Reflections on Learning and Teaching

As a student of history, economics, political science, law and other humanities courses at six colleges and universities[1] and as an instructor at three such institutions,[2] I have participated in different ways of instructing and learning such bodies of knowledge and skills: college and university lectures, other lectures; seminars, research and writing; tutorials; the Socratic method; and role-playing. Similar methods were used in my practice as a litigating attorney and now as a blogger and ordinary citizen. Underlying all of them, of course, are reading and studying. Here are a septuagenarian’s lessons in life-long learning.

My thinking about this subject and writing this blog post were prompted by a recent article about the lecture as a mode of instructing and learning. That article by Molly Worthen, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was put into a broader context by her quoting John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University,” where he said the humanities taught a student “to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Such a student learns “when to speak and when to be silent. He is able to converse, he is able to listen.”[3]

College and University Lectures

“A good lecture class,” Worthen says, teaches “comprehension and reasoning” by keeping “students’ minds in energetic and simultaneous action.” It does so by emphasizing “the art of attention, the crucial first step in … ‘critical thinking.’” She quotes Monessa Cummins, the Chair of the Classics Department at Grinnell College, my alma mater, as saying the lecture places “a premium on the connections between individual facts . . . [and] the building of an argument.”

This is “hard work” for the students, Worthen adds, requiring them “to synthesize, organize and react as they listen.” Indeed, students need to be taught how to listen, and lecture courses are exercises in “mindfulness and attention building.” This skill cannot be assumed, but must be taught. One way of doing so, in Professor Cummins’ classes, is to assign one student in each session to present a critique of her argument at the subsequent small discussion section.

Such a lecture course teaches that “listening is not the same thing as thinking about what you plan to say next–and that critical thinking depends on mastery of facts, not knee-jerk opinions.“

This is enhanced, Worthen argues, by requiring the students to take notes by hand, not by typing them into a computer. The former makes it impossible for them to make verbatim transcripts of the lecture, but instead to synthesize as they listen. That may be true, in my opinion, when the lecturer does not provide the students or audience with an outline of the lecture.

Lecturing, on the other hand, with a PowerPoint outline and providing the students or audience members with the Notes Page version of the outline enables the student to glance at the entire presentation in advance and see how the individual points fit into the entire lecture or presentation and then add his or her notes to individual pages as the lecture proceeds. PowerPoint also facilitates the use of graphs, maps and photographs in the lecture. [4]

Worthen also recognizes the utility of combining a large lecture session with small discussions sections and thereby obtain the reactions and comments of the students.

My memories of my first exposure as a student to lecturing 58 years ago as a freshman at Grinnell College are fuzzy at best, but I do not recall being provided with tips on how to take full advantage of this form of instruction. I now wish I had been told how to listen, to be mindful and to synthesize as I listened. I wish I had had a professor assign one student in each session to present a critique of the lecture’s argument at the next class session. Of course, then all notes of a lecture were handwritten.

As a student of Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford, 1961-1963, attendance at university lectures on these subjects, often by world-famous scholars, was optional. I attended some primarily to see and hear such people as philosophers A. J. Ayer and Gilbert Ryle, economist J. R. Hicks and legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart, but regrettably I did not regularly do so. (Instead my attention was focused on tutorials as discussed below.)

As a law student at the University of Chicago, 1963-1966, the Socratic method was the dominant form of instruction, not lectures. The latter instead were formal occasions for all the students and faculty, usually provided by visiting scholars and judges. (The Socratic method also will be discussed below.)

In addition, I was a lecturer when I taught a course on the American Civil Law System at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm, when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law, when I was an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and when I was on the faculty of various continuing legal education courses while I was a practicing lawyer. That experience required me to review the material to be covered, to conduct any additional research I deemed necessary, to determine the main points to emphasize, to construct an outline for what I wanted to cover in the lecture and, in some cases, to prepare a PowerPoint presentation for use at the lecture.

Other Lectures

All of us obtain information and are educated, or not, in other oral presentations throughout our lives. I think of major political speeches like the State of the Union and Inaugural Addresses; other speeches at public events; and sermons at churches.

When, for example, I listen to speeches or presentations at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, I sometimes take handwritten notes and submit proposed questions for the moderator to ask the speaker. Later I also can go to the Forum’s website to re-listen to the speech. I also have written blog posts about some of these presentations. Another recent source of lectures for me is those offered by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) of the University of Minnesota.

