30 Years of Human Rights Impact at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law

More than 100 distinguished alumni, faculty, students, and sponsors gathered on September 14th at the Faculty of Law to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP). The theme of the evening was ‘impact’ and the event featured a photo exhibit depicting the IHRP’s work over the past three decades, as well as a keynote speech by alumna Renu Mandhane, Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission and a former IHRP Director.

“You are a testament to the strength of the program and the quality of the students that it attracts,” said Dean Edward Iacobucci in his welcome address to guests, including the many IHRP alumni who continue to support the program. The Dean noted that the IHRP is one of the hallmarks of the law school’s focus on international law and policy, and that he was proud it continues to have such a positive impact on both students and the international human rights movement.

Professor Rebecca Cook founded the IHRP in 1987 to provide experiential learning opportunities for law students through summer fellowships at human rights organizations. Since 1987, the IHRP fellowship program has continued to expand – as of 2017, nearly 400 students have participated in the program and worked at more than 250 international criminal tribunals, non-governmental organizations, and grassroots organizations around the world.

In 2002, the IHRP added clinical legal education and a human rights speaker series to its repertoire. The clinic helps train the next generation of globally-focused lawyers to the highest standards of excellence in research, advocacy, and professionalism and provides a space for students to be innovative and to learn from one another. Despite the difficulties of human rights and social justice work, “the students bring an energy and a passion that is unparalleled,” commented Mandhane.

In 2008, the IHRP launched Rights Review, a student-led magazine showcasing pieces on international law. The magazine is published online and in print each month in the Faculty of Law’s student newspaper, Ultra Vires.

Enbal Singer, a current clinic student and past IHRP summer fellow, stated “people are constantly discouraging us from doing human rights work and the first year of law school regularly made me doubt if this is what I really wanted to do. The IHRP fellowship was an amazing reminder of why I came to law school in the first place and made me excited again about my future legal career. The IHRP really helps me feel like I’m on the right path and that there is support for my work at the law school.”

Another clinic student and past fellow, Jeremy Greenberg, highlighted the remarkable experience he had working at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague – an experience facilitated through an IHRP fellowship. “Not enough students at the Faculty of Law realize that there are careers outside corporate law, let alone outside Canada. The IHRP is a hidden gem for enabling precisely such experiences, and it deserves to be heralded far more.”

The clinic has brought an important international human rights law perspective to cases before the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC), assisted Canadians seeking remedies before the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and authored ground-breaking reports that expose human rights abuses within and outside Canada. In 2004, the IHRP successfully intervened in its first case before the SCC in Regina v Mugesera. The IHRP continues to be involved in interventions before the SCC, including in Canada v Khadr in 2008-2009 and Yaiguaje et al v Chevron Corporation et al in 2014. Mandhane, who was the IHRP Director during the Chevron case, stated that the IHRP managed to remind the Court what was at stake by articulating the concerns of those not present in the courtroom and by bringing a human rights perspective to a largely procedural case.

The 30th anniversary event showcased the IHRP’s three decades of work through a photo exhibit, which featured report covers on the program’s core research issues: refugee rights, the rights of women and girls, international criminal justice, counter-terrorism, freedom of expression, and corporate accountability for human rights. Most recently, the IHRP has been actively involved in public advocacy around immigration detention and released three reports on the issue. The reports, which focused on immigration detention in relation to mental health and children, garnered international and national press coverage and resulted in significant policy changes.

Through the clinic and other initiatives, the IHRP challenges human rights violations occurring in Canada and abroad and helps reform laws, policies, and practice through comprehensive research and advocacy. As Mandhane stated during her keynote speech, “the IHRP is truly unique in terms of its pedagogy, the capacity building it offers to its partners, and the impact it has on everyone that who goes through it, not just students but the directors as well.”

The IHRP is comprised of more than just the IHRP Director and law students. The Faculty of Law created an IHRP Advisory Board in 2003 comprised of distinguished members of the bar, judiciary, and academia. Board members include Louise Arbour, Adrienne Clarkson, Bill Graham, James Orbinsky, and Bob Rae. The IHRP also has an extensive network of IHRP alumni that continue to support the clinic in various ways, including assisting in research and advocacy.

The IHRP has been recognized for its excellence in human rights law. In 2010, the IHRP received a Lexpert Zenith Award for its exceptional pro bono service, and in 2015, the Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize for the IHRP’s work to end discrimination against women and sexual minorities.

Professor Cook ended the evening, looking back at the IHRP’s modest beginnings, as well as forward to the future of the program. She commented, “as excited as I am about our thirty years of accomplishments, I am even more animated about how IHRP can meet the many challenges we face now and in the future of protecting and promoting human rights.”