Human Rights Interns Have Memorable Experiences Abroad

October 4, 2005
Second-year law student Matt Gessesse witnessed a regime crackdown on civilians during his internship in Ethiopia.

wounded man

Gessesse documented government abuses against Ethiopian citizens during protests in the capital city, taking photos of many who were hospitalized.

Halfway into his internship in Ethiopia, second-year law student Matthew Gessesse's boss and several co-workers were kidnapped by the government. Gessesse spent what he called a "timely" summer in Ethiopia, arriving just after the third round of elections under the current regime, which had just declared a state of emergency that suspended many human rights in response to perceived civilian unrest. The regime arrested thousands who protested the government abduction of students, and killed many in the process. Gessesse, who was working with the Ethiopian Human Rights Council on documenting human rights abuses, soon found he was one of only a few employees at his office left; co-workers disappeared after investigating human rights abuse claims — and after trying to find their co-workers. Gessesse and other law students spoke about their human rights summer internships Sept. 27, explaining to an audience of future interns what they may confront in the real world of human rights.

"When you're talking about lack of resources with some of these organizations, they really mean it. Don't expect tea and crumpets," said Gessesse, whose parents are Ethiopian. "At the same time, everyone [here] is telling you, you don't need the tea and crumpets. Your motivation, initiative, drive, resolve — all of that — is keeping you going. Not only keeping you going, but making you excel.

"You don't really get these experiences when you go to your run-of-the-mill firm."

Walking to work, Gessesse would pass government agents carrying guns larger than they were. "They were an opposition group when the Communist regime was in power," he said. "They essentially traded in their fatigues for suits. They're wearing suits now, and that's how a lot of African countries are run. But that doesn't really remove them from their oppressive proclivities as military leaders."

In an office of five investigators and two lawyers, Gessesse evaluated human rights claims against international human rights norms. He photographed abused citizens, and became a frequent visitor to hospital morgues (photos are available along with his article on his experiences at Many civilians and demonstrators, including some of his co-workers, were abducted and transported to a detention center 100 miles north of the city, despite protests from other international organizations and foreign governments. Detainees had to huddle in rooms with no windows, no lavatories, and with no special treatment for those who were ill and possibly contagious. "Essentially they want you to get the point," he said. "That if you're in this environment, you need to calm down and not be as civilly active as maybe you would like to be. That's what oppressive governments do — state terror.

"You learn first-hand what it's like to be in an environment where the rule of law is not as respected as it is here," he said.

After his internship with the Council proved too dangerous, Gessesse shifted his focus toward a second job he had planned — working for the Supreme Court of Ethiopia. He researched comparative law issues, and combined his interests in a research design analyzing human rights norms applied domestically and a project on various countries' election law. With the two jobs, "I'm seeing both ends of the spectrum," he said.

Gessesse told students he applied for the Monroe Leigh Fellowship, the Human Rights Program grant, and the Public Interest Law Association (PILA) fellowship, the last of which he was able to secure. Monroe Leigh's application was due in December, which helped him prepare for future applications.

He cautioned students not to be apprehensive about walking into an unstructured experience. "When I got to the Human Rights Council, there was nothing for me to do — I had to make the work," he said. "I just felt like I wanted to do it. That's why I was there."

Second-year law student Stephanie Breslow journeyed to Nairobi, Kenya, just south of Ethiopia, for her internship working with the Kenya Human Rights Commission, the leading human rights nongovernmental organization in the country. The Commission was formed by Kenyan expatriates at Harvard University, when organizations of that type were still outlawed in Kenya.

"I highly recommend this organization if anyone is thinking about going abroad next summer," she said. "I got some great experience there."

Kenyan protestors
Breslow shot this photograph of Kenyan citizens gathering in the western town of Kitale to protest illegal evictions and land seizures by the government. Many ethnic groups in this region have been displaced.

The Commission concentrates in part on workers' rights, including sectors such as the cut-flowers exporting business, which has abominable working conditions, said Breslow, as does a Del Monte factory there. "That was one of the Commission's major victories — exposing the conditions in the Del Monte factory, and getting that turned around."

Breslow focused on government monitoring, another concern of the Commission. "I was taking international human rights law and applying it to the Kenyan government's actions, identifying areas where it wasn't measuring up, and making recommendations for bringing the domestic policies in line with international law and the obligations that Kenya has as a result of the international agreements that it's a party to."

She also assessed the country's strategies for achieving the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which include eradicating hunger and poverty, and stopping the spread of AIDS.

