Students in the Human Rights Study Project at the University of Virginia School of Law took part in a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Nepal in January, opening their eyes to the state of reforms since the country’s 10-year civil war ended in 2006.
Participants in the yearlong class, known as Cowan Fellows for the long-time support of Cameron L. Cowan ’81, also had the rare opportunity to trek to the foot of Mount Everest. This year’s trip was made possible thanks to the generosity of David C. Burke ’93, the chief executive officer of Makena Capital Management.
Nepal is a South Asian country that borders China and India. While it has largely recovered from the strife of revolution, during which disappearances and acts of torture were reported, human rights concerns still remain. The project, now in its 17th year and offered as a yearlong course, makes it possible for students to do field research in countries around the world that have experienced abuses. The students write papers and present their findings during the spring.
This year, students met with drafters of the Constitution of Nepal, and members of the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Human Rights Commission and Supreme Court, among others. Assistant Professor Nelson Camilo Sánchez León teaches the class. He introduced the students and made presentations during their scheduled stops.
“It was really interesting to see all the specific facts we learned about come to life and be able to ask questions that I had been thinking about throughout the [fall] semester,” said Zeinab Bakillah, a second-year law student.
Rachel Davidson Raycraft, a second-year law student pursuing a joint Master’s of Public Policy, agreed.
“The highlight of the trip was to meet people who are such change agents in these countries,” Raycraft said.
In 2015, the Constitution of Nepal replaced an interim constitution. It provides protections for Nepalese of varying ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.
“I’m focusing on transitional justice issues,” Bakillah said of her paper. “How do we prosecute these past crimes? How do we help the victims of these past crimes?”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigates wartime abuses, but may not have the resources to investigate every report or follow up on every lead, Bakillah said. Her paper will look to other countries like South Africa that have gone through similar transition processes, in order to make comparisons.
The students also got to meet with both Nepalese law students and young working lawyers.
“The rule of law is very new to Nepal right now because of the new constitution,” said second-year law student Roger Dean, a former consultant at the World Bank. “So meeting these young lawyers and learning about their strategy and how they are going about litigation in a system that’s very new, I thought that was a really cool experience.”
Following the transition to the current Maoist government, women and LGBT people still continue to face violence and discrimination, and human trafficking remains a problem. Slavery also still exists in Nepal, although it is estimated to affect less than 1 percent of the population.
Third-year student Alana Broe said she participated in Human Rights Study Project because of her interest in stopping human trafficking. As an undergraduate, she worked with International Justice Mission to help organize IJM chapters at colleges throughout the Southeast.
She said the entire experience of gathering facts on the ground in a developing country was eye-opening.
“I expected to be humbled and be very much out of my comfort zone, and those expectations were met,” Broe said.
Raycraft, the student coordinator for the Law School’s Human Rights Program who will be working this summer with Morrison Foerster in Washington, D.C., focusing on global anti-corruption efforts, said the many interactions she had with everyday people enhanced her educational experience.
“Seeing how people live, walking in the streets with people from a different country, eating different foods even, I think it really allows students the opportunity to understand in a more profound way the realization of human rights and the impact of rule of law,” she said.
For students who could remain in-country, the last leg of the trip was enhanced by a trek to the base of Mount Everest, also courtesy of businessman-philanthropist Burke. He is a “triple ’Hoo” who has a history of generously funding experiential learning opportunities for UVA students.
Mark Brzezinski ’91, a former U.S. ambassador to Sweden, was among the additional alumni and student guests who attended. He helped plan the trip and interacted with students while there, sharing his wisdom.
“Dave, Mark and I worked for months putting this trip together, including identifying local contacts, working on the logistics and preparing our agenda,” Sánchez said.
Tom Willis ’92, Katie Ryan ’92 and Sean Mahoney ’92 were among the intrepid alumni who traveled to Everest’s South Base Camp. An estimated 40,000 people make the trek from the Lukla airport to the base camp each year.
In January, though, relatively few people make the trip because of the colder off-season.
Brent Bishop served as the group’s guide for the rugged mountain journey. He is the son of Barry Bishop, a mountaineer who was part of the first American team to summit Everest.
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.