For sermons at Westminster Presbyterian Church, I sometimes make handwritten notes of some of the points on the church bulletin in my hands while the morning prayer, hymns and choral anthems usually emphasize some of the sermon’s main points. I also have found that I learn more about the sermon’s lesson by reading its text when it is subsequently posted on the church’s website and by reading and reflecting on the Scripture passages for the sermon; additional insight is often providing by writing a blog post about a sermon.

Seminars

My best educational experience at Grinnell College was taking the Political Economy Seminar my senior year with nine other students and with faculty from the economics, history and political science departments. We read important books in the field, not textbooks, and wrote and presented our papers on the former for discussion by all.

The Washington Semester at American University in the Fall of 1959 provided another type of seminar experience as a group of students from all over the U.S. met with politicians, government officials and others to learn about the operations of the U.S. government and political process.

I also organized and led a liberal arts seminar for lawyers at Grinnell in 1984. After reading various materials, we gathered at the College to discuss American legal history, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), jurisprudence and the lives and challenges of being humane judges and lawyers. Our leaders were a federal appellate judge, a national ADR scholar, an American history professor, a jurisprudence professor and a practicing lawyer.

Being in a book group, for me at Westminster Presbyterian Church, is another seminar experience for groups of 12 or smaller. Reading an assigned book and then gathering for a discussion of the book led by one of the group usually leads to a greater understanding of the book and its issues. For example, I recently led my group in discussing David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” after I had written about the book in this blog.[5]

Research and Writing

During my student years I conducted factual and other research about various subjects and in the process learned a lot about those subjects as well as research skills. The task of then reducing that research into a paper on the subject provided more learning about the subject plus the process of writing such papers. Later as a practicing lawyer these skills were further developed with the aid of the legal process for obtaining evidence in lawsuits, including the examination of witnesses, and the writing of briefs and other legal papers under rules for their contents and length.

The student research paper I best recall was at American University. The topic was how political interest groups participate in important cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and more specifically in contempt-of-congress cases in that court. I identified such cases, read the Court’s opinions in the cases, interviewed staffers at the relevant congressional committees (especially the House Un-American Activities Committee) and at the relevant political interest groups (especially the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors) and then spent a lot of time at the Supreme Court’s Library reading the briefs in the case, including those from the ACLU and the AAUP as amici curiae (friends of the court). The paper summarized this research and conclusions.

My enjoyment of research and writing continued as a practicing lawyer, both in my work as a lawyer and as a putative scholar. For example while at Harvard Law School for a short summer course, I spent time in its library doing research about Joseph Welch and Edward Burling, both prominent attorneys who were graduates of that Law School and of Grinnell College, and interviewing attorneys at Welch’s Boston law firm, about his representation of the U.S. Army in the McCarthy hearings of 1954. Later I wrote articles about both of them for the Grinnell Magazine [6] and even later with excerpts from the Welch article in this blog.[7]

A similar process was involved as a law student in researching and writing comments for the law review and as a lawyer in writing briefs.

Grinnell College recently has enhanced its use of research and writing as an educational method by adding a public website, The Grinnell Post, that hosts student essays about current events, public debates, and issues of interest to the Grinnell community. Its mission is to allow students to share their work in a public forum and foster conversations with a diverse readership and solicit their comments and criticism.

Another Grinnell effort to incorporate digital technology in the liberal arts is a website, Ashplan, initially devoted to James Joyce’s Ulysses. It seeks to foster the inheritance of classroom culture; that is, it forges connections among students studying the same material at different times, allowing new students to benefit from, remix, and add to the work of their predecessors.

Tutorials

As discussed in a prior post, the tutorial was the primary mode of undergraduate education at Oxford. During each week of the three terms of the academic year, I would have two tutorials, usually with only one other student and the tutor and sometimes only by myself with the tutor. The assignment was always in the form of a question with the tutor’s suggestions of books and articles one should read.

As a result, most of my time each week at Oxford was spent in the university libraries reading those sources and other relevant materials, figuring out how I would answer the assigned question and writing an essay setting forth that answer and analysis. Then I would see the tutor again and read my essay for critiquing and discussion.

I loved the independence of this system and being “forced” to come to a conclusion on an issue and to construct my own analysis and documentation for my conclusion. This was exactly the skill that was tested in Oxford’s university-wide examinations at the conclusion of my student-years, as also discussed in a prior post.

