When we received our placements and I saw that I’d be interning at the Hate Crimes Working Group, I didn’t expect to have so much exposure to human rights law. Since arriving, Josh (my fellow Duke intern) and I have been trying to figure out exactly who we work for and what we’re meant to do for them. Because of the nuanced nature of the organization, this turned out to be a complicated question. The Hate Crimes Working Group is essentially a multi-sectoral network that encompasses a number of different hate crimes bill advocacy groups and organizations. We interns are stationed in the Lawyers for Human Rights office, but until last week I didn’t think about how that might influence our day to day work.
After finishing our policy brief assignment last week, Josh and I received our next task. One of the lawyers in the office walked back to our table with five thick binders piled high in her arms. Dropping them down in front of us she explained how compiled within the pages were hundreds of cases of torture in South African prisons. Over the many years that these instances have been reported, not a single guard has been successfully prosecuted. After reading through the email correspondence between the prosecutors and lawyers, Josh and I were instructed to write a story to publicize and bring attention to the fact that so many brutal crimes in South African prisons are consistently going untried.
Despite the disheartening content of the binders, excited doesn’t even begin to describe our feelings about receiving the new assignment. Josh and I hadn’t expected to get anywhere near real legal cases during our time at the Hate Crimes Working Group. After digging in to the reading our first day I can’t speak for us both, but my excitement quickly became tainted by frustration. So many cases had sufficient evidence but were still ultimately closed. The reasons a prosecutor decided not to proceed were numerous and many as insignificant as a missed phone call.
Without a doubt, reading through the binders has been my favorite assignment so far. I feel as though I’m learning what the essence of human rights law truly is. The work is time consuming and emotionally taxing, and more often than not positive results are hard to come by. There is always work to be done because in South Africa and around the world equality and justice are a distant hope rather than reality. I’ve been given the opportunity to intern in an office with lawyers who work tirelessly to speak for the people in this country who aren’t guaranteed a voice. I’d always had respect for people who do similar work but seeing it every day has given me a deep, newfound appreciation.