Dispatch From India

Dispatch From India

Thank you Julian, Chris, and Peggy for the opportunity to guest blog this week with Opinio Juris. I am writing from Chennai (Madras) India, a south Indian city teeming with 4.2 million residents, a quarter of whom are slum dwellers. I spent most of my first day here touring the city by car, overwhelmed by the masses of people who fill every nook and cranny in the fourth largest city in India. Safely cocooned in my air-conditioned, valet-driven van, my first impression is that of floating in a life boat on a sea of poverty. The reality is more complicated. Chennai is clearly on the move and making significant strides. The standard of living is increasing, mobile phones appear ubiquitous, new restaurants and hotels are thriving, and 86% of households own a television.

I am here at the invitation of the International Justice Mission, a Washington D.C.-based human rights organization that is at the cutting edge of a new trend in human rights litigation. While international lawyers typically have focused their energies on litigation before international human rights tribunals or United States courts under the Alien Tort Statute, IJM has taken a completely different approach. It stations a small cadre of American lawyers to train and supervise local lawyers to enforce local laws that reflect international human rights norms. The head of the IJM office here in Chennai calls it the second wave of human rights litigation: taking international norms that have been adopted throughout the world and training lawyers to enforce them at the retail level.

In India, IJM addresses human rights problems at every level, from discovering the abuses (particularly child labor, sex trafficking, bonded servitude, and child prostitution), documenting the crimes, tipping off the police, securing release of the captives, facilitating the (private and public) criminal prosecution of the wrongdoers, and providing aftercare to the victims. They are crime scene investigators, lawyers, and social workers all rolled into one.

The approach is clearly bearing fruit. Over dinner last night I heard inspiring stories from two effervescent young Indian lawyers who work in IJM’s Bombay (Mumbai) office. For decades child prostitution has been rampant throughout Bombay. Five years ago, IJM decided to target the trafficking of young prostitutes, some of whom were only five years old when they were taken from their rural villages and placed on the streets of Bombay. It documented the abuses, tipped off the police, and facilitated the criminal prosecution of the brothel keepers. Now child prostitution is in dramatic decline in Bombay, as other brothel keepers have heard about this NGO called IJM that is agitating for change. The young lawyers said that the market for young prostitutes continues unabated, but the work of IJM has dramatically curtailed the supply.

I find this new wave of “retail” human rights litigation utterly fascinating, bringing to reality on the ground the lofty aspirations of international conventions. And for the inspiring American advocates who are stationed here with IJM, I see the beginnings of a new human rights movement of “lawyers without borders,” offering the skills they learned at home to remote outposts throughout the world.

I am not aware of any other organization that has adopted this model of human rights litigation. If you are aware of another one, I would be curious to hear about it. Comments are open.

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