Grinnell College now has a First-Year Tutorial for all freshmen in groups of about 12 students that are led by “faculty members . . . from all academic departments . . . in more than 35 topics.” For the Fall of 2015 these include “Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership;“ “Racism: Color, Culture, Class; “ and “The Origins of Capitalism.” Every tutorial emphasizes writing, critical thinking and analysis, and oral presentation and discussion skills. The tutorial professors also serve as the advisers to their tutorial students until they declare a major field of study.

Socratic Method

After the treasured independence of the Oxford undergraduate experience, I initially was shocked in my first weeks in the Fall of 1963 as a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now I was in large classes with daily assignments of certain pages in our large casebooks. The professors did not lecture. Instead they cross-examined individual students, one-by-one, about what the holding of a particular case was and what the result should be in a hypothetical case. We were being taught, we were told, how to think like a lawyer.

This method clearly taught you how to read a judicial opinion very carefully (and very painfully and slowly during that first semester of law school), to analyze that opinion to determine what its holding was and to think about the arguments that could be raised in similar, but different, hypothetical cases. Then in class you had to learn how to think on your feet and respond to questions from the professor as you would later do as a lawyer when questioned by a judge.

Reading and analyzing constitutions, statutes and regulations are also important for a lawyer, but I do not have clear memories of how that was done in my law student years. Of course, many judicial opinions concern judicial interpretations of such materials, and the overall law-school emphasis on reading and analyzing judicial opinions covered that methodology.

Learning how to do legal research and write legal briefs is another important part of law school. In addition, being a member of a law review staff and editorial board gives experience in writing and editing articles about legal topics.

Role-Playing

Participating in moot courts and playing the role of a lawyer making an argument to a court is another prominent method of legal education. I did not take advantage of this opportunity in law school as I was busy working on the law review doing legal research and writing and editing articles for the journal.

I, however, employed this method when I taught for one semester at Grinnell while on sabbatical leave from my law firm. I acted as a trial court judge hearing arguments by students as lawyers on a motion to compel production of a college tenure committee records in a hypothetical lawsuit brought by a professor against a college for denial of tenure. A different kind of role playing in that course was having the students, in lieu of a final examination, play the role of a justice of the Iowa Supreme Court and write an opinion deciding a case after reading the briefs in the case along with my memoranda summarizing some of the legal issues and after hearing the case argued before the actual Court.

I also used the moot-court method when I was an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School; I acted as a federal district court judge hearing arguments on a motion to dismiss a complaint under U.S. federal statutes (the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act) alleging a corporate defendant’s violations of human rights in other countries. I also acted as a judge of an immigration court to hear arguments on whether the court should grant an application for asylum by someone who allegedly had a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country due to political opinion or other protected ground.

I used a different kind of role-playing when I was a Practitioner in Residence at the University of Iowa College of Law. In a first-year civil procedure class, I played the role of a law firm partner while the students played the roles of associate attorneys working for me as we collectively identified issues, potential arguments and additional legal research needed for preparing a civil complaint under the strictures of Rule 11’s requiring such a pleading to be warranted by existing law or a non-frivolous argument for changing the law and by evidentiary support.

In such role-playing exercises, the student learns about procedural and substantive law, identification of legal and evidentiary issues and how to write and analyze briefs and make oral arguments.

In my experience, this is an effective way of learning several areas of law plus the skills of advocacy, and most students appreciate these opportunities to have a taste of what it is like to be a lawyer.

Conclusion

I am fortunate to have experienced different methods of teaching and learning from able practitioners of the different methods. I have learned in each of these settings and cannot say one is better than another. A lot depends on the size of the audience and the stage of your educational career. Seminars and tutorials require a small number of students while lectures are more appropriate, if not required, for a large number of students. I hope that I have been able to convey the same excitement of learning when I have been the instructor.

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[1] Grinnell College, 1957-1961; American University (Washington Semester), 1959; University of Oxford, 1961-1963; University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966; Harvard Law School (Summer Program), 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2001.

[2] Grinnell College, 1982, 1984; University of Iowa College of Law, 1986; and University of Minnesota Law School, 2002-2010.

[3] Worthen, Lecture Me. Really, N.Y. Times Sunday Review (Oct. 18, 2015).

