Teaching the International Human Rights Course

UM Law School Building
Prof. Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin

After I had audited the International Human Rights Law course at the University of Minnesota Law School in the Fall of 2001, Professor David Weissbrodt asked if I wanted to help him teachthe course. Given the vast disparity between his and my knowledge of the field, I thought he was joking. “David,” I said, “you don’t need any help.” But he persisted, and I relented and accepted his offer. I then served as an Adjunct Professor at the Law School for nine years, 2002-2010.

The course continued to have the same outline and structure that I had experienced in my auditing the course in the Fall of 2001,[1] and we continued to use the same book.[2] Professors Weissbrodt and Frey still taught most of the class sessions and later were joined by another expert in the field, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin.[3]

Professor Weissbrodt and I decided that I would teach two class sessions. One was on refugee and asylum law that built on my experience as a pro bono asylum lawyer. The other was on civil litigation over foreign human rights abuses in U.S. federal courts that took advantage of my considerable experience litigating civil cases in these courts.

Each year to prepare for my two class sessions, I conducted legal research to learn about the many new developments in order to write supplements for the chapters on these subjects. I also assisted in the rewriting of these chapters for the fourth edition of the book that came out in 2009.[4] I thereby continued to use my legal research and writing skills.

This involvement also guided my online reading of various U.S. and foreign newspapers and periodicals and to the creation of a system for email distribution of interesting articles on human rights to friends and colleagues. Many of these articles later became incorporated into the annual supplements for the two chapters that I prepared.

I decided that I would use moot courts for my two class sessions. For refugee and asylum law, four students volunteered to be lawyers for an asylum applicant and the U.S. Government for closing arguments before me, acting as an Immigration Judge in the Minnesota office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS and n/k/a Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). For the other session, four additional students volunteered to be the lawyers for a corporate defendant and a foreign plaintiff in a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The moot court was before me acting as the district judge on the defendant’s motion to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint alleging the corporation had aided and abetted human rights violations in a foreign country.

In addition to being one way to learn about the substantive law, the moot courts, in my opinion, had other advantages. I thought that the moot court approach would show the students how they could become involved in international human rights while engaged in a regular legal practice in the Twin Cities or anywhere else in the U.S. Given the strength of the international human rights program at the University of Minnesota Law School, many of its graduates have gone on to be lawyers for various U.N. agencies and international human rights NGOs, but most graduates become ordinary practicing lawyers. I also wanted to emphasize the importance of a lawyer’s work at the trial court level, rather than the typical law school moot court experience of arguing before a mock appellate court like the Minnesota or U.S. Supreme Court. Most litigators have much more experience at the trial court level and rarely, if ever, argue a case before the highest court of the state or the U.S. Finally it gave the participating students the opportunity to practice and develop their oral advocacy skills.

For each of the moot court sessions, I held preparatory meetings with the student-lawyers. I gave them guidance on what to expect and answered their questions about the substantive and procedural issues. A strong enjoyable mentorship relationship developed from this total experience.

As part of the moot court exercises, I emphasized to all the students the importance of a lawyer’s knowing the background and views of the judges before whom they appear.

The hypothetical district judge in the lawsuit over foreign human rights violations, for example, had excellent credentials. Appointed for life by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, the judge was intelligent, honest, hard-working, fair and with a lot of experience on many kinds of civil and criminal cases. The judge, however, had never studied international human rights and along with the fellow judges in his court and his supervising court (the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals) has never had a case like this under the Alien Tort Statute. As a result, the lawyers for this moot court needed to explain the case thoroughly and clearly. (Fortunately the judge had a law clerk who had studied the subject at the University of Minnesota Law School.)

The hypothetical immigration judge, on the other hand, has tried many asylum cases and has a thorough knowledge of the relevant law. This judge also was intelligent, honest, hard-working and fair. As a result, in this moot court there is no need to explain asylum law to the immigration judge. Instead, the attorney needs to focus on the facts of the instant case. Such judges, it should be noted, do not have lifetime appointments. Instead, they are appointed by the U.S. Attorney General as attorneys in the Department of Justice with no fixed term of office and are subject to discretionary removal and transfer by the Attorney General.

