Human rights courses offer hands-on experiences

Upcoming study abroad programs concentrated in human rights offer experiences that universities say law students just can’t get while in the U.S.

Through a combination of internships and externships, along with coursework, students could help secure asylum and improved living conditions for refugees during DePaul University’s summer program in Berlin, or through Santa Clara University’s program in Singapore, they may examine the intersection of Asian business and human rights law. 

At least 11 schools offer summer study abroad programs either entirely focused in human rights law or that include coursework in the specialty.

Different motivations drive students to such programs. Some want a career in human rights law, while others may want to work at the United Nations, provide services to the poor, or contribute their time and knowledge through pro bono work in the field. 

The benefits of the study abroad programs are incomparable for how future attorneys approach their work, said Claudio Grossman, dean of American University Washington College of Law. 

“They understand the importance of the common narrative of human dignity that applies to all human things and the role that lawyers can play in promoting those values,” said Grossman, who has chaired the United Nations Committee against Torture and the United Nations Human Rights Treaty Bodies.

Legal education can break down the artificial barriers between countries, Grossman said, inspiring study abroad programs in a diverse field of topics. 

“We have thought it was very important to offer opportunities for students to achieve a well rounded education in human rights by having rich curricular structure here, but also offering an opportunity to study abroad,” Grossman said. “You need to have an experiential learning component.”

For example, in Geneva, through a series of visits, lectures and exposure to key figures, students from American University Washington College of Law study the work of the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies and learn how to present cases and participate in hearings.

At The Hague in the Netherlands, students visit the International Criminal Court and hear presentations from employees, to better understand the individual responsibility for human rights violations. A partnership with the T.M.C. Asser Institute allows students to have access to people with great influence, Grossman said.

While Grossman said study abroad programs should deliver more than what students can learn at their home campus, Washington College of Law also offers its own advanced studies summer program on site in the nation’s capital. Instructors come from the World Court, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, among other institutions, and courses are taught in Spanish and English.

“I really don’t think I am exaggerating,” Grossman said. “I think from the point of the view of the richness of the curricula offering and the topics covered and the professors this is the top place in the world for a study of human rights.”