Cultivating a Career in Human Rights Law


Conversations:  An Interview with Sarah Knuckey

November 18, 2014

By Tali Yahalom Leinwand, Online Executive Editor

Knuckey 1_ Profile

Sarah Knuckey, Faculty Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute

Editor’s Note: Sarah Knuckey is the Faculty Co-Director of the Human Rights Institute, Director of the Human Rights Clinic, and the Lieff Cabraser Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Knuckey is an international human rights lawyer, professor, and special adviser to the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. She has carried out fact-finding investigations and reported on human rights and armed conflict violations around the world, including in Afghanistan, Brazil, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and the United States. Her work has addressed issues such as unlawful killings, armed conflict, sexual violence, corporate accountability, extractive industries, and protest rights. Her academic research interests include human rights methodologies, critical perspectives on human rights, new weapons technologies, transparency norms, and post-traumatic stress disorder and resilience. She is a founding editor of Just Security, an online forum for analysis of U.S. national security law and policy.

Columbia Journal of Transnational Law Bulletin: What advice do you have for law students looking to become human rights lawyers?

Sarah Knuckey: Take advantage of the immense privileges and opportunities of law school to develop foundational skills, analytical abilities, ethical frameworks, and relationships that are necessary for a lifelong career in lawyering for social justice. Take responsibility for your own human rights law education, including through undertaking the following:

  • Seek out mentors and peers who can guide and support your work, values, and goals. Grow a community around you, and find ways to nourish the work of others and to do work in collaboration with others. Law school is a fertile place to grow these relationships and communities, which are essential for strong social justice movements, transmitting knowledge and skills, and maintaining an ability to do this work long-term.Knuckey 2_Quote 1
  • Learn the law in its most traditional “black letter” forms, develop strong abilities to ascertain where the core and outer boundaries of a rule are, and study very closely the norms of reasoning and argumentation in law. Use law school to develop these fundamental legal skills, which are necessary for first-rate human rights lawyering and any other legal sub-field you might want to enter. At the same time, look for professors, books, and courses that can teach you how to interrogate the basis for any law before you, why and how those laws formed, and how to understand the political context and impacts of law (“who does this law or structure benefit?”). This will help you to develop the analytical skills to maneuver in complex legal-political terrains, and to understand the limits of law and law’s relationship to justice.
  •  Foster a productively critical stance toward your own work, the human rights field, and the tactics chosen to promote social justice. Law school provides many opportunities for this. Make an effort to find readings, classes, and people to challenge your own views. Ask friends, colleagues, and teachers for critical feedback on your work, and use that feedback to constantly improve how you approach new problems. Take time in school to step back and assess the methods that are being handed down to you and to understand your own position and how that influences opportunities and choices.
  • Work on as many actual social justice or human rights projects (through clinics, law student groups, internships, externships, volunteer work, with professors) as you can.  If such opportunities don’t immediately present themselves to you, go and find them—there are hundreds upon hundreds of human rights organizations and causes to which you can contribute as a student.  Such exposure is of course important to helping you figure out the kinds of work that might be best for you to pursue in your career, and for forming links with allies.  It is also an important component of your human rights law education: beyond learning legal rules, through such work, you will learn when and how legal tools are actually picked up and used to promote (or undermine) justice, equality, and rights.  It will help you develop skills to be able to use law to uphold rights and to challenge the injustices you see in the world around you.


Bulletin: We are impressed by your breadth of experience across a range of human rights issue areas, including unlawful killings, corporate accountability, sexual violence, extractive industries, and protest rights. What are you currently working on?

Knuckey 3_Quote 2SK: The Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Institute are working on a number of projects this year. This includes work on U.S. drone strikes and targeted killings, investigations of allegations of sexual violence by a Canadian company’s guards in Papua New Guinea, access to justice in the United States, war crimes in the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, the rights of indigenous communities in Peru, and the piloting of a new human rights environmental impact study of an extractives project. The projects involve the many different kinds of work undertaken by human rights advocates, including human rights fact-finding, interviewing of victims, detailed analysis of evidence, report and legal brief writing, collaborations with scientists, partnerships and coordination with NGOs and communities, legislative proposals, media work, advocacy in the UN, strategizing of multi-jurisdictional efforts to address ongoing harms.