[4] Aaron Fichtelberg, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Delaware, strongly disagrees on the value of PowerPoint. Indeed, he argues that it “turns good teachers into mediocre ones and mediocre lectures into a sludge of unengaging facts.” According to him, it “forces rigidity on the content of the course and passivity onto the students.” I agree that sometimes such use is boring. But as with all of these modes of teaching, there are the good and the bad. Other opinions?

[5] The Important Moral Virtues in David Brooks’ “The Road to Character” (May 1, 2015); David Brooks’ Moral Exemplar (May 2, 2015); David Brooks Speaks on the Role of Character in Creating an Excellent Life (May 16, 2015).

[6] Good Night, and Good Luck: The Movie’s Offstage Hero, Joseph Welch, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2006, at 12; Edward Burnham Burling, Grinnell’s Quiet Benefactor, Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2009, at 21.

[7] Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012); The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012); Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012); U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012); President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 10, 2012); Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012); Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 12, 2012).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration of a Christian Lawyer by the Martyred Jesuit Priests of El Salvador

In my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989 I did not know anything about the University of Central America (Universidad de Centro America or UCA) or about its Jesuit professors.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Fr.  Jon Sobrino
Fr. Jon Sobrino

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That started to change when the other members of my delegation and I visited UCA’s beautiful, peaceful campus, in contrast to the noisy bustle of the rest of San Salvador, and when we had an hour’s calm, reasoned conversation with one of its professors, Fr. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a noted liberation theologian. I came away impressed with UCA and with Sobrino.

I, therefore, was shocked six months later to hear the news of the November 16, 1989, murder of six of UCA’s Jesuit professors and their housekeeper and daughter. How could such a horrible crime happen to such intelligent, peaceful human beings in that tranquil, academic setting?

Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter
Martyred Jesuits, Housekeeper & Daughter

I was even more appalled when I learned about the selfless, courageous lives of the murdered Jesuits who used their minds, education and spirits to help the poor people of that country and to work for bringing about a negotiated end to its horrible civil war.

Their deaths were repetitions of the horrible assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980, who like the Jesuits had used his mind, education and spirit to help the poor people of his country and to condemn violent violations of human rights. The same was true of another Salvadoran Roman Catholic priest, Rutilio Grande, who was murdered in 1977 because of his protests against the regime’s persecution of the poor people, and of the 1980 murders of the four American churchwomen, who worked with the poor in that country.

Thus, Romero, Grande, the four American churchwomen and the murdered Jesuits are forever linked in my mind as profound Christian witnesses and martyrs. Their examples have strengthened my Christian faith to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.

UCA's Romero Chapel
UCA’s Romero Chapel
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia
Capilla de Hospital de la Divina Providencia

 

All of these experiences have inspired me to learn more about El Salvador, Romero, Grande, the churchwomen and the Jesuits’ Christian witness in the midst of violence and threats to their own lives. On my subsequent five trips to that country, I always visit UCA for prayer in the Romero Chapel where the Jesuits’ bodies are buried and in the beautiful chapel of a cancer hospital where Romero was assassinated.

On my 2000 visit to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of Oscar Romero’s assassination, my group visited UCA to spend time with its then Rector, Dean Brackley, a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who went to El Salvador to help UCA after the murders of his brother priests. He impressed me as a calm voice of reason and passion in UCA’s ministry of helping the poor and the country.

In 2010 I returned to El Salvador for the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. On my delegation’s visit to UCA, we spent time with its then Rector, José Maria Tojeira, S.J.. He was an amazingly serene and soft-spoken man. He told us he was a new “church bureaucrat” (the Jesuit Provincial for Central America) at UCA in November 1989 and lived nearby, but not on the campus. During the night of November 15th-16th he heard gunfire and thought there must have been a skirmish between the Salvadoran security forces and the guerrillas. The next morning he went to the campus and was one of the first people to see the dead bodies of his six fellow Jesuits and their cook and her daughter. He nonchalantly said to our group, “That morning I thought I was the next one to be killed.” Later that day he went to his office and found faxed messages of support and solidarity from people all over the world. Then in the same casual manner, he said he thought, “Well, maybe I am not the next to be killed.”

As a result, my cloud of Salvadoran witnesses includes Oscar Romero; Rutilio Grande; the American churchwomen; the Jesuit priests; Fr. Brackley; Fr. Tojeira; Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, who escaped a death squad on the night the Jesuits were murdered; Salvador Ibarra, who in 1989 was a lawyer for the Salvadoran Lutheran human rights office; and my Salvadoran asylum clients. Outside of El Salvador, of course, I am impressed by another Jesuit, Pope Francis.

