Building Legal Capacity: Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers' Network

Ford Foundation



Case Study Sector

Until very recently, foundations either supported human rights work exclusively out of their international programs or had U.S. programs that did not fund human rights. This includes the Ford Foundation, which until seven years ago maintained separate programs for human and civil rights. In 1996, Susan Berresford, the foundation’s president, merged these units, which greatly facilitated the development of a more integrated approach to rights work. Today (2004) all of the issue-specific program areas within the foundation’s Human Rights Unit have both international and domestic components, with the human rights framework operating wherever appropriate as bridge between the two. This case is one of 13 in the volume Close to Home: Case Studies of Human Rights Work in the United States.

Groundbreaking civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s paved the way for increased equality of racial minorities and women in the United States. But in the 1980s and 1990s,  many of these gains were rolled back by the decisions of conservative state and federal judges, making the pursuit of social justice in the courtroom—never easy—even more difficult for the U.S. legal community.

In response, U.S. activists in the late 1990s began showing greater interest in using international human rights principles and law as a way to advance their domestic advocacy efforts. Even those attorneys who were interested in using human rights law, however, encountered fundamental limitations. U.S. law arguably does not recognize international treaties as self-executing, meaning governmental obligations to uphold human rights are not automatically enforceable in U.S. courts. Some legal scholars contend that international human rights are indeed part of federal common law, but even this interpretation fails to ensure an individual’s right to sue. These obstacles, among others, have previously dissuaded many in the legal community from using human rights law in the U.S. courts. The U.S. legal education system is at least partially to blame for this lack of domestic enforcement, producing only a handful of lawyers who are experts in the human rights field.

In an effort to build human rights capacity within the legal community at home and abroad, Columbia University Law School established the Human Rights Institute in 1998, prompted in no small part by the leadership of Professor Louis Henkin. Within a year, the institute created the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network. Both bodies work hand-in-hand to encourage a dialogue between lawyers and activists in hopes of devising new models of legal advocacy based on human rights legal strategies.



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