Clinic Students Help Iraqi Lawmakers Through Work for NGO

June 19, 2009

When members of the Iraqi Parliament were debating when to hold upcoming national elections, they ran into a problem: The country's new constitution didn't make clear whether elections correspond with the beginning of the calendar year or with the end of the electoral term.

Alaa Mahajna LL.M. '09

During the search for an answer, the lawmakers turned in part to research conducted by students in the Law School's International Human Rights Law Clinic.

"We got very nice feedback, " said Alaa Mahajna LL.M. '09, a clinic student in the spring semester. "[The Institute of International Law and Human Rights] said our legal opinion — our memo — was a basic part of the debate between the legislators there."

The clinic was tasked to research the problem by the IILHR, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., and Baghdad that assists Iraqi parliamentarians with legal issues.

William Spencer

"The students turned that around in a week," IILHR Executive Director William Spencer said of the election memo. "We translated it into Arabic and got that analysis in front of members of Parliament, and it played a solid role in determining when the upcoming national elections will come. Members of Parliament actually had the memo out during deliberations."

During the past year, Law School students have worked on several projects for IILHR, a relationship that has provided both a unique learning opportunity for students and valuable results for the organization, according to Spencer and Professor Deena Hurwitz, who teaches the clinic.

Deena Hurwitz

"The experience working with IILHR was tremendous, " Hurwitz said. "It required the students to do comparative legal research — to consider laws of other countries. We are asked to review existing and draft legislation. Students have to be thinking about legislative reform not just in terms of internal consistency but for consistency with international human rights law as well."

Last fall, students in the semester-long International Human Rights Law Clinic tackled projects including how best to conduct a national census and assessing a proposed law regulating national security contractors.

In addition to the issue of election timing, students in the spring semester also researched best practices to ensure the independence and effectiveness of national human rights commissions "in advance of the implementation of Iraq's own legislation authorizing such an institution," said Caitlin Stapleton '09, who took the clinic in the spring.

Spencer visited the clinic in March and gave the students added perspective on the work IILHR does, Stapleton said.

Caitlin Stapleton

"He not only explained the IILHR's mission of developing human rights legislation and building the rule of law in Iraq, he also shared exciting, colorful and often humorous anecdotes of his time in Iraq and his work with Iraqi legislators," she said.

IILHR's role is to provide advice and research to the Iraqi lawmakers, not to dictate policy, Spencer said, and students were able in many cases to identify best practices from other countries and provide that information to IILHR, who in turn passed it on to Iraqi decision-makers.

Mahajna, a Palestinian who is an Israeli citizen, said he believes the Iraqis will evaluate the information he and other students worked on in context, and make their own decisions about which parts to adopt.

"The people there, I'm sure they will not accept something as a guarantee, and they will ask questions and apply the best practices to the Iraqi context, " Mahajna said. "If this is the case, I think it is a good project, and I was happy to work on it."

Hurwitz said Mahajna, who is fluent in Arabic and familiar with the region's culture, provided both valuable insight and a practical advantage to the clinic, because he could evaluate Iraqi documents in their original language.

During the year, the project expanded outside of the clinic to include 19 other students, almost all first-years, who volunteered to do pro bono work on IILHR projects, Hurwitz said.

"Our clinic students did a short training with them to get them up to speed on international human rights issues and they went right to work, " she said.

Spencer praised the quality of the students' work, and said he hopes to continue working with the clinic.

"This is clinical law at its finest, where you have law students who are able to weigh in directly, " he said. "It's a real opportunity to learn about international law and international decision-makers, and then be able to get that right to the source."

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