I have been humbled to learn about the incredible courage and minds of the Jesuits, not just at UCA, but at other Jesuit universities that are generally regarded as the best of Roman Catholic institutions of higher learning. Simultaneously I am puzzled how such a marvelous group of religious men could have emerged from the Jesuits who were the shock-troops of the Counter-Reformation and did so many horrible things during the Spanish Inquisition.

All of this also inspired me to become a pro bono lawyer for Salvadorans and later others (an Afghani, a Burmese man, two Somali men and two Colombian families) who were seeking asylum or other legal status that would enable them to remain in the U.S. and escape persecution in their own countries. I always have regarded this as the most important and spiritually rewarding thing I have ever done. As I did so, I often reflected that I was able to do this in the secure and comfortable legal office of a large Minneapolis law firm. I did not have to risk my life to help others as did my Salvadoran saints.

After I had retired from practicing law in 2001, the Jesuits along with Archbishop Oscar Romero continued to inspire me to learn more about international human rights law as I co-taught a course in that subject at the University of Minnesota Law School from 2002 through 2010. In the process, I was amazed to discover the array of inter-related ways the international community had created to seek to enforce international human rights norms in a world still based essentially on the sovereignty of nation states.

I then was inspired to use my legal research and writing skills to investigate how these various ways had been used to attempt to bring to justice the perpetrators of the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the rapes and murders of the American churchwomen and the murderers of the Jesuit priests and then to share the results of that research with others on this blog. Many posts have been written about Romero, including the various unsuccessful legal proceedings to identify and punish those responsible for that crime. Other posts have discussed the criminal case still pending in Spain over the murders of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and daughter while another post summarized other legal proceedings that unsuccessfully sought to assign criminal responsibility for the murders of the Jesuit priests other than the brief imprisonment in El Salvador of two military officers.

I also have written the following other posts prompted by the 25th anniversary celebration of the lives of the priests and commemoration of their murders:

I give thanks to God for leading me in this path of discovery and inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

 
In the modern era, the principal U.N. agency responsible for refugees is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland.[1]

The UNHCR was established by U.N. General Assembly Resolution 28(v), December 14, 1950 (after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but before the signing of Convention Relating to Status of Refugees). This Resolution adopted the Statute for the UNHCR that charges the agency with “providing international protection . . . to refugees . . . and . . . seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments and . . . private organizations to facilitate         the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities.” The Statute also contained a definition of “refugee” that was similar to the one set forth in the subsequent Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This definition states a “refugee” is

  • “Any person who, as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear or for reason other than personal convenience, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country . . . .”

To fulfill this mandate UNHCR “strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, and to return home voluntarily. By assisting refugees to return to their own country or to settle permanently in another country, UNHCR also seeks lasting solutions to their plight.” It also publishes a handbook on procedures and criteria for determining refugee status and guidelines on common issues that have arisen in such determinations.[2]

The UNHCR now is concerned with refugees, 80% of whom are in poorer, developing countries,  and certain other individuals in the world. As of January 2010, it was concerned with the welfare of the following people:

Category Number
Refugees 10,397,000
Asylum seekers      983,000
Returned refugees      251,000
Internally Displaced People 15,628,000
Returned IDPs   2,230,000
Stateless persons   6,560,000
Other       412,000
TOTAL  36,460,000

 


[1] This post is based upon the UNHCR website: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home.

[2]  One example of these publications is UNHCR Guidelines on International Protection No. 1: “Gender-Related Persecution,”  (May 7, 2002), http://www.unhcr.org/3d58ddef4.html.

 

Refugee and Asylum Law: The Modern Era

As previously indicated, the history of refugees and asylum, in my opinion, may be divided into two major periods: the pre-modern era (before the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948) and the modern era (after that adoption).[1] We now examine that Declaration and its implementation in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations Charter, which entered into force on October 24, 1945, created the Economic and Social Council in Chapter X. Under Article 68 of the Charter, this Council was to establish a commission for the promotion of human rights.[2]

In early 1946 this Council created a committee to make recommendations on the structure and functions of such a commission. Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and eight others were appointed to this committee, and she was elected its chair. It recommended that the first project of the new commission should be the writing a bill of human rights. Thereafter, in June 1946, the Council created the U.N. Human Rights Commission and directed it to prepare an international bill of human rights.[3]

