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Studying International Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Guatemala

New course combines classwork at Seton Hall Law and on the ground training as a study abroad program

Samantha Fasanello '15 participated in the new course, “Transnational Lawyering Skills: The Rule of Law in Guatemala” course, taught by Professors Lori Nessel and Jonathan Hafetz. The course combined class work at Seton Hall Law and a week-long field trip to Guatemala during Fall break. She reports on her experience and those of her classmates:

Transnational Lawyering Skills: The Rule of Law in Guatemala” is designed to teach lawyering skills and to expose students to human rights issues in a post-conflict society while also contributing to the advancement of social justice. We spent the first part of the semester engaging in skills simulations including interviewing, cross-cultural counseling, and working with interpreters, and broke into teams to research Guatemalan non-governmental organizations, plan for interviews, and schedule meetings in Guatemala.

Immediately upon our arrival in Guatemala City, we met with the legal team at La Alianza, a non-governmental organization affiliated with Covenant House International that supports and rehabilitates exploited youth. Many of the children and adolescents La Alianza assists have been victims of human trafficking. After the legal team explained potential options for domestic violence and trafficking victims, Samantha Bell ’14 reflected, “I found that this legal process was quite similar to ours in the sense that victims do have recourse against perpetrators of violence; however, it seems to me that only a minority of the population can benefit from this system because access to the courts is geographically limited.” While in the city of Antigua, we met with Kate Flatley, an American attorney who founded the Women’s Justice Initiative. Her organization aims to empower the indigenous women of Guatemala by educating them on their legal rights. Initiatives such as Ms. Flatley’s are exactly what the Guatemalan community needs to bridge the gap between victimized women and the legal system, and will hopefully prove to assist in making the justice system more accessible.

While we were in Guatemala, we learned about the steps being taken to eradicate violence against women in Guatemala during a visit to the femicide courts in Quetzaltenango, where we met with judges and legal staff members and observed proceedings. Alaina Caliendo, ’14 commented, “I can see the reformation in Guatemala that America has also been fostering. The femicide courts seem like an advanced system for change. At this point, the legal advocates face the hurdle of modifying the cultural norms that perpetuate violence against women so that this system can be fully implemented.”

We also learned about a variety of human rights issues through our meetings at the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala (“ODHAG”) and the National Police Archives, both located in Guatemala City. ODHAG representatives presented the findings of a survey recently conducted, which identified a need to reform the prison system to ensure that inmates, specifically the elderly, are being afforded basic human rights, such as access to life-saving medications. It was valuable to see how an important Guatemalan NGO tackled pressing human rights issues through a mix of litigation and public advocacy.

We were all particularly moved by our tour of the National Police Archives, where a team is working to restore and digitalize all of the police records detailing disappearances that occurred during the 36-year civil war. We came to understand the magnitude of the National Archives’ impact when we heard this story: An elderly Guatemalan woman went to the Archive headquarters seeking information about her son, who had disappeared during the conflict. After some time, the woman received a response and returned to view a single document detailing her son’s basic information and processing by the police. The woman cried and explained to the Archive team that the document was so meaningful because, despite the fact that her son never returned, it proved that he had actually existed, which Guatemalan officials persistently denied for several years. Reflecting on the woman’s story, Joan Orejuela, ’15 remarked, “On that day, she experienced justice in its simplest form: a genuine respect for humanity…that document ensures that no one can disrespect her son’s memory by claiming that he never existed.” She continued, “I will count my participation in the Guatemala Rule of Law program as one of the most valuable experiences I could have ever received at Seton Hall Law, and as a privilege that has worked to further cement my interest in human rights, immigration, and international law.”

Finally, during trips to Café Red and the University of Rafael Landivar in Quetzaltenango, we learned about the obstacles and struggles of Guatemalans who choose to migrate to the United States. Café Red is a cooperative subset of the grassroots organization Desgua, also located in Quetzaltenango, which supports the local economy by marketing local food and fair trade goods and creating partnerships between artisans and local economic experts to strengthen the community’s economy. Café Red also assists with returned migrant re-integration into the local community. The University of Rafael Landivar is currently educating adolescents about the potentially harsh realities of life in America as an undocumented immigrant. One of the highlights of our visit to the university was hearing how law school clinics in Guatemala operate and address social and legal issues.

Overall, the program was a fantastic learning experience. Bethany Stein ’14 summarized the trip for the entire group. She commented, “The Rule of Law in Guatemala program was an incredible experience. I hope that this program continues to establish connections between the human rights organizations in Guatemala and Seton Hall Law School so that we can continue to work together to help victims in Guatemala as well as Guatemalan immigrants here in New Jersey.”

Now that we are back at school, our goal is to complete advocacy projects that were requested by the NGOs we met with in Guatemala. Our projects range from putting together legal education materials on migration for school-aged children in Guatemala (for a legal clinic to use in outreach); to disseminating materials on the post-conflict historical memory project to the Guatemalan migrant community in New Jersey; to researching and writing a memo to advise a young man who was deported and separated from his family in the U.S. on the possibility of returning. Jessie Huening ’14 commented on the value of being able to contribute to the Guatemalan community, “It affirms for me that I am on the right educational and professional path, and my conviction to pay the opportunities I have been fortunate enough to attain forward to those who are suffering, or otherwise oppressed by an unjust society or system.”

Pictured, from left, top row: Samantha Rumsey '14, Professor Lori Nessel, Jessica Huening '14, Joan Orejuela '15 and Kevin Cornel '14; from left, bottom row: Professor Jonathan Hafetz, Alaina Caliendo, ’14, Samantha Bell '14, Samantha Fasanello '15 and Bethany Stein '14.