With Journey to India, Students Bring Human Rights Research to Life
Frequent terrorist attacks, human trafficking, police corruption, refugee crisis, and widespread poverty aren't usually words used in concert with "democracy," yet they are problems that can exist in any democracy, even the largest in the world: India. Armed with a semester's worth of research and preparation, members of the Cowan Fellows Human Rights Study Project set off to the other side of the world in January to investigate human rights in the paradoxical nation, where media portrayals of a booming economy, rich cultural heritage, and a population of more than one billion often overshadow deeper problems. Despite India's regional and global influence, human rights concerns pose challenges in every corner of the country, which makes for an active public interest legal community and an ideal case study for students. The eight-member group had the opportunity to literally knock on the doors of organizations and speak to people involved in the human rights issues they were researching, adding a new dimension to their studies.
"It added a lot of depth to each of our topics and it put a lot of things in context. It changed each of our understandings of what it is to be a lawyer and what human rights are," said third-year law student Melany Grout. "Each of those things will have a really permanent effect on us. We are going to be lawyers for many years to come and [this trip is] definitely going to become part of our identity as lawyers."
The three-week expedition marked the fifth trip abroad for the student-run organization. In previous years, student teams traveled to China, Syria and Lebanon, Sierra Leone, and Cuba over spring or winter break. The students who took the journey will use the research they collected to finish a paper for independent study credit they began working on during the fall semester as well as compile their findings into a publication that will be sent to parties interested in their conclusions. The group will also make a formal presentation to the Law School community in April and later to an undergraduate audience.
The students traveled from the United States to India in small groups and were supposed to arrive in New Delhi on the same day, but fog prevented them from landing on time. One group arrived three days late — and their teammates had no way to contact them. After multiple diversions they were forced to ring in the New Year on a tarmac in Pakistan. Once they arrived, the group worked out of the basement office of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) for the first few days to get their bearings and begin planning their meetings. From there they dispersed to the cities of Ahmadabad, Baroda, Kolkata, Chennai, Kanchipuram, Mammalapuram, Mumbai, Pondicherry, and Thiruvanamalla. In all, they went to 120 meetings and interviews.
Several students focused on the outbursts of violence that are all too common in India. This March marks the fifth anniversary of the Gujarat riots, during which 2,000 to 3,000 people were killed, most of whom were Muslim. Second-year law student Kate Flatley traveled to the area and to Mumbai to research communal violence and transitional justice.
"I'm looking at different mechanisms to provide justice to the victims, for instance bringing in judges and prosecutors from outside the state of Gujarat with the aim of providing trials that are free from political influcence." She's also examining how other countries have dealt with similar violence. "People I spoke to believe there is a pattern of communal violence," she said. There have been similar riots in New Delhi and Mumbai, she found, and various political parties were thought to have been responsible.
"I had expected there to be a little bit of reluctance to meet with us — we're a group of students from the U.S. who don't know historically a lot about India, we don't have a cultural understanding of India. People were so open to speak with us. They spoke with us freely about the challenges they are facing and the situation there. They also were very generous with their time."
Classmate Jim Evans accompanied Flatley to Ahmadabad, where he researched police reforms with respect to communal violence. Such reforms have been part of the public dialogue since the 2006 decision by the Indian Supreme Court that central and state governments must implement police reforms to increase accountability for misconduct and separate policing from politics, Evans said. The Supreme Court and the states are now debating what the decision means.
"It was a great time to be there because in the newspaper everyday there were two or three different articles that were directly related to what I'm doing," he added.
The police force in India is an extension of the political party in power, Evans said, which has led to racism, corruption, and gender and religious violence. He talked to attorneys and groups advocating for police reform. "One of the best interviews I had was with a pretty high-ranking police official in the state of Gujarat. He was great — he was actually one of the few police officers that stood up to intervene for the victims during the rioting. He's been essentially blackballed because of it. He is due a promotion that he will never get. He's testified against the state government for their role in the rioting."
Melany Grout focused on anti-terrorism legislation and policies that affect civil and political rights. "I'm really interested in national security law and policy and its intersection with human rights," she said.
Grout met with groups involved at all levels of advocacy and involvement with anti-terrorism legislation. Those she met "brought the human element — the advocacy element — back to the project. Seeing what it means to real people and to lawyers who are actually in the battle [was important]," she said.
The constant level of violence in India in unimaginable to most Americans, she explained. Last year, India was second only to Iraq in the number of fatalities caused by terrorism.
The tsunami that devastated South Asia in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina the following year in the United States provided the backdrop for third-year law student Meredith Horton's research. She spent a week in New Orleans after Katrina, which sparked her interest in disaster relief in India. Horton spent the bulk of her time on the southeast coast, touring the hardest hit areas and investigating whether human rights standards are being used and enforced during the ongoing relief and recovery period.
