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Photo exhibit highlights 25 years of human rights program

|Written By Heather Gardiner

{module 10207}{nomultithumb}A young Palestinian boy holds up a tear gas bomb used by the Israeli military on protesters during demonstrations against the occupation. A woman is shown with a tear rolling down her cheek as she tells of her “lost childhood” after she was repeatedly raped during the Rwandan genocide.

These are two examples of the photos taken by law students in the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. The IHRP is celebrating its 25th anniversary from Feb. 9 to 23 with an exhibit of photos taken by students while doing internships around the world.

The IHRP — which started out with seven student interns and has grown to 300 — is often one of the reasons law students choose U of T, says IHRP director Renu Mandhane.

The program has a couple of objectives. “One is so that if [students] want to do this as a career they get their foot in the door, but also to make them global citizens so that when they do practise on Bay Street or wherever, they have that global outlook and they can bring that to bear on their practice and on their pro bono work,” Mandhane says.

“[T]wo is also to provide organizations in the field with legal capacity. So a lot of NGOs don’t have lawyers on staff and they can use our students’ skills to sort of beef up their legal analysis of human rights law.”

The type of internships students pursue varies, she adds, and it depends on what’s happening in the world at the time.

Sofia Ijaz, a 1L student at U of T, completed an internship in the West Bank this past summer. She took the photo of the child holding the tear gas bomb along with several other powerful images on display at the exhibit. She worked with defence counsel representing Palestinian detainees in the military courts and attended the trials. “It’s a very unique opportunity. Not a lot of people actually get to go inside the military courts,” she says.

“One of the tasks that I was assigned as an intern was to monitor how many detainees are detained every day,” recalls Ijaz. “When I went in I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not going to be that hard, maybe it’ll be one or two people detained. I’ll be able to keep their names on a list and it’ll be super organized and it’ll be fine.’ And the first day I found out — I would read the news and I would check all the sources, there were 40 people detained and I had to find out who all these 40 people were.”

After witnessing it firsthand, she calls the Palestinian justice system “very disturbing.” For example, there were nightly arrest raids in the West Bank neighbourhood she lived in.

“As a law student here we talk a lot about procedural fairness: we talk a lot about what are fair trial rights, what are the rights of the accused,” Ijaz says. “I learned a lot about how we take for granted these things that we call procedural rights because they just don’t exist in many places in the world.”

She says her internship changed her perspective on human rights law. “It allows you to go and see what it means to practise human rights in the real world because sometimes it’s hard for us as students to understand what it means to be a human rights lawyer,” she explains. “So to actually go out in the field and see how other practitioners work . . . it gives you a completely different practical education versus in the classroom you’ll learn about the law, you’ll get a really good grasp on what is international law, what are violations of international humanitarian law, but until you see it in person, it’s another world.”

It also reaffirmed her decision to become a human rights lawyer. “I realized that there is nothing else in this world that I want to do except this kind of work. Nothing moves me or inspires me as much as human rights work. And I’m at my best when I’m in the field and I feel like I’m actually able to engage with people.”

This summer she will be working with the office of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Morgan Sim, a U of T 3L student, helped organize the IHRP exhibit. She completed a summer internship after her first year of law school at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania, where she worked with the judges. “I was really excited but it was of course overwhelming because I felt I didn’t know enough to contribute,” she says. “But of course a lot of these trials are understaffed and your time and energy are tremendously valuable to them.”

She says she learned a lot about procedure and evidence, and was even able to participate in drafting a decision. “It really solidified my decision to go into litigation. It was something that I always thought I would be interested in and something I thought I would enjoy, but getting to observe complex litigation from basically the judge’s seat . . . that was really exciting to me and I learned that I really liked rules and procedure.”

Sim is also co-editor in chief of the IHRP’s Rights Review. She wrote an article about her experience in Tanzania for the October 2010 issue, which was republished on the Canadian Lawyer 4Students web site.

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