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Third-year students in the Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic advocate on the world stage

March 24, 2014

During spring break two students from the Penn Law Transnational Legal Clinic traveled to Geneva to participate in the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s review of U.S. compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Third-year students Molly Kenney L’14 and Hannah Fishman L’14 delivered a statement to the Committee about agricultural and domestic workers and others who are excluded from protections that guarantee U.S. workers the right to form and join trade unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The clinic students had worked since last semester with a coalition of advocacy organizations to develop a statement about the exclusion, which also affects public-sector workers and workers categorized as independent contractors.

In addition to delivering the statement on behalf of the working group, the students met with civil society organizations, including the U.S. government delegation.

“Speaking before the U.N. Human Rights Committee, as well as questioning the U.S. government delegation during its meeting with civil society advocates, was an incredible, empowering advocacy experience,” said Kenney.  “I felt like a human rights advocate, not just a law student.”

“The Committee was so willing to work with us to understand what the human rights violations look like on the ground,” Fishman added. “They really wanted to learn the practical effect of the ICCPR violations so that they could frame their questions and recommendations in the most useful way possible.”

The statement Kenney and Fishman delivered maintains that the denial of workers’ full rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining under the NLRA has “a direct negative impact on the overall working conditions for low-wage workers and their right to liberty, safety and dignity.” In egregious cases, they testified, the exclusion results in violations of the ICCPR’s prohibition on forced labor.

“My hope is that the advocacy of our working group and the entire civil society delegation will result in formal concluding observations from the Committee on the U.S. government’s human rights failures, as well as domestic and international pressure to address those abuses through meaningful implementation of policy reform,” Kenney said.

Kenney, who enrolled in the Transnational Legal Clinic to learn more about immigration and refugee law, plans to work as a public defender after she graduates in May. She said the experience of appearing before the U.N. Human Rights Committee expanded her view of the lawyer’s advocacy role.

“It made me think more broadly about what it means to be an advocate for individuals and for policy change. I was struck by the range of backgrounds and fields among the civil society advocates in Geneva and by how they were using an international treaty and forum to raise awareness and work to effect change at the federal, state, and local levels.”

“This experience will have an enormous impact on my future career,” Fishman added. “I never truly understood what a big role international human rights work could have on domestic advocacy efforts… My experience in Geneva re-energized me as an advocate. Being part of that group of advocates was empowering.”