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Alumnus Litigates Human Rights Violation Before Inter-American Court

by Stephen Jacques

Like many lawyers working in human rights, WCL alumnus Will Harrell did not chart his life s course in the direction it has taken him. He originally planned to make a career in domestic civil rights law. After graduating with his J.D. from WCL in 1990, Harrell worked as an attorney for the ACLU on the National Prison Project, a job that was exactly the type he hoped and expected to have after graduation. Yet after a year, he resigned from the ACLU, sold all his material possessions, packed his bags, and moved to Ecuador.

Despite having only a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, Harrell obtained a job teaching at the Catholic University in Ecuador and another job working for an Ecuadoran international law firm. Doing civil rights work for the firm, Harrell used his expertise in prisoner s rights to begin an investigation of the Ecuadoran penal system. His association with Catholic University provided him with access to the prison system. Harrell s findings have resulted in the recent filing of a case before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights. Suarez Rosaro v. Ecuador is actually a consolidation of many complaints relating to due process violations in the Ecuadoran penal system.

While investigating Ecuadoran prisons and developing the Suarez Rosaro case, Harrell came in contact with various human rights organizations and professionals. He eventually accepted a position at the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CHRLA), an NGO permanently based in Guatemala City, but with one branch operating out of Washington, DC. After working in Washington on Guatemalan human rights cases for one year, Harrell became the Center s legal director and moved to Guatemala where he currently works and resides.

Today, Harrell has abandoned his original desire to be a civil rights attorney for the ACLU, and has committed himself to a career in international human rights. With nineteen Guatemalan cases currently before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Harrell has argued a variety of human rights issues, from extra-judicial executions and police or military abuses of force, to relatively undeveloped areas of human rights litigation. Land rights and the rights of indigenous peoples are critical matters right now in Guatemala, and we find ourselves dealing with them a great deal, he says.

Harrell notes that, as the only organization of its kind in Guatemala, CHRLA can not take every case that arises. It tears the heart to have to choose only certain battles to fight, he says. Yet Harrell was recently back in Washington fighting two of those battles, attempting to obtain land rights and reparations for indigenous communities who were displaced over fifteen years ago. [For more information on the Los Cimientos case, see Recent Developments in Compensation for the Violation of Property Rights in the Winter 1995 issue (Vol. 3, No. 1) of The Human Rights Brief.]

In addition to his work with CHRLA, Harrell serves as consultant to the United Nations Human Rights Commission on Guatemalan prison issues. Harrell also is currently developing an international human rights clinic at a Guatemalan university, remaining true to the WCL tradition of public interest advocacy. Harrell plans to stay in Guatemala to consult for the UN and to get the clinic up and running, but he will return to WCL in 1997 to obtain an LLM, which he hopes will broaden his academic knowledge in the human rights field as well as increase his effectiveness as an activist.

Although he stumbled into international human rights law, Harrell wants to pursue this field and guide others along this fulfilling career path. As a politically conscious lawyer, he says, I ve learned that what I get in return from the people I struggle for goes beyond material gain and could never be translated into a salary at a law firm. It has changed my whole perspective on the world.

© Copyright 1996 The Human Rights Brief

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