The Clinic is able to do this kind of diverse and labor-intensive work because we have a number of project supervisors – Benjamin Hoffman, Risa Kaufman, JoAnn Ward – each of whom brings unique expertise and experience, and many brilliant and hardworking students (including those in the clinic, as well as volunteers through the Columbia Law student group RightsLink), and we have tremendous support from the law school and the broader human rights communities in which we work.


Bulletin: Earlier this year, you became the Director of the Columbia Human Rights Clinic. What role does clinical education play in training future human rights advocates and in making substantive contributions to the field?

SK: Clinics offer a unique opportunity for bringing together and furthering education, social justice work, academic research and scholarship, and critical reflection. We approach the clinic as part class, part human rights law NGO, part research institute, part methodological laboratory. This means that we are training students to be effective human rights lawyers at the same time as we are exploring and modeling new methods of work, working on projects with partners that seek to advance human rights on marginalized and novel issues, and looking for opportunities to draw upon and contribute to academic scholarship.

For example, one of our projects this year is a pilot of a human rights-based environmental impact assessment of the area around a minesite. The indigenous community living around the mine has been concerned for many years about the impacts of the mine on their health and environment, but has little scientific data on the safety or Knuckey 4_Quote 3risks of living there. Our Clinic has partnered with leading environmental scientists to co-design an independent investigation into the water, air, soil, and vegetation, the vectors of any contamination, and the extent to which economic, social, and cultural rights are impacted by the mining operations. The students are learning, for example, how to carry out human rights fact-finding investigations, do multi-jurisdictional legal research in established and new legal areas, to work across disciplines and engage experts, to interview, to assess the legal relevance of facts, undertake physical and digital security assessments, manage transnational work relationships and work with communities, take responsibility for ethical dilemmas that arise, and strategize what to do with the results of investigations. These are among the key things at which effective human rights advocates must be adept. And the students are learning those skills while also making essential contributions to a project of real importance to the thousands of people living near this mine. In addition, because of the unique mixed-methods approach, we’re also aiming to contribute to both scientific and human rights scholarship and practice through our analysis of the findings and the methods employed.

In designing these kinds of educational-social justice projects, we’re incredibly indebted to the rich history of clinical scholarship and practice, as well as our colleagues and mentors in clinics around the country from whom we’re constantly learning and being inspired.


Bulletin: You are a founding editor of the national security law blog, Just Security. In its short history, Just Security has become a leading forum for discussions of international law. What role do blogs play in helping to understand international law and address human rights issues? What kinds of media and online sources do you rely on to keep up to date on contemporary human rights issues?

SK: Legal blogs are an important forum for learning about and sharing news and analysis of current and emerging issues. The specialized legal blogs can provide detailed legal and policy analysis that might be of great importance to certain audiences (e.g. lawyers and policy-makers), but that would be unlikely to appear in a newspaper and that would be of little use published a year later in a law journal. This form of real-time analysis has been incredibly fruitful for many of us, exposing us to a range of expert views that otherwise can be difficult to readily access. We’ve also seen some of the blogs become important in influencing the media’s coverage of legal issues, contribute to public debates and policy discussion among decision-makers and, at times, put issues on the agenda.

I go to many sources to keep up to date. For the subject areas in which I work most closely, in addition to a range of newspapers, I read specialized blogs, email newsletters, listservs, and the websites of civil society groups and research institutions around the world (e.g. for business and human rights issues, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre is essential; Opinio Juris, and EJIL: Talk! are international law must-reads; openDemocracy often has great debates on human rights issues around the world), and I follow journalists and subject-matter experts on twitter and regularly check for new academic scholarship in a variety of journals. I also rely heavily on colleagues around the world directly emailing me updates, and many in-person forums for sharing human rights information.


Bulletin: Do you have any additional advice for students interested in human rights?

SK: Law school can help you develop a formidable set of skills that can empower you to work with others to combat injustice. We can use our legal expertise to help us to act on our ethical responsibilities to others, and to contribute to movements for social justice. This work is a privilege and often unbelievably fulfilling. But sometimes this work can also be extraordinarily challenging and heartbreaking—obstacles at times seem simply insurmountable. It is important early on in your studies and practice to cultivate resilience, and to learn how to support and be supported. Bill Quigley, a law professor and public interest lawyer, put this beautifully in his Letter to a law student interested in social justice. In addition to being cognizant of injustice, he reminds us: “[I]t is equally important that your eyes and heart be wide open to and seek out and absorb the joy, hope, inspiration and love you will discover in those who resist injustice.” Sachs 8_Small B symbol_end last sent

Interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.