Becoming a Paralegal in International and Human Rights Law

The Arab Spring started in winter, a season that can be a little chilly in Damascus but soon proved hot enough to ignite the entire country.

Sparked by a wave of demonstrations in nearby Arab nations, mass protests against the autocratic regime in Syria began in March of 2011 with street marches and civil disobedience. When the response from the government turned harsh, the protesters also turned violent. By July, a multi-sided civil war had broken out, and civilians were dying in places like Homs and Aleppo. At the time few outside the country had ever heard of these places, but that would all change as the events taking place in these cities would turn out to be something that newscasters around the world would discuss for years to come.

Paralegals working in international and human rights law sprang into action as the conflict developed, helping refugees obtain assistance and working to expand programs designed to relocate affected civilians to other countries. From processing immigration paperwork to obtaining clearances for groups of aid workers to enter the afflicted regions, paralegal expertise became a vital part of the international response.

In June of 2012, President Barack Obama held a press conference at the White House warning the Syrian government against using weapons of mass destruction against rebels in the country. Unspecified, but potent, U.S. retaliation was threatened.

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The Red Line Speech, as it became known, turned out not to be very effective. By December, the first fatal attack occurred in Homs using a sinister substance known as Agent 15.

For paralegals working for international human rights organizations, the situation in Syria is frustrating, but all too familiar. Their version of legal work involves dealing in an area in which there are no laws at all: international law is a set of customs and gentleman’s agreements rather than a system of codes and justice.

Working in International and Human Rights Law as a Paralegal

This lack of an enforcement mechanism is particularly frustrating when the subject, as it often is in international law, is human rights. Treaties have been the basis of established norms and customs in place among a set of aligned nations, but countries that perceive no benefit in following or no serious consequence in violating those agreements frequently disregard them. Add to that the somewhat bizarre fact that in many cases, like in Syria, international law is actually in direct opposition to human rights interests.

The sovereignty of nations that is widely recognized as the primary principle of international relations often acts to actually water down the response to human rights violations: attacking Syria without a UN Security Council sanction or as an act of self-defense violates both the UN Charter and historical norms of international behavior.

Paralegals specializing in international and human rights law often look for ways pressure from other governments can be combined with existing laws and precedent to try to help civilians caught in war zones or otherwise struggling under the heels of autocratic regimes.

For example, one response to U.S. efforts to block Syrian refugees from entering the country came from human rights attorneys and paralegals setting up shop in international airports to offer legal representation to these refugees.

The world has seen many successful examples of international treaties being used to help prevent catastrophe and to protect people who cannot protect themselves:

  • Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
  • The establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC)
  • Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • A host of environmental treaties, including the Kyoto Protocols and the Paris Agreement

Paralegals have had a vital part in both crafting and enforcing these agreements.

How International Law Happens in a Lawless World

Work in international human rights law tends to happen in two distinct venues: policy and enforcement.

Paralegals Help Craft International Treaties and National Policies

Paralegals work with both governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to craft policy designed to implement the laws put in place as a result of treaties. This is extremely detail-oriented work that requires intimate knowledge of both the treaty in question and the legal structure of the nations involved. Treaty specifications often have a certain amount of leeway as a way to allow for differences in laws between different nations.

Paralegals familiar with both the justice system in participating nations and the treaty help to create text that will satisfy the intricate requirements of both while still having a chance of passing legislative bodies with strictly regional interest. This can involve a lot of horse-trading and political dealing and takes not only in-depth legal knowledge but a flair for negotiation and political maneuvering.

NGO paralegals are part of lobbying efforts to convince the international community to create and adopt new treaty obligations, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the landmark 1966 UN resolution that today serves as a core instrument in international human rights law. The United States did not ratify the ICCPR until 1992, and did so then only with a complicated set of legal reservations and interpretative declarations.

The negotiation and crafting of the final language involved an intimate understanding of core legal questions. For example, some scholars believe that, as written, the treaty would violate First Amendment free speech protections enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Lawyers and paralegals seeking to meet the spirit of the treaty without violating constitutional law crafted the ancillary language that was incorporated into the final draft.

Paralegals Help Enforce International Law in the US Courts and Through Global Intergovernmental Agencies

Working with the United Nations and various chartered agencies is common for paralegals in international law. As the largest and best respected institution charged with enforcing international law, the UN is the first stop for most attempts to enact or enforce human rights protections.

Paralegals can also work in a more traditional role with some NGOs that focus more on enforcing human rights through traditional legal venues, like the U.S. justice system. Court cases are brought representing individuals or groups whose rights are threatened while they should be under government protection. This was the case in a 2011 lawsuit against the federal government for mistreatment of a lawful permanent resident held in ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) detention for nearly five years.

Suits are also brought against international corporations accused of rights violations. Although they may not be held to account in the countries where the violations occur, treaty language or current law may allow actions to be brought in U.S. courts. For example, under the Alien Torts Act of 1789, in 2004 a group of plaintiffs sued the German company, Daimler AG, in California for being complicit in torture and murder in Argentina in the 1970s and 80s.

Although the plaintiffs lost the suit, it represents an example of how paralegals help to apply legal reasoning in cases where there is no local recourse for human rights abuses. In fact, the U.S. is a popular venue for strategies like this since the legal system is stable, powerful, and seen as much less corrupt than in many other countries.

Another innovative strategy is to use strategic lawsuits to provide publicity and exposure to human rights issues. In 2016, a coalition of human rights groups sued the federal government to force it to reveal payments made to Mexico to block immigration from Central American countries. Although unlikely to directly affect government policy, publicity surrounding such policies can result in long-term shifts in public opinion and eventual changes.

Work on these cases resembles traditional paralegal positions, with an emphasis on:

  • Legal research.
  • Drafting motions, briefs, and other court documents.
  • Finding and preparing expert witnesses.
  • Creating exhibits for courtroom display.
  • Keeping the office calendar and ensuring filing dates and other deadlines are met.

NGOs often get involved even in legal cases they do not bring themselves. Drafting and filing amicus briefs with the court is another task that can fall on the paralegal’s desk. Writing persuasively and substantively is a valuable skill in international legal work.

Finding Work as a Paralegal in International and Human Rights Law

Because international law is not actually law, as such, there are no certifications or specializations generally available to prepare yourself for a job in the field.

It is, however, very easy to get involved in human rights law work. Human rights NGOs are often non-profits and hungry for expert volunteers or staff willing to work below market rates.

Because many paralegal jobs that involve human rights work revolve around immigrants and immigration, having experience and certification in this area of U.S. law can be extremely helpful:

These voluntary certifications focus on both immigration law and paralegal procedures and office management and are likely to serve as solid credentials for international human rights legal work.