In January 1947 the Human Rights Commission held its first meeting and elected Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair.[4]

At the Commission’s June 1947 meeting Great Britain proposed preparing a covenant or treaty of human rights, rather than a declaration full of high-sounding generalities. The U.S., however, favored a broad declaration followed by treaties. The U.S. position appears to have been a strategy to avoid the U.S. Senate ratification process that constitutionally was necessary for ratification of treaties, but was not required for U.S. voting in the U.N. General Assembly. Remember that President Truman was heading into the 1948 presidential election and did not want to provoke a Senate vote he might lose. In any event, the Commission decided to work on both a declaration and covenants.[5]

In December 1948 (only one month after Truman won the presidential election), the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration: 48 in favor (including the U.S.); 0 against; 8 abstentions (the USSR and its allies, South Africa and Saudi Arabia); and 2 absences.[6]

Eleanor Roosevelt & UDHR

The Declaration had two important provisions relevant to refugees and asylum. Its Article 13(2) stated, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Article  14(1) went on to say, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” (Emphasis added.)[7]

Even though the Declaration was not a treaty that created legal obligations for subscribing states, its declaring that every individual human being had a right to asylum was a historic departure from the pre-modern era where asylum was a matter of discretion for the protecting state. This provision also set an objective for the treaty on refugees then being formulated. These provisions of the Universal Declaration, in my opinion, also constitute an atonement for the failure of the civilized world in the 1930’s to protect German Jewish refugees.

In any event, ever since its adoption, the Universal Declaration has set the agenda for the subsequent development of international human rights treaties. The Declaration also continues to act as an inspirational and aspirational document throughout the world, as I discovered on my first visit to El Salvador in April 1989.[8]

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

 

On July 2, 1951, an international conference in Geneva, Switzerland concluded with the signing of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees by the conference attendees and the opening of the treaty for accession or ratification by nation states.[9] By its Article 43(1) it was to enter into force or become a binding treaty 90 days after the sixth state had acceded or ratified the treaty. That happened on April 22, 1954.[10]

Its preamble noted that the U.N. had “manifested its profound concern for refugees and endeavored to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of . . . fundamental rights and freedoms.” The preamble also stated, “the grant of asylum may place unduly heavy burdens on certain countries, and . . . a satisfactory solution of a problem . . . [of] international scope and nature cannot therefore be achieved without international cooperation.”

This treaty adopted the following definition of “refugee” in Article 1(A)(2) as any person who:

  • “[As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951] and owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The bracketed phrase [“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951”] was the provision that limited the coverage of the Convention to the problems still being faced by many World War II refugees still scattered across Europe. This limiting phrase was eliminated in the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees discussed below.

Excluded from the definition of “refugee” in Article 1(F) was “any person . . . [who] (a) . . . has committed a crime against peace, a war crime or a crime against humanity . . . ; (b) . . . has committed a serious non-political crime outside the country of refuge prior to his admission to that country as a refugee; [and] (c) . . . has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the [U.N.].”[11]

The Convention granted refugees certain rights within a country of refuge as well as imposing on them certain obligations. The Convention further stipulates that, subject to specific exceptions, refugees should not be penalized for their “illegal entry or presence.” This recognizes that the seeking of asylum can require refugees to breach immigration rules. Prohibited penalties might include being charged with immigration or criminal offences relating to the seeking of asylum, or being arbitrarily detained purely on the basis of seeking asylum.

Importantly, the Convention contains various safeguards against the expulsion of refugees. Its Article 33(1) states, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

By 1966, it had become apparent that new refugee situations had arisen since the Refugee Convention had been adopted and that all refugees should enjoy equal status. As a result, a new treaty was prepared to eliminate the previously mentioned limitation of the Convention to those refugees created by pre-1951 events. This was the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees that went into force on October 4, 1967.[12]

Parties to the Convention or Protocol

As of April 1, 2011, there were 145 nation states (and the Holy See) that were parties to the Convention and Protocol or the latter, including the U.S. That represents 76.2% of the U.N. members (plus the Holy See).[13]

Conclusion

In subsequent posts we will review (a) the work of the principal U.N. agency concerned with refugees (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees); (b) U.S. law and procedures for refugees; and (c) U.S. law and procedures for asylum.


[1]  See Post: Refugees and Asylum Law: The Pre-Modern Era (July 7, 2011).

[3] See Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House 2002)(fascinating history of the development of the Universal Declaration).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6]  Id.

