Students, Alumna Pursue Human Rights Work with Help from Fellowships

May 13, 2010

Third-year law student and Sri Lanka native Nilakshi Parndigamage has been working on human rights issues since she was a teenager.

Nilakshi Parndigamage
Nilakshi Parndigamage

"I don't think I ever seriously considered any other line of work," said Parndigamage, who before attending college at Yale worked with the United Nations in Sri Lanka to stop forced domestic child labor."If you do that at an early age, you have some sort of realization and it's hard to go back to something else."

Parndigamage and more than a dozen other students and an alumna are the recipients of human rights fellowships sponsored or co-sponsored by the Law School this year.

The fellowships allow recipients to work anywhere from South Africa to Ecuador with the goal of tackling some of the world's most troubling human rights problems.

Annalise Nelson
Annalise Nelson

Annalise Nelson, a 2007 graduate of the Law School, has been named the Orrick International Court of Justice Traineeship Fellow for 2010-11. Sponsored by international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, the fellowship includes an award of up to $50,000 to cover expenses while Nelson works at the World Court in The Hague.

Nelson, who is the sixth alumnus accepted into the trainee program in six years, will begin her nine-month position in September.

"It's very rare to have an opportunity to get to really be immersed in the field full-time doing public international law, and the ICJ is a great opportunity for me to be able to do that," Nelson said.

Nelson spent her last year in law school studying abroad in Paris, where she also earned a master's degree in law and global economy. For the past two years she has been working at Hogan & Hartson, recently renamed Hogan Lovells.

"My primary practice is international arbitration and litigation, and I've also done some international trade litigation work as well," she said."I've actually gotten the chance to deal with some really interesting issues that cross the public-private international law divide."

Nelson said she was heavily invested in human rights issues in law school, including the International Human Rights Law Clinic.

"Because I've been well-versed on the private international law side, I wanted to try something that was going back to my first interest, which was public international law."

She said she hopes to expand her skills in researching international law and legal writing, as well as gain experience working in international courts with international judges.

"I'm curious to see how that all works," she said.

Laura Jolley
Laura Jolley

First-year law student Laura Jolley is this year's Class of 1957 South Africa Human Rights Summer Fellow. The N.C. State graduate worked on HIV issues during her time in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, in southern Africa, after which she pursued a master's in public health from George Washington University.

"I was thrilled when I found out that I got it," Jolley said of the fellowship. Although she had planned to work for the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg, South Africa, that organization was recently incorporated into one that also addresses larger human rights concerns. The new organization is named Section27 after the portion of the South African constitution concerned with socioeconomic rights.

"They exemplify one type of cause lawyering in how they've addressed the needs of those infected and affected by the disease, and now they've expanded to a broader purpose, and to work with them and see how they've made that progression will be really interesting," Jolley said.

Jolley, a participant in the Law School's Program in Law and Public Service, has been involved in the fight against HIV for much of her life.

"I've always been interested in diseases of poverty, ever since I was a child," she said."I was able to pursue this interest while in undergrad when I spent two summers in Ghana doing HIV prevention and awareness for youth, which is when I really became interested in addressing HIV at the international level."

Jolley said examining disease and public health from a legal perspective seemed like a natural progression.

"I was interested in the fellowship because of how it connects public health and law. I'm really excited to work in the organization and see how they addressing human rights issues at a broader level."

For Parndigamage, recipient of the Monroe Leigh Fellowship in International Law, the funding offers a way to continue her life's work in human rights.

Parndigamage plans to complete an unpaid internship with Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, a mid-sized law firm in Washington, D.C., with a prominent but small human rights litigation practice.

The two-person department primarily represents foreign victims of U.S. companies in lawsuits filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act and other U.S. laws. Their current caseload includes a case brought by Indonesian villagers against Exxon Mobil Corporation for alleged human rights abuses in and around Exxon's natural gas facilities in Indonesia. The department also represents a group of Nepali plaintiffs bringing claims under the Trafficking Victim Protection Act alleging that they were trafficked by U.S. defense contractor KBR and its associates to work at a U.S. military base in Iraq, where many of the Nepalis were killed by insurgents.

"I'm excited about this opportunity. Cohen Milstein is greatly respected for their groundbreaking international human rights litigation work, and I'm lucky that I can start my career as an attorney getting hands-on experience with them," said Parndigamage, whose international human rights work after graduating from Yale included assisting the Slobodan Milosevic prosecution before the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague and interning for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Cape Town.

Parndigamage is sharing the Monroe Leigh Fellowship with Calleigh McRaith, who is receiving a smaller portion of the award to work for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Cape Town, South Africa. McRaith also received a Public Interest Law Association grant.

Other students earning PILA fellowships for human rights or public international law work include:

Micki Bloom '12, Institute for International Law and Human Rights, Washington, D.C.

Wes Boling '12, Institute for International Law and Human Rights, Washington, D.C.

Claire Boronow '12, Minority Rights Group International, London

Salima Burke '12, Center for Applied Legal Studies, Gender Unit, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Ashley Brown '12, U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania

Robert Castillo '12, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania

Amelia Dungan '11, Secretariat of Pacific Communities, Fiji

Kathryn Fennig '12, International Justice Mission, Guatemala City

Hernando Montoya '12, Asylum Access, Quito, Ecuador

Katherine Reynolds '12, Center for Human Rights Legal Action, Guatemala City

Joel Sanderson '12, U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania

Madison Saniuk '12, International Justice Mission, Manila, Phillippines

Anisha Singh '12, International Bridges to Justice, New Delhi

Some students are self-funding human rights work:

Carolyn Greco '11, International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, The Hague

Emerald Greywoode '12, Timap for Justice, Sierra Leone

Geoffrey Grissett '12, International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, The Hague

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.

News Highlights