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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 187
September 25, 2010

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Law interview

"Human Rights should be integral part of legal education"- Professor David Weissbrodt

Dr. Uttam Kumar Das

It has been a blessing for me to be a student of Professor David S. Weissbrodt.

He had been my Faculty Mentor for the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for the year 2009-2010 at the University of Minnesota Law School (UMNLS) in Minneapolis, U.S.A.

I was in the Programme from August 2009 through May 2010. Apart from that he had been the Lead Faculty for the courses on International Human Rights Law and Immigration Law which I have studied there. Also he was my Supervisor for an Independent Research Project.

Professor David Weissbrodt

This gave me a rare opportunity to listen to his scholarly lectures, interact on contemporary legal and human rights issues, and at the time of social gathering even to share our personal ideas as well. I was amazed how a scholar of highly repute like him is so simple and humble while meeting or talking to others, even to junior students.

Professor Weissbrodt has been a legend for his human rights activism, teaching, research and publications.

He is presently the Regent Professor and Fredrickson and Byron Professor of Law at the UMNLS. He was appointed in 2005 as the first Regent Professor at the UMNLS where he joined as a Faculty back in 1975. Professor Weissbrodt is also the Founder and Co-Director of the Human Rights Center at the UMNLS. He helped to establish the Human Rights Library (which is accessible in online as well).

Professor Weissbrodt attended Columbia University and London School of Economics. He earned his J.D. (Juris Doctor) from the University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall). After graduation, he clerked for Justice Mathew O. Tobriner of the California Supreme Court. He was also in law practice with the law firm, Covington & Burling.

Professor Weissbrodt was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of the non-citizens for 2000-2003. He also served as a member of the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights from 1996 to 2003, and was elected the Chairperson of the Sub-Commission for 2001-2002. He was elected Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the U.N. Trust Fund for Contemporary Forms of Slavery in 2008. He has been a Member of the Board since 2005.

He has represented and served as an Officer or Board Member for numerous human rights organizations like Amnesty International, the Advocates for Human Rights, Center for the Victims of Torture, International Human Rights Internship Programme, Readers International, and International League for Human Rights.

Professor Weissbrodt has been a visiting Faculty to a number of universities and institutes in the Europe, Asia and Australia. He had been a Public Member for 1991-1993 of the U.S. Delegation (in President Bill Clinton's Administration) to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. He is the lead author of the widely consulted and referred book, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (LexisNexis, Fourth Edition 2009).

Following is the excerpt of an interview with this eminent and widely published Professor (which was taken on 11 March 2010 at his office at the UMNLS in Minneapolis, U.S.A.):

What did prompt you to take Human Rights as an area of work?
Professor David S. Weissbrodt (DSW): My father was involved in activities promoting rights of American Indians. That prompted me to work in the area of human rights.

After graduating I had the opportunity to attend a summer programme on human rights at the University of California at Berkeley (UCLB). I also did a clerkship with Justice Mathew O. Tobriner of the Supreme Court of California for two years. (Clerkship involves working for a judge for legal research and drafting judgments among others; it is a paid job for law graduates in the U.S.A.). Then, the UCLB offered a fellowship and placed me at the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. I was assigned to research events in the then East Pakistan following the movement for the liberation. After a year I returned back to the United States.

That was the early days of the human rights movement in the U.S. I worked for a law firm for three years. At the same time I helped to establish chapters of the Amnesty International in Washington D.C. and Minneapolis.

How did you come to Human Rights Education?
DSW: I joined UMNLS in 1975 and subsequently introduced Human Rights Law in the curriculum and I started to teach. At the same time I was doing other work; some other colleagues and friends also joined me in this work. We introduced the International Human Rights Internship Programme. Along with Attorney Sam Heins we established the Minnesota Lawyers International Committee for Human Rights in Minneapolis, which is now called the Advocates for Human Rights, an international human rights organization known for its own work. We also established the Center for the Victims of Torture (CVT) in Minneapolis.

In 1988, we established the Human Rights Center at the UMNLS. The Center is now renowned for its education, training, advocacy, research and publications on human rights issues. It hosts s a group of Hubert H. Humphrey Fellows working on legal and human rights issues. This Humphrey Law programme is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. The Center also runs a Human Rights Education Programme and the Midwest Human Rights Fellowship Programme among other activities. The Center has become a platform for human rights academics, researchers, practitioners, and activists.

What is the need of Human Rights Education?
DSW: Study of Human Rights should be an integral component of a full-fledged legal education. It also makes a valuable contribution to a variety of disciplines like sociology, anthropology, gender studies, political science, and medical fields among others.

Knowledge of Human Rights principles, norms and institutions is an indispensable aspect of understanding the inter-relationship between states, as well as between states and those persons within their territories and under their control. The subject of Human Rights deals with many concerns that also are the focus of national civil rights laws. Especially, law students and lawyers who expect to practice civil liberties and civil rights law should study Human Rights.

How does a Human Rights Lawyer contribute?
DSW: A human rights lawyer could play a great role in society. Human rights lawyers could work as a catalyst for promoting and protecting human rights. They could work in drafting laws incorporating human rights principles and implementing them. Also, they could contribute to professional education and training on human rights.

A human rights lawyer, if qualified and capable, could also work beyond his or her national boundaries at regional and international levels.

How do you evaluate the role of the UN with regard to human rights?
DSW: The UN has been most successful in establishing human rights standards. It drafts standards for promotion and protection of human rights; some of them have become treaties.

Any weakness in UN's role?
DSW: The UN has been less successful in developing implementation mechanism. It is in some ways counter-intuitive that governments would develop forceful implementation measures vis-à-vis their own compliance with human rights standards.

Sometimes the agency misses its target as the member states have their political, economic and regional allies, friends and interests.

However, we all have to work to make the world body a success one. We also need to be patient.

What about human rights situation in the U.S.A.?
DSW: The United States has taken a leading role in promoting and protecting human rights globally. In this regard, names of Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt should be mentioned.

What about the Bush (Junior) era?
DSW: That era was not consistent with the human rights tradition of the United States. There had been arbitrary detention, torture, extra-ordinary rendition etc.

However, it is understandable that the Bush Administration was responding to the terrorist attack on the United States. But the activities of the Bush era have diminished credibility of human rights work as a whole.

What is the impact of that mistreatment?
DSW: No government is perfect. Those violations of human rights in the U.S. will definitely have negative impact on the other parts of the world. However, we have to join hands to overcome the violations in the U.S. and elsewhere.

As a scholar and activist I have been critical of the human rights treatment during the Bush era.

What about the performance of the Barack Obama Administration with regard to human rights?
DSW: This administration is taking some steps to overcome wrongs of the previous era. Some good people are being appointed in the office.


The interviewer is an Advocate (Attorney) at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and specializes in International Human Rights Law. He is also the Deputy Director at the South Asian Institute of Advanced Legal and Human Rights Studies (SAILS), Dhaka.
E-mail: udas1971@gmail.com.


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