The Kenyan government and civil society are also creating a new constitution, and Breslow helped formulate the Commission's position on it. "It's a highly contentious issue, so it's really exciting to be involved in that," she said. "If they get this constitution passed it would basically be a revolution of sorts — a peaceful revolution."

The Commission only had one lawyer on staff, so Breslow was able to contribute more. The Constitutional Law, International Law, and Comparative Constitutional Law classes she took her first year proved useful. "I got to actually directly apply everything I just learned," she said. "You get to feel like you're really having an impact there, because they really need the help."

Breslow had studied in Mali, in West Africa, as a junior in college, but some of her fellow interns had never been to Africa before. "They're open to people who are new," she advised. She found her job on, which advertises public service positions at home and some abroad. Applying for fellowships frequently requires a letter of support from the institution you will intern with, said Breslow, who received a PILA fellowship. The catch is that many organizations don't make hiring decisions early, which can make applying for a fellowship more difficult. Starting the job search early can help.

Grout recommended students research the organizations they want to intern for.

Sometimes a lack of employer resources can impact the internship experience, as second-year law student Melany Grout found. Grout worked for the Mandela Institute with the support of a human rights grant, but found the group wasn't well-equipped to work with interns. The Institute monitors human rights conditions among Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons. (see Grout's Postcards from Abroad)

Grout started the internship intending to create a research project on female prisoners, but with no books or Internet available, "I decided that the most I could [do] and the best thing I could do, which actually was extremely valuable, was to meet the people I was with and see the people in the area, and see as much as I possibly could."

She traveled frequently with attorneys on prison visits, which "was invariably eventful," going to and from the West Bank and near Gaza, through Israel. She contacted every human rights organization she could to learn more about their work.

"The experience wasn't exactly what I expected," Grout said. But working there "was the most important, valuable thing I've ever done."

Grout advised students to investigate potential employers as much as possible by asking professors and others what they know, and to pay attention to how the organization is handling itself during the interview process. Grout wasn't even sure if she had housing until she was at a layover at Heathrow Airport in London.

"That was a good lesson to just kind of learn to roll with what was happening," she said. "If any type of work sparks your interest, just look into it."

Brody and Patrick
Two weeks after escaping from the Lord's Resistance Army, 14-year-old Patrick (name changed) shares his story of abduction for the first time with McMurtry. Patrick wants to be a lawyer.

McMurtry carrying water

McMurtry helped carry water on a two-mile hike to the water pump. In northern Uganda, sources of clean water are becoming difficult to find because there are more than 1.6 million displaced people in a small geographical area.

Second-year law student Brody McMurtry learned what it was like on the other side of the classroom, co-teaching undergraduates criminal liability with a law professor in Uganda.

"It was by far one of the most incredible experiences of my life," he said. He was able to raft class-five whitewater rapids on the Nile, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and track chimpanzees in a tropical rainforest. "I wasn't necessarily making a good-hearted sacrifice in going to East Africa because it's just a place of so much adventure. In addition, the people — even though they are lacking in material things — are so full of joy and just really an honor to be with and to experience what they're doing."

McMurtry also served with the International Justice Mission, a human rights advocacy group that works in coordination with local leaders to get case referrals and enforce local laws that are already in place.

McMurtry advised students to pay attention in Legal Research and Writing. "It's really the only tool you have for sorting out the mix of international humanitarian law, British common law, Ugandan constitutional law, and even local tribal law that applies in different cases.

"There is law there that can be used to prosecute offenders. It's just that there's no one there to give voice to people that don't have a voice.

"Even if you're not sure that's the kind of work you want to do for the rest of your life, I would recommend giving it a shot at least for one summer."

McMurtry traveled with Ugandan friend and journalist Julius Mucugunzi to northern Uganda, where 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that ritually brainwashes children into killing friends and family and forces them to become child soldiers.

"Seeing these kids [at a rehabilitation center] who were brutal killers that are now being transformed and being reintroduced into their humanity was also a phenomenal experience," he said.

Thousands of children aged 9 to 14 (old enough to hold guns but young enough to be brainwashed), called "night commuters," travel to cities in northern Uganda by night to sleep in verandas and hospitals so they can be protected from the LRA. "This is one of the rare times a country has asked the ICC to issue indictments in an internal conflict," said McMurtry, who plans to write a journal note on the ICC's involvement there. "It's going to be really important to the reputation of the ICC to see how that pans out."

McMurtry is hosting an outdoor screening of a documentary film on the subject, "Invisible Children," Oct. 11 at 6:30 pm at Ingleside Farm.

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