UN CAT Project Students Reflect on Their Experiences throughout the Program

AUWCL students, UN CAT Associate Director Jennifer de Laurentiis, and Professor Brenda Smith
with UN Committee against Torture Chair Jens Modvig.

 

This November, ten students from the UN CAT Project traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to experience firsthand the United Nations Committee against Torture's 59th session proceedings and deepen their knowledge of international human rights law. Generous gifts from the Kovler Foundation and from Ms. Kelsey Lee Offield supported the UN CAT Project's students, Vanessa Drummond Alvarez, Chase J. Dunn, Jordan Helton, Alina Husain, Ana Dionne-Lanier, Bridget Lynn, Inna Pletukhina, Thomas C. Scott Jr., Carter Stevens, and Karina Wegman. UN CAT Project Associate Director Jennifer de Laurentiis, who has supervised Project students since 2004 and was joined by Professor Brenda Smith in Geneva this fall, describes the Project as “experiential education that from day one immerses students in rejecting torture while helping students hone key advocacy, legal, and strategic skills in a real-world context where much is at stake.” 

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Chase Dunn (2L)

For me, the UN CAT Project was a remarkable experience that provided a concrete way to study international law. International law courses often cover so much material that it can be difficult to get more than a surface level understanding. However, the UN CAT Project allowed me to study a single treaty, evaluate its case law, and observe and participate in the oversight process that facilitates adherence to the Convention. The specialized focus of the class, and the knowledge and expertise of Professor de Laurentiis, provided a welcome deep-dive into a necessary and engaging part of international law. It is hard to overstate the value of such a course and its experiential learning approach. 

One aspect of the UN CAT Project was traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, to observe and contribute to one of the three sessions held by the Committee each year.  This was the most exciting and rewarding part of the class.  While in Geneva, we met with the Committee chairperson to discuss matters under the Convention against Torture. After a semester of research and learning, it was extremely rewarding to hear from practitioners and discuss the challenges facing the Committee in the coming years. As an added bonus, we met with several alumni working at the World Trade Organization and top law firms in Geneva. 

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Vanessa Drummond Alvarez (2L)

Participating in the UN CAT Project was an invaluable educational experience that allowed me to further develop my advocacy skills, gain a deeper understanding of the U.N.’s human rights treaty body mechanisms, and contextualize many of the subjects that I had learned about in previous international law courses. Having worked as a Dean’s Fellow for the Anti-Torture Initiative with the Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Mendez, I was familiar with the Convention against Torture and States parties' obligations therein. However, the substantial, focused research associated with the UN CAT Project, along with the instrumental guidance provided by Professor de Laurentiis during the course’s weekly seminar, permitted me to profoundly analyze the Convention’s implementation as applied to two States parties and identify potential areas of noncompliance.

The most rewarding component of the Project was traveling to Geneva to attend the Committee session. During the week, we met with the Committee Chairperson to discuss the Convention and our observations of the Committee’s constructive dialogue with the States parties, met with alumni and other experts working in Geneva in various capacities, including Committee member Felice Gaer, and visited the offices of the World Organization against Torture, the World Trade Organization, and Sidley Austin. The most meaningful aspect of the Project, however, was hearing some of the compliance issues that we had identified and researched throughout the semester being discussed during the sessions. Not only did it allow me to further appreciate the significance of the Convention as a legal instrument and its direct impact on people’s lives, but it reinforced the importance of our work as future human rights lawyers. I am thankful to have participated in the UN CAT Project and know that the skills and experience I have gained will benefit me greatly as I move forward in my career.

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Carter Stevens (3L)

The UN CAT Project has been one of my most valuable law school experiences and gave me an incredible opportunity to experience public international law in action. I enjoyed how the UN CAT Project is broken into two distinct phases.

During the first phase in Washington, D.C., I had the opportunity to learn about and conduct substantive research into the application of an international legal instrument, the United Nations Convention against Torture, in the context of two states parties to the Convention, Monaco, and Namibia. My research involved reading the states parties’ previous submissions to the UN Committee against Torture, researching and incorporating other materials, and drafting extensive papers outlining potential compliance issues. Meanwhile, during the UN CAT Project’s class sessions, I learned about the history and legal framework of the Convention and Committee. In class, we also discussed individual complaints of torture or ill-treatment reported to the Committee.

The second phase of the UN CAT Project was a week-long stay in Geneva, Switzerland. We attended all the public portions of the first week of the Committee’s 59th Session at the Palais Wilson, the headquarters of the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. During these sessions, I watched the Committee listen to and then question the state party delegations of Ecuador, Finland, and Monaco on their adherence to the Convention and potential problem areas. The Committee strives for a dialogue with states parties, and although the member states were sometimes defensive, the Committee mainly succeeded in this task. Outside the sessions, we met to discuss our extensive research as well as the session’s proceedings and developments.

Overall, the UN CAT Project was a fantastic, engaging experience. I developed an extensive understanding of the Convention, an international legal instrument I knew little about before starting the Project, and learned about the history and difficulty of applying its various articles to states parties. It was extremely rewarding to know that my research contributed to the useful pool of information for purposes of monitoring compliance with Convention obligations. 

 

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