Posted by: alisondcole | April 30, 2012

Final Report: Centre for Constitutional Rights

Centre for Constitutional Rights: New York City, US 

Report by Alison Cole

There is no way to succinctly describe all of the work undertaken by the Center for Constitutional Rights. The official line is that they are an organisation dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, this does not adequately convey the breadth and enormity of the work this relatively small, yet incredibly influential and admirable organisation undertakes. The CCR uses litigation to proactively advance the law in a positive direction, to guarantee the rights of those with the fewest protections and least access to legal resources. They also take an active role in strengthening the broader movement for human rights through education outreach programs, extensive fundraising initiatives, and by training and inspiring the next generation of constitutional and human rights attorneys.

Upon my arrival at the CCR I immediately sat down with my supervising attorney – senior attorney Katherine Gallagher – to talk about my interests, what I felt were my strengths and in which area of international human rights law I’d like to work. Given that I was at the time writing my honours thesis in law on the topic of corporate accountability, I expressed a wish to gain some practical experience in corporate litigation for human rights abuses. At this point she told me that the CCR were about to start drafting an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in support of the petitioner in an Alien Torts Statute case; Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum. I was offered the opportunity to not only conduct research for the brief, but also to help draft and present ideas and opinions on the merits of the legal arguments.

The opportunity to contribute to an amicus brief of this stature was an incredible one; not only because it was a brief to be submitted to the United States Supreme Court, but also because of the magnitude of the Kiobel case. The Supreme Court will in this case, effectively determine whether corporations may be sued under the ATS. For obvious reasons, the outcome of this case will have an enormous impact on not only the future of ATS litigation in the United States, but also on corporate accountability and the responsibilities of multinational corporations.

My other main area of work was on a submission to the International Criminal Court on behalf of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. In September 2011, the leaders of SNAP, along with the CCR, filed a complaint charging that Vatican officials tolerate and enable the systematic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes throughout the world. Together with the complaint, they submitted more than 20,000 pages of supporting materials consisting of reports, policy papers, and evidence of the crimes by Catholic clergy committed against children and vulnerable adults. The research I conducted was for a second submission to the ICC, to be filed later this year.

This opportunity gave me a wonderful insight into the scope of the work carried out by the CCR. Whereas my work on the Kiobel case was firmly based in legal research, analysis of precedent and comparative legal analysis for a case in its final stages, the SNAP submission fell right at the other end of the spectrum. The research I did included reading very personal testimonies and reports from victims of these appalling crimes, and conducting research into victims who had committed suicide as a result of abuse from members of the Catholic clergy in their childhood. Working on such a submission, attending strategic planning sessions and discussing the case with my supervising attorneys also gave me the opportunity to observe how a case of this magnitude is initiated. It allowed me to watch some incredible legal minds navigate complex matters of international criminal law and effectively cobble together the beginnings of a case.

Whilst working on this case I also felt the wonderful camaraderie of the staff at the CCR. Spending hours researching these crimes and compiling dossiers on victims who had committed suicide or who had developed serious mental health conditions as a result of sexual abuse in childhood was obviously distressing at times. However, the support, warmth and good humour of all the staff there meant that we were able to openly discuss the emotional toll human rights lawyers can experience when undertaking such work.

To be surrounded each day by attorneys and legal workers so obviously passionate and knowledgeable about their work made the occasional long hours and the battle to stay flu-free during a chilly northern hemisphere winter insignificant. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with this organisation, and to have been able to work on two cases of enormous significance for not only the victims of these egregious human rights violations, but for the broader human rights and legal communities.


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