Rethinking access to the East African Court of Justice

When Colette Heefner ’15 started her internship at a world-renowned human rights institute in Lund, Sweden, this summer, she had no idea that her research on the East African Court of Justice would be presented in Kampala, Uganda, before top experts in the field.

That satisfying scenario was a few years in the making. In 2013, Heefner participated in Suffolk Law’s summer exchange program at the University of Lund. The school—in southern Sweden about 40 minutes from Copenhagen—was founded nearly 350 years ago and is considered one of the world’s foremost academic institutions.
For decades, Suffolk Law has sent 30-40 students to the University to take courses that help them make sense of legal frameworks across nations and continents. This year’s classes included comparative health law and comparative criminal procedure and gave students a chance to interact with Swedish law students, faculty, and judges.
This summer, through a relationship Suffolk Law has built with the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (RWI), Heefner returned to Lund to work with the RWI’s senior researcher, Dr. Alejandro Fuentes.

During her internship, Heefner drafted a report on the East African Court of Justice’s digest, a collection of that Court’s rulings. The Court has adjudicated on a number of major human rights issues; in 2011, for example, it upheld a decision finding former Kenyan Attorney General Amos Wako guilty of failing to investigate atrocities committed by Kenyan security forces.

The Court’s digest needed some structural improvements and Heefner worked with Fuentes on recommendations for changes.

Making it easier for judges to find cases

“The goal of our project,’ Heefner said, “was to enhance the structure of the law digest to make it a more efficient tool for judges and researchers. The digest was bare-bones—with only partial briefs of the cases listed in no particular order—so Dr. Fuentes and I came up with a list of recommendations to re-work the digest.” She stressed the importance of classification, to make topics and cases easier to find.

“Twice a week, we’d go back and forth, talking about different ways to improve the digest. I would give my feedback and we’d press each other for answers,” Heefner said.

Being cited by key players in the field

One of the biggest thrills for Heefner came when important members of the legal community cited her work at a July conference in Uganda. “It was exciting. They took my work, handed it out around the conference, and I received great feedback. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but an extremely valuable experience,” she said.

The journey toward human rights law

It had been a bit of a journey before Heefner landed on public interest as her main focus. She explored avenues in environmental and corporate law before deciding she wanted to focus on human rights.

Heefner said the law school helped guide her through questions about international law and her future career. Professor Sara Dillon, co-director of the university’s International Law Concentration, said the process to prepare students starts long before they are actually eligible to study or intern abroad.

Suffolk faculty and administrators begin reaching out to students in their first year and acquaint them with international options. In their second year, Practitioner in Residence for International and Comparative Law Christine Bustany, who directs Suffolk’s international internship programs and teaches associated clinical courses, helps students look at which internships would most benefit them and prepares students like Heefner for the experience through specialized academic coursework and practice-oriented trainings in human rights advocacy. “This combination of mentorship, rigorous academic preparation, and international legal practice provides students with a formidable basis for working in the field; and the programs’ diversity in terms of practice areas and placement countries is unique to Suffolk,” Bustany reports.

From South Africa to the UN

Like Heefner, this summer 16 Suffolk law students engaged in international human rights internships working on cutting edge issues involving children’s rights, environmental justice, and international criminal law—from South Africa to the United Nations in New York. (Students please note: The fellowship/internship application is due November 14).

In addition to Suffolk’s public interest international internship program, 13 Suffolk law students interned this summer in law firms on five continents, as part of Suffolk’s international private practice program, which Heefner participated in during the 2013 summer.

“International law is not easy to break into; anyone who’s in the field would say that,” Dillon said. “You have to get out in the world, and that requires a lot of planning. We do a lot of information outreach to properly prepare students.”

Core values that made a mark

Heefner cites the Institute’s four core values–respect, integrity, inclusiveness and inspiration– as principles she will never forget. “Those core values will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I hope they permeate everything that I do,” Heefner said. The Institute is named after a Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II. “Being at the Institute has changed my view of the legal profession. It’s a bold statement, but I stand by it because everyone at the RWI is so enthusiastic about what they do; that has motivated me in ways I never thought possible.”

Working with human rights leaders

During the Lund summer program, Suffolk Law students had a great opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top minds in human rights, including Dr. Miriam Estrada-Castillo. Estrada Castillo served as Minister of Social Welfare of Ecuador and President of the Ecuadorian Supreme Court for Children and Juvenile Justice.

--By Marc Filippino