[8]  See Post: My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989 (May 25, 2011).

[9] UNHCR, 1951 Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search/?page=&comid=3c07a8642&cid=49aea9390&scid=49aea9398.

[10]  UNHCR, Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html; UNHCR, The 1951 Refugee Convention: Questions and Answers (2007), http://www.unhcr.org/3c0f495f4.html.

[11] There are certain other stated exclusions from the definition of “refugee” in Article 1(C), (D), (E).

[12] Id.

[13]  UNHCR, States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol,        http://www.unhcr.org/3b73b0d63.html. In addition Madagascar and St. Kitts & Nevis are parties only to the Convention with its now outmoded temporal limitations. (Id.)

 

Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer

Because U.S. immigration law was in the background of the Sanctuary Movement case in which I was involved in the mid-1980’s,[1] I sought to obtain some knowledge of this area of law by taking a training course in asylum law from a Minneapolis NGO–Advocates for Human Rights.[2]

I learned that there is a legitimate claim for asylum under U.S. and international law if an alien establishes that he or she is a “refugee,” i.e., he or she has been persecuted or has a “well-founded fear of [future] persecution [in his or her home country] on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”[3]

I then volunteered to be a pro bono (no legal fees) lawyer for Jorge, a young Salvadoran asylum seeker, and started to learn about his country. He had participated in demonstrations against his government at the national university in San Salvador and feared he would be persecuted for his political opinions by the government if he returned to his country. With the aid of an experienced immigration lawyer, I tried his case before an immigration judge who denied his application, which was typical for the time. We immediately filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and under the law at that time he had legal permission to remain and work in the U.S. while the appeal was pending.

In 1988 I volunteered to take another pro bono Salvadoran asylum case. My client had a middle class background. He had held a position in the Salvadoran government and had publicly protested about corruption in her military forces. As a consequence, he was imprisoned and severely tortured in El Salvador, and one of the reasons he came to Minnesota was to receive treatment at our Center for the Treatment of Victims of Torture.[4] He had been persecuted, and he and members of his family feared future persecution by the Salvadoran military for their political opinions. He and his family members subsequently were granted asylum.

I was now on my way to becoming a pro bono asylum lawyer.

Thereafter I was a lawyer for successful asylum applicants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. (Later, in 2002, I became an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, where I taught refugee and asylum law as part of an international human rights course.)

The asylum work enabled me to get to know, and to help, interesting, brave people. I also learned a lot about conditions in these countries. In the process, I was weaned away from accepting what our government said about conditions in other countries at face value and from avoiding making my own judgments about those questions because there was no way that I could know as much as our government knew. As an asylum lawyer I had to investigate conditions in these other countries and come to my own conclusions on such issues and then advocate for individuals as to why they had well-founded fears of persecution (death, physical harm, imprisonment) due to their political opinions or other grounds protected by refugee law.

Moreover, the Sanctuary Movement case and my pro bono asylum work liberated me from the narrow vision and focus of a practicing lawyer concentrating on the laborious development of detailed factual records and legal analysis and arguments in the succession of individual cases. In this prior life I had little time and inclination to be concerned about, or interested in, broader concepts of law or the plight of people around the world who lack a trustworthy legal system to protect them from assassinations, “disappearances,” torture or even mere injustice. To the extent I thought about such things at all, I regarded international human rights as touchy-feely mush that did not qualify for the important “real world” things that corporate lawyers like myself were concerned about.

I also was liberated from the notion that was fostered by the life of a corporate litigator in our secular society that churches and religious people rarely had major impact on our lives in the U.S.

As a result, I often refer to this experience as El Salvador’s liberation of an American lawyer.[5]


[1]  See Post: The Sanctuary Movement Case (May 22, 2011).

[2]  Advocates for Human Rights, http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/. See Post: Two Women “Shakers” Rock Minneapolis Dinner (May 20, 2011).

[3]  E.g., David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process, ch. 15 (4th ed. 2009); Convention [Treaty] Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 137; Protocol of 1967 Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 U.N.T.S. 267; U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home; Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101 (a)(42).

[4]  Center for Victims of Torture, http://www.cvt.org/index.php.

[5]  Krohnke, And Then There Was Light, Minnesota’s Journal of Law & Politics, at 10 (Jan. 1992); Krohnke, The Liberation of a Corporate Lawyer, LXXXI Am. Oxonian 146 (1994).