Two University of Virginia School of Law students traveled to Colombia this summer to research how the country enforces the right to health care, guaranteed in its constitution.

Paul Devamithran ’20 and Alex Viner ’20 journeyed with Professor Mila Versteeg to assist with her forthcoming book on how different nations enforce constitutional rights. Versteeg, who was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow in 2017, is using the award to expand her empirical work on the world’s constitutions.

Professor Camilo Sanchez, who was then wrapping up his career at a Colombia-based research and advocacy organization, contributed to the trip by arranging meetings and aiding translations. He now directs the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and is co-director of the Human Rights Program with Versteeg.

The UVA Law team met with several different stakeholders, including Constitutional Court justices, professors, economists and nongovernmental organizations, who helped the students better understand the country’s “tutela” system.

A “tutela” is a constitutional claim that all Colombian citizens can file within the court system if they feel they have been deprived of a “minimal level of subsistence” or their “human dignity,” both of which are broadly guaranteed in the Colombian Constitution’s enumeration of myriad rights.

“I believe that our work will establish a juxtaposition of perspectives on the state of health care and the tutela system in Colombia in a way that I have not seen in any materials I have examined,” Viner said. “We spoke with individuals who had a diversity of perspectives and gave us novel insight.”

Photo provided by Alex Viner.

Viner said hundreds of Colombians file tutelas each week when they are unable to receive the medicine or treatment they request from their health care providers, claiming that denying access to such treatments undermines their human dignity. Judges often grant petitioners what they ask for without reviewing more cost-effective options or the urgency of the treatment.

Devamithran said addressing the problem through the court may forestall more comprehensive reform.

“If I can go directly to a judge and get an individualized remedy through a mechanism guaranteeing a rapid response, what incentive do I have to take to the streets in protest or to badger my legislative representative into implementing a systemic solution to what is clearly a systemic problem?” he asked.

As the students learned, the tutela system gives the Constitutional Court, rather than legislators, political capital to take the lead on unpopular issues. It also may disproportionally benefit wealthier Colombians who have greater access to lawyers and the court.

“This may entail that the tutela system does little to benefit those who theoretically need it the most,” Viner said.

Viner, the son of Soviet immigrants, has studied abroad in the Netherlands, where he took an International Criminal Justice course and was able to observe the trial of a former Serbian war criminal. Devamithran has previously worked for a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament and a policy think tank there.

Both said they hope their experience in Colombia offers insight for Versteeg’s book.

“I think we contributed some thoughtful observations about the implications of judicial activism in the arena of social rights,” Devamithran said. “But mostly, I think we learned from the people with real insight — people who wrote the laws, interpreted the laws, worked within the laws, or worked to change them.”

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