"A lot of communities whose homes were wiped out were relocated to temporary settlements and I was able to see some of those," she said. "Certainly, a lot has been done. The tsunami hit the coast on December 26, 2004, so progress has definitely been made; however, it's quite apparent when you're on the ground that there are a lot of issues yet to be resolved. Right now, housing reconstruction is clearly the biggest issue."
Some villages have been relocated so far from the original site that it has affected residents' livelihoods. Coastal villages depend on the fishing industry to survive, so having to carry boats a mile to get to water further disrupts their routine and "tears away at the fabric of the community," Horton said.
Horton met with NGOs, attended village meetings and even spoke with some of the village leaders, one of the highlights of her trip. "I think there are many cultural and political nuances that you can't really pick up from sitting in the States searching through Lexis or Westlaw. The ability to travel to the places of the focus of your research just adds to the richness of your project.
"My research, I certainly hope, can contribute to the dialogue going on right now in India, but also potentially on a broader scale. If nothing else, it's important to think about a national responsibility to care for your own people and understand that really there should be some kind of right to assistance, and whether or not the standards in place are sufficient."
Second-year law student Kristin Flood talked to human rights NGOs, academics, feminist organizations, children's shelters, and children's help lines in the red-light districts of New Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai for her research on human trafficking with the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the poorest areas of the country it's not uncommon for people to sell family members into the sex trade, including children. Flood believes the problem stems from poverty.
After getting a sense of the laws related to her research she knew things would probably be different on the ground. "You get a totally different picture when you are talking with [the people affected] because the law is enforced differently than it's written," she said. "It was really interesting finding out where people thought the law was lacking, where the law was good but not being enforced, where the other problems were that may not be visible.
"In part because my topic revolves around poverty and gender inequality, I don't think I would have understood if I hadn't seen it first hand. It made a lot more sense once I was there and actually got to go to some children's shelters. That was life altering."
The porous borders of India allow for the passage of many refugees through several regions. Although the country is not subject to the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, India has managed to treat its refugees well, said third-year law student Fiona McKinnon. McKinnon traveled to Chennai to visit Sri Lankan refugees, who have been in India since the 1980s, and to research refugee law and policy.
"Because India is not signed on to the U.N. Convention on the Status of Refugees, there's a question of how to make India's policy less ad hoc and make it more stable," she said. One alternative would be to adopt the model law proposed by an eminent human rights group, an idea McKinnon supported. "I feel like [my] paper will join that chorus of voices and push the government to do that."
The right to water is a developing notion in international and human rights law, including in India. The Indian Supreme Court and other organizations in India are constantly reinterpreting the matter, said second-year law student Ryan Harvey, who explored the issue in Ahmadabad, Mumbai, and Chennai. "Historically, water has always been an issue in India because there are areas of desert and then there are areas of great flooding rivers," he said. Harvey looked at three related legal issues: dams, pollution, and access to water.
His meetings with community and religious leaders, academics, reporters, NGOs and grass-roots activists led him to both cities and rural villages. One meeting in particular with a water rights activist gave him information and reports that he would not be able to find in a library. The activist's involvement in water rights in India was inspiring to Harvey.
Second-year law student Becky Barnes's experience meeting people working on the ground was inspirational for her as well. "A lot of people that I spoke to were personally invested in what they were doing," she said. She met with a variety of organizations that dealt with poverty issues for her research on the right to social and economic development. Barnes was curious to see how one of the world's largest democracies implemented those rights.
She had an inkling that some groups were suspicious of her intentions. "They were polite but they weren't really willing to discuss policy or viewpoints. They were just willing to give us straight-up facts."
The students returned from the trip exhausted but having mastered the art of networking for meetings, gathering information for their reports, and doing business in unfamiliar surroundings. "I think toward the end of the trip you get used to [the new environment] and you start to realize it's an entirely different way of life, it's a different way of doing business, it's a different way of getting around," said Barnes. "It opens you up to the possibility that there's more than one way to live life. I think anytime you're in a foreign context you learn as much about how to do things as you do about what you're researching."
The next hurdle for the students will be to pay for the trip, which totaled $22,000. So far they have raised 60 percent of that goal. To raise the remaining $9,000 they will offer language classes to law students, hold a benefit concert with band Bascom's Folly, and petition law firms for their support this year and in the future. Cameron L. Cowan '81, and his wife, P.J., for whom the fellows are named, also have made a commitment to underwrite the project.
Applications for next year's adventure are due March 20 by 5 pm. Contact Jim Evans with questions or for a copy of the application.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.