Inaugural conference of the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights features emerging voices in the field

The inaugural conference of the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights reflected the new institute's mission to deepen engagement on a wide variety of human rights issues, gathering top practitioners and scholars for a series of discussions on inequality and discrimination. The topics ranged from gender and disability discrimination in China to racial and ethnic inequalities in global perspective. Arranged in panels, the speakers included journalist and filmmaker Jocelyn Ford; Sharon Hom ’80, executive director of Human Rights in China; Strive Masiyiwa, founder and chairman of Econet Wireless International; Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and more.

One panel celebrated human rights careers by bringing three recent NYU Law alumnae, with Dean Trevor Morrison and NYU Stern’s Michael Posner moderating, to speak about their work as the newest generation of leaders in the field.

Andrea Gittleman ’09 is the program manager of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which works to make sure that the international community responds appropriately to atrocities before they emerge. “One of our goals is to make sure that all of the lessons from the holocaust can inform our decision making today,” Gittleman said.

Gittleman has recently been focused on monitoring the situation in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people, an ethnic and religious minority, have faced high-level, organized violence, and are burdened with restrictions on the most basic aspects of life. While Gittleman emphasized that the most significant change had to come from within the country, she said that international organizations had a role to play, through ensuring humanitarian aid access and creating pressure to restore voting rights to the disenfranchised minority. 

Beatrice Lindstrom ’10, a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), is working to make sure a standard of liability also exists for international organizations. She is currently involved in litigation holding the United Nations accountable for the outbreak of cholera in Haiti.  The country had no documented cases of cholera until after the 2010 earthquake, when UN peacekeepers responding to the disaster contaminated the water system. More than 9,000 people in Haiti have died from the disease since its outbreak.

“If someone had told me in law school that I would graduate from law school and go on to sue the UN, I would have been totally horrified,” Lindstrom said. “But sometimes we have to do crazy things for justice.” Finding the right legal forum in which to make the case has been difficult as a result of the UN's legal immunities. After a class-action lawsuit against the UN was dismissed at the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, the IJDH is planning to make an appeal in the Second Circuit. 

An associate at Foley Hoag, Tafadzwa Pasipanodya ’08 specializes in advising sovereign states in disputes with corporate stakeholders, and has represented states in disputes before the ICSID, UNCITRAL, ICC arbitral tribunals, and the International Court of Justice. Pasipanodya is also active within the firm's corporate and social responsibility practice, working with companies that want to be more forward thinking on human rights questions.

Most recently, Pasipanodya represented El Salvador in an arbitration case before the World Bank, after a gold mining company sued the country for putting a stop to mining there until the effects of the chemical processes on the climate could be evaluated. In cases such as this, Pasipanodya said, she often finds herself working with lawyers for whom human rights law is not their area of focus. “You have a lot of international arbitrators being forced to grapple with these issues that they didn’t study, necessarily, when they were in law school,” she said.

“This is a set of new forms of advocacy,” said Dean Trevor Morrison of the three alumnae panelists' varied work experiences. “The next generation of leadership in Human Rights is going to entail not just excellence in the craft of lawyering as we’ve come to know it over the last several decades, but a whole new set of skills.”

Watch the full video of the discussion (45 min):

View the conference line-up and all videos from the day here

Posted April 30, 2015