My name is Iva Petkova. I am currently a senior, majoring in Political Science and Human Rights, with a minor in French. I hope to one day work within the realm of international human rights law, so I was excited to spend this past summer interning with Lawyers Without Borders (LWOB). At LWOB, I was given the chance to learn more about international human rights issues and the work being done by NGOs to combat them. LWOB is a small NGO that does international human rights work in developing nations around the world. Their goal is to “develop and provide legal support to Rule of Law projects and initiatives in the human rights and global capacity building sectors.” In short, the organization works with countries around the world to protect the integrity of the legal process and to ensure that everyone, particularly underserved populations, receive the justice necessary to lead full and dignified lives. LWOB undertakes a variety of initiatives to achieve these goals, including leading trial advocacy trainings with international judges and lawyers, conducting neutral in-country observations of trials, conflict scenarios, and detention facilities, developing programming to assist countries with capacity building and post-conflict rebuilding, and distributing materials to increase community awareness of issues. The organization’s projects center around issues like corruption, human trafficking, gender-based violence, wildlife crime, civic and electoral rights, and conflict mitigation.
Most of my internship was based in LWOB’s New Haven, CT office. New Haven is an interesting city, and in some ways is a microcosm of its state. Like Connecticut, New Haven has a huge division between rich and poor. New Haven’s crime and poverty rates are quite high; yet the city is also home to Yale University, one of the richest and most prestigious universities in the world. New Haven’s streets are shared by well-off college students and poor inner-city folks trying to scrape by. It’s amazing what a difference walking a few blocks can make.
LWOB’s functions are not shaped or affected by the surrounding city. The main office’s location changes and there are people doing work virtually from around the world. The majority of the interns are international students, and they often carry the mission of LWOB with them when they return to their home countries. LWOB is truly an international organization, with contacts around the world. It does international work, so the community in which it is located and the communities with which it works are entirely different. These diverse surroundings are contrasted with the international work done by LWOB. These contrasts were also seen in my last week of interning, which was spent in East Africa, helping to set up a future LWOB training.
Due to the tumultuous political and environmental nature of the developing regions in which LWOB does work, the location of my travel, and consequently the work that was planned for me to do in New Haven, continued to change until my first day. This taught me that it is impossible to have one concrete plan when doing international work. Most of the work I did during my internship was in preparation for our trip to East Africa. One portion of my work in New Haven was to help develop LWOB’s future programming on trafficking in persons Tanzania, where I visited this summer. I prepared memos and reports based on legal research, case law and how trafficking in persons issues are currently handled by courts and NGOs. I also supported the logistics of the trip by, scheduling flights, booking hotels, and identifying which courts we could observe. While in the country, my group’s job was to meet with NGO representatives and government officials to learn more about the human rights situation and to set up partnerships for future LWOB work. We also did court observations and scouted out venues for LWOB to use in the future.
In addition to preparing for and traveling to East Africa, I also assisted LWOB with whichever other projects needed my help. My work involved mostly legal research regarding human rights issues in the Middle East and research about human trafficking in different African countries. I had the opportunity to use design software to work on two teaching manuals to go along with some graphic novels and coloring books. LWOB uses a lot of visual mediums, such as videos, graphic novels, and coloring books, to raise awareness of human rights issues in the regions in which they work. I assisted in editing materials that were used for a training in Africa this summer. There were also unique tasks that popped up from time to time, for instance, I recorded a voice over for a video that was given to American judges and lawyers to introduce them to a country they traveled to this summer to conduct a training.
This internship taught me many skills that I’m sure I’ll use in my future human rights work. I strengthened the skills I expected to use, like research and critical thinking, but also expanded practical skills such as learning new software. Now I know I have the ability to start at the bottom and learn a completely new skill. Above all, what I think I’ll use most is creativity. At my internship, I got to be creative, both in terms of designing things and in terms of thinking quickly and finding novel solutions to problems that arose. This will be important no matter what field I go into.
I learned lessons about the nature of human rights work, ones that would have been difficult to learn without practical experience. There are so many different types of human rights work to be done, and I have learned that there is no one clear way to make a difference in the world. Many people do not work directly with the populations they serve, so it can be difficult to see the impact of their work and the impact may not be immediate. It is important to look at the long-term benefits of the work you are doing.
I have learned that there is no action too small. So many bad things happen in the world. It seems that for every act of decency and compassion that we hear about, there are so many more human rights disasters. The weight of the bad in the world is enough to overwhelm anyone, especially the idealists found in human rights work. It is important for human rights workers to set reasonable goals for themselves and to not become discouraged if their efforts sometimes fail. It’s not possible for anyone to save the world. But if enough motivated and passionate individuals work to make an impact, positive change can happen.