Soon after the classes were over, I sent email critiques of the students’ performance. Invariably the students rose to the challenge and made excellent arguments. I also usually issued a hypothetical decision on the dismissal motion and on the asylum request.

I also attended many other class sessions and the presentations by outside speakers in the course as well as various conferences at the Law School. As a result, I continued to learn more about the field.

Outside the classroom I was available to talk with students about the course and more generally about practicing law and other issues. I welcomed this opportunity to learn more about those who were getting ready to pursue various legal careers. I especially enjoyed getting to know the many foreign students in the course, some of whom were Hubert Humphrey Fellows. (My wife and I also volunteered to be a host family for Fellows from Ecuador, El Salvador and Brazil.)

Museum of Republic, Rio de Janeiro
Profs. Duane Krohnke & Elizabeth Sussekind @ Museum of Republic

 

My friendship with a Humphrey Fellow from Brazil resulted in her inviting me to participate in a symposium at the Museum of the Republic in Rio de Janeiro in the Fall of 2009. The symposium was the concluding event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Brazilian constitution of 1988 that ended its military dictatorship. This symposium focused on Memory and Justice, and my paper on the Truth Commission for El Salvador provided a Latin American perspective on Brazil’s not having had a similar truth commission.[5]

I thoroughly enjoyed these many aspects of having been an adjunct professor. I never would have had these experiences if I had continued practicing law after 2001. I, therefore, view them as confirmation of the wisdom of my decision to retire from lawyering that year.[6]


[1] See Post: Auditing the International Human Rights Law Course (June 30, 2011).

[2] David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (3d ed. 2001).

[3] University of Minnesota Law School, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin,  http://www.law.umn.edu/facultyprofiles/niaolainf.html.

[4]  David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala D. Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (4th ed. 2009).

[5] Museu da Republica, Memoria e Justica (2009).

[6] Post: Retiring from Lawyering (April 22, 2011).

Auditing the International Human Rights Course

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from Faegre & Benson, I audited the International Human Rights Law course at the University of Minnesota Law School.[1] Although I had gained some knowledge of refugee and asylum law from my pro bono asylum work,[2] I knew very little about the rest of the field. Through this experience at the Law School I started to learn about other aspects of this area of law and developed a continuing interest in trying to keep up with new developments in the field.

Prof. David Weissbrodt
Prof. Barbara Frey

The course was lead by Professor David Weissbrodt, a world authority on the subject and now the first and only Regents Professor at the UM Law School.[3] He was the main author of the book that we used.[4] Some classes were taught by Professor Barbara Frey, whom I had met when she was the Executive Director of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and had taken its training course in asylum law.[5]

The topics for the course were the following: (a) drafting, ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties; (b) state reporting under such treaties; (c) U.N. Charter-based mechanisms to address human rights violations; (d) humanitarian intervention; (e) international human rights fact-finding; (f) criminal liability for human rights violations; (g) regional human rights systems (Inter-American and European); (h) refugee and asylum law; (i) U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations; (j) use of international human rights treaties and law in litigation over U.S. issues; and (k) causes of human rights violations.

The course used different teaching styles. Some classes were the traditional law school Socratic questioning by the professor. Others were lectures while some involved role playing by the students. One class was a mock hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on whether the Senate should give its advice and consent to U.S. ratification of an international human rights treaty. The course also had an unusual structure. The class met once a week for two hours on Friday morning immediately followed by another hour when we were joined by an undergraduate human rights class for presentations by outside speakers on various related topics.


[1]  University of Minnesota Law School, International Human Rights, http://www.law.umn.edu/current/coursedetails.html?course=23.

[2] Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011).

[3] University of Minnesota Law School, David S. Weissbrodt, http://www.law.umn.edu/facultyprofiles/weissbrodtd.html.

[4] David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (3d ed. 2001).

[5] University of Minnesota, Barbara A. Frey, http://hrp.cla.umn.edu/about/people.htm; Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011).