2010 UN CAT Session Brings Students into Process of Global Torture Prevention

A group of 10 students joined Dean Claudio Grossman in the annual United Nations Committee against Torture (UN CAT) meetings in November. 

As part of the law school’s UN CAT Project, second and third year law students travel with Grossman to Geneva, Switzerland to witness the proceedings first hand.  Students observe Grossman in his role of UN CAT chair, a position he has held for the past two years.     

“The United Nations Committee against Torture Project offers students the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of international human rights law while mingling with some of the world’s top minds in the field,” said Grossman.  “This project is part of the law school’s commitment to human rights, and this year’s students made valuable contributions in preparation for the proceedings.”

This year’s group included Cori Alonso-Marsden, Justin Carlson, Megan Chapman, Kavita Kapur, James Ollen-Smith, Reena Parikh, Anne Parsons, Lindsey Siegel, Amy Smith, and Tanvi Zaveri.

The students played a key role in the preparation for the session. Leading up to their trip to Geneva, students take a for-credit seminar with specialized readings and instruction on the prohibition of torture and the universal system, co-taught by Grossman and his special assistant and UN CAT Project coordinator Jennifer de Laurentiis '92.

As part of their seminar, students prepare extensive research on the countries appearing before the committee in November, reviewing and synthesizing massive amounts of information from relevant sources such as UN treaty bodies, non-government organizations, media reports, and other sources.

This information is distilled by the students and reproduced in extensive list of issues, which help inform the Dean’s questioning of the state party delegation.

"This is an incredibly unique opportunity for students. They get to see their work make a direct impact within an international forum," de Laurentiis said. "It’s quite rewarding for the students and for me, too, to see their hard work contribute to this critical effort to prevent and prohibit torture.”

Students learn the substance of the law, the importance of diplomacy, how to draft effective questions for the committee, and the strengths and weaknesses of the process. The week spent in Geneva goes beyond the official session, as students are constantly discussing the issues with faculty, participating in meetings with members of the human rights community and in the week’s multitude of events, including site visits to organizations including the International Committee for the Red Cross and the World Economic Forum. There is also an alumni dinner where students engage with alumni and expand their network of professional contacts.

“The UN CAT project was an unforgettable experience,”said Lindsey Seigel ’11.  “I enjoyed getting an in-depth look at the countries that appeared before the Committee both before and during the proceedings. Observing this compliance mechanism showed me the power - as well as the limitations - of the Convention against Torture.”

Each year, one or two  faculty members typically accompany the law school contingent to the proceedings.  This year Diego Rodriguez-Pinzon, professorial lecturer-residence and co-director of the Academy on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, was a part of the law school’s UN CAT group.  He played an important advisory role, providing context and explanation for the students’ questions on human rights law so they knew exactly what they were witnessing. 

"UN CAT is a unique learning experience for law students,” Rodriguez-Pinzon said.  “There are very limited opportunities for law students to see and be part of the work of international human rights bodies in real-time action, with real-life actors, regarding the most urgent problems of societies around the world.  Moreover, during their time in Geneva, students are able to have an exceptional experience by visiting international non-governmental organizations and networking with some of the main actors of the Geneva diplomatic community.”

Following the group's return to the law school, students build upon this unique human rights experience by authoring articles, giving presentations, and participating in other campus and community initiatives to raise awareness and ultimately contribute to helping eradicate torture around the world.

A panel presentation on Feb. 2 on the UN CAT Project featured information for students on the application process and details on the experience in Geneva.  All members of the American University Washington College of Law 2010 UN CAT delegation participated.

On March 18, the Association for Prevention of Torture and the law school are co-sponsoring a high level conference with top domestic and international experts to discuss human rights obligations in places of detention titled “Enhancing Visits to Places of Detention: Promoting Collaboration.” Participants will include mandate holders, policymakers, lawyers, NGOs, scholars and practitioners from around the world to analyze, from a comparative perspective, key challenges confronting detention visits today, and establish channels for enhancing collaboration.

Registration information for these events can be found at https://www.wcl.american.edu/secle/registration