International Human Rights Clinic expands focus to Africa

(Jan. 20, 2011) Building on his experience with other human rights courts, Professor Tom Antkowiak and his students are helping a fledgling human rights court in Africa.

The International Human Rights Clinic began collaborating last fall with the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights. Students provide technical assistance to enable the Commission to work with the new African Court on Human Rights. Both provide human rights protection for the entire continent of Africa. 

The Commission hears cases of extreme human rights violations from citizens who have tried to obtain justice in their own countries. The victims can take their complaints to the Commission, who will hopefully be able to forward them to the new Court.

"The Court can't exist without an effective Commission," Antkowiak said.

His charge was to provide technical support for the Commission to establish procedures and strategies to send cases to the Court.  Very few regulations have been established, and there are many logistical, political, and cultural barriers. The Commission is located in The Gambia in western Africa, and the court is on the opposite side of the continent in Tanzania.

Most of Antkowiak's expertise has been in Latin America, and he has had several students involved with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where he was a senior attorney.

"I've been hoping to do a project in Africa since I came to the law school," he said. "This is a key juncture for the Commission and it made a lot of sense to reach out to them."

Students researched similar bodies in Europe and Latin America, analyzed procedures and case law, and identified many best practices - and mistakes - to create an in-depth report for the Commission. Antkowiak said he's not aware of any other law clinic in the United States doing similar work with the African system. Some students may continue their work this semester as volunteers.

Rebecca Rook, one of the four students on the clinic team, said she learned about regional human rights systems, as well as the types of violations that occur throughout the African Continent. 

"This project is very important because the African human rights system is basically on the edge of history.  The Commission has been very progressive in its approach to protecting human rights, and the Commission and the Court can be even more progressive," she said. "I am very excited to be part of what they do, and to see what the future holds for the relationship between the Commission and the Court. The bottom line is that human rights will be protected. And victims will have a judicial remedy."

Antkowiak helped secure a summer internship with the Commission for a Seattle University School of Law student, as he also did with the Inter-American Court.

"This is the first project in what promises to be an ongoing collaboration," he said. "The students have been very motivated and enthusiastic."

The law school has several other connections to Africa, including a summer program focusing on global justice in Johannesburg and Legal Writing training programs for lawyers and judges in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Students in the School of Law Annex