HRSP Ventures to India
By Samson Habte, Virginia Law Weekly , 16 Feb 2007
While their Law School peers celebrated New Year’s Eve in parties and bars, second-years Ryan Harvey, Jim Evans and Kate Flatley rang in 2007 on a tarmac in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Foggy weather had diverted the trio’s flight to India, where they and five other UVA Law students spent two-and-a-half weeks pursuing original research in human rights law.
The eight students went to India as participants in the Cowan Fellows Human Rights Study Project (HRSP), a student-initiated program in its fifth year that has in the past sent groups to Sierra Leone, Cuba, China, Lebanon, and Syria.
Participants in the program receive credit hours for the independent research and most are required to write and present 60-page papers on a specialized research topic developed over the school year.
“Sometimes students would joke about us getting our vacations paid for,” said second-year Kristin Flood, noting that the trips are partially paid for by donations from the Law School community. “But there was an incredible amount of work involved.”
The group started its work in New Delhi where they began planning the logistics of individual research trips, which would soon have them splitting off into smaller groups.
Flatley and Evans, for example, were dispatched to Gujarat, a province (or state) in western India rocked by religiously-motivated rioting that resulted in the deaths of almost 2,000 minority Muslims at the hands of Hindu mobs.
The mass killings were retaliatory, launched after a Muslim mob killed 58 Hindu pilgrims by burning them alive in a train car, and many human rights observers worry that the atrocities were tacitly approved—or at least tolerated—by law enforcement officials in the Hindu-dominated state and national government.
“At best the police were passive bystanders during the violence, and at worst they were active participants in organizing it,” said Evans, whose research will focus on police reforms aimed at preventing future abuses that were proposed in the aftermath of the atrocities.
Flatley’s research proposal is also tied to the riots, but she will focus on issues of “transitional justice,” which refers to approaches taken to deal with the legacies of human rights abuses in countries where systematic atrocities remain unresolved.
Few convictions have been handed down in connection with the violence, noted Flatley, who met with lawyers and human rights activists who have worked closely with victims and victims’ families.
Some of the other participants in the program included:
Harvey, who is researching the use, access, politics and law of water in India.
• Flood, who is researching human trafficking for sexual exploitation, focused on urban areas like Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Delhi; where children as young as ten years old are typically trafficked to forcibly work in brothels.
• Melany Grout, who is researching the impact of India’s anti-terrorism laws on civil and political rights.
• Rebecca Barnes, who is examining poverty and the efforts of multinational organizations to implement programs to reduce inequality.
• Meredith Horton, who is examining whether the rights of especially poor and vulnerable segments of the population were adequately addressed and protected in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami.
• Fiona McKinnon, who is researching Indian refugee law, with particular emphasis on the treatment of Tamil citizens who crossed over into India to escape civil war
In addition to student donations made during first-semester fundraisers, the HRSP is also paid for by modest grants from the Law School Foundation. Although HRSP members raised approximately $8,000 in the first semester, costs for the trip totaled $22,000, leaving the group with approximately $14,000 worth of debt that could come out of their pockets if not raised by other means.
In the coming months, members will redouble their fundraising efforts, beginning with sponsorship of “Assassin,” a live-action game of “friendly tag” in which students “kill” one another by hitting opponents with socks. All proceeds from the game—which costs $10 to participate in—are given to HRSP, and the last three remaining “assassins” are awarded “fabulous prizes,” according to organizers.