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Redefining Human Rights Lawyering Through the Lens of Critical Theory: Lessons for Pedagogy and Practice

Deborah M. Weissman, University of North Carolina School of Law
Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, University of Miami School of Law
Davida Finger, Loyola University School of Law - New Orleans
Meetali Jain, University of Cape Town

Abstract

In recent years, human rights clinics have mushroomed across United States law schools, specializing in work ranging from direct representation of asylum seekers in U.S. courts, to international litigation, to project-based advocacy that includes fact-finding visits and production of reports documenting human rights violations throughout the world. Increasingly, those human rights clinics have begun to address human rights within the United States, and not just in places beyond our borders. At the same time, domestic poverty law clinics are increasingly looking to human rights norms in framing some of their advocacy, which often takes the forms of direct legal services, community lawyering, and law reform. Critiques of international human rights lawyering point to imperialist narratives and "victim essentializing" often perpetuated by human rights lawyering. While these critiques may apply with equal force to the international and domestic human rights arenas, they are most often leveraged against advocacy directed outside of the United States that is project-based and norm-driven, or that involves the direct representation of individuals characterized by the law and advocates alike as "vulnerable victims." Human rights clinical law professors often struggle alongside students to develop lawyering strategies that are responsive to those critiques yet still effective in achieving the goals of clients--be they individuals, groups, or organizations. Although these ethical, strategic, and pedagogic challenges may be relatively novel for human rights clinicians, they are familiar terrain for many poverty law clinicians who have long-struggled with similar challenges in the context of direct representation of poor, marginalized clients and engagement in law reform and impact advocacy efforts. Clinicians in other areas of social justice lawyering, particularly those working in the poverty law arena, have developed a rich body of scholarship in this area that has itself been influenced by the corpus of critical legal and social theory. Nevertheless, these challenges remain for poverty law clinicians, too. We, as human rights and poverty law clinicians, have felt encouraged to come together and initiate a rich exchange of ideas, lessons and strategies for grappling with these challenges, both independently and collectively. We review the ways in which critical theory has been introduced to address vexing questions concerning "victim essentialization" and "othering" in poverty and community development law clinics in the United States. We then explore strategies for redefining human rights lawyering in a way that is responsive to critical theorists and that informs and expands our teaching, our advocacy, and our students' sense of what it means to be a human rights lawyer. In the process, we examine the changing role that human rights law and advocacy have come to play in social justice initiatives within the United States. By bridging international human rights lawyering with domestic poverty and community lawyering, we have found that our collective advocacy, and therefore the pedagogy we employ in teaching and supervising our students, can be enhanced by the contributions of critical legal theory. At the same time, we recognize that critical legal theory requires ongoing development in order to address human rights violations in ways that reduce the harm to those in whose names we struggle, and in order to hold the United States equally accountable for its contributions to those violations.

Suggested Citation

Deborah M. Weissman, Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Davida Finger, and Meetali Jain. "Redefining Human Rights Lawyering Through the Lens of Critical Theory: Lessons for Pedagogy and Practice" Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law & Policy 18 (2011): 337-397.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/deborah_weissman/3