MA international studies ’01, helped bring one such case to court. Ullom traveled to Croatia in 2000 to work as an intern in the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, working on matters related to the property rights of Serb refugees who were returning.

“I had lived in the former Yugoslavia for four years prior to attending law school, and I was present when the refugees fled Croatia,” Ullom says. “It was a painful and life-changing experience to watch 200,000 people flee in front of an advancing army. They left food on the table, livestock pent up in the corrals, laundry hanging on the line. To see people so utterly uprooted—I guess it provoked me to do what I could for their return.”

While conducting research on refugee and property rights for the paper he was writing (later distributed to international organizations), he found a family who wanted to return and fight in court. Via DU’s center, a local lawyer filed the case on behalf of the refugees. The case is still pending. Meanwhile, Ullom is working in Macedonia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as head of the rule-of-law department.

“This is a very incremental process. It’s very difficult to move these things along,” Golten says of enforcing human-rights law. “For the most part, students do research and reports, and we’ve put them into the hands of the right people. But in terms of changing the human rights landscape, we are looking at a very long-term process.”

The long-term nature of human rights work is one reason the Human Rights Advocacy Center places such importance on developing advocates within the countries that need them. Natives help make sustainable changes over long periods of time.

Law student Tami Goodlette traveled to Puerto Cabezas on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua last summer to help foster human rights advocacy at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University School of Law.

“They already had a bare-bones clinic that served individual needs like domestic abuse or child support,” Goodlette says. “I worked to help incorporate the collective needs of the communities and to make the clinic more sustainable. Our goals were to help enforce the rule of law and to encourage Bluefields law students to work on behalf of the public interest.”

Goodlette worked on a case involving the collective rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants to own land—protecting it from the government and from nonindigenous people who are trying to buy it up.

“Through the partnerships with Bluefields, we have started something fantastic and opened great doors in Nicaragua where DU students can do a lot in the future. At the same time, we’re helping Nicaraguan law students make changes in their country.”

“In many of these developing countries, there is a new generation of people who aren’t used to inertia and dismay caused by corrupt governments,” Golten says. “If the energy and talents of new people can be harnessed, then these countries can go faster in the right direction.”

In the meantime, DU students will continue to help them move down that road. This summer, two more law students, Colleen Breslin and Kari Zabel, will travel to Nicaragua to follow up on Goodlette’s work. Others will travel overseas to continue projects in Peru, Ecuador, Bosnia and Romania. The center also recently received some 25 applications from all over the world to help with more projects—persecution of Muslims in Sri Lanka and non-Muslims in Bangladesh; abuse of women’s rights in Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa; environmental injustice in Mexico and free speech and assembly in Tunisia.

“One of the key things that you realize is that you are a citizen of the world, not just of one country,” Dilts says. “Coming from a Western culture where people live a relatively privileged and comfortable lifestyle, you realize that you have a responsibility to spread that wealth and knowledge around the best that you can.”

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