Lawyers Can Rescue Foreign Victims of Human Rights Abuse
American lawyers are rescuing vulnerable and powerless people held in slavery, sexual bondage or false imprisonment in countries around the world by applying their law school training, according to Gary Haugen, president and founder of the International Justice Mission. The IJM is a faith-based organization founded in 1994 to help American missionaries in foreign lands counteract human rights abuses they were discovering in the course of their church work.
"Injustice is the abuse of power," he told a mainly student audience February 20 in remarks intended to inspire more young lawyers to engage in the problem. "Injustice always involves coercion and deception. Power is used to take something from another person and it is always lied about. Fighting injustice requires a confrontation with the violent liars of the world."
A studious, intentional investigation of facts -- techniques taught in law school -- can bring the simple power of truth to bear on victims' behalf, he said. "The victims themselves often aren't good at proving the abuse. To them it is completely obvious. But they cannot necessarily collect the body of facts that will prove it to someone else." "The model is: assemble the truth and take it to the place of power," he explained. "What does the person in power care about? If he doesn't care about what you're bringing him, bring it to him again from the angle he does care about. Sometimes that ultimately works out to be votes and public opinion as felt by American congressmen and senators."
"Our biggest challenge is to get the American people concerned about human rights abuse and to pressure the government to make relieving it a priority. America lives up to its ideals when it exerts its power to aid the weak."
Haugen cited four illustrative cases. One involved a 12-year-old Philippine orphan who was raped in her orphanage, but the rapist, a relative of the local police chief, simply was not arrested. The second dealt with a seven-year-old Indian girl sold into slavery to a moneylender to pay a $35 medical bill. She hand-rolled cigarettes all day in a bondage that was highly likely to be lifelong. The third described the horrible fate of another Indian girl who was abducted from a train, beaten and then forced into prostitution in Bombay. The final case told of a Haitian man who was jailed indefinitely for being unwilling to sell his land to his mayor. In each instance Haugen described how routine but persistent legal work resulted in the victims being freed.
"But only one in 10 of my stories is a success story," he cautioned. Young lawyers interested in the work should believe that there are moral absolutes that cross international borders, have a capacity for compassion for people very different from themselves and the inner strength to take courageous and even sacrifical actions, Haugen said. "History takes attendance" on where we were while others suffered injustices, he warned.
The IJM works mainly through native groups opposing unjust conditions in their own nations and its typical strategy is to get the countries' laws actually enforced on behalf of the poor and exploited.
Haugen's public lecture was part of a daylong series of discussions with students and faculty members exploring the practical and philosophical issues connected with international human rights work.