Skadden Fellow: Sarah Cleveland, "Human Rights Law, in Practice and in Theory"

When she began her Skadden fellowship, Sarah Cleveland (’94) expected that her career would focus on civil rights efforts in the United States. However, her work with Florida Rural Legal Services centered on utilizing class actions to improve wage and working conditions for migrant sugar cane workers, exposing her to the difficulty foreign workers have in securing legal  representation in the United States.

“I’d had a long-standing interest in immigration, labor rights, racial justice and civil rights, but the transnational nature of my work in Florida shifted my focus to international human rights issues,” Sarah recalls.

As the Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights at Columbia Law School and co-director of the school’s Human Rights Institute (HRI), she has done just that, overseeing a significant expansion of the scope of HRI’s work.

HRI, a training and research group that advocates for human rights in the United States and around the world, has three main areas of focus: counterterrorism issues, including drone strikes, torture and detention without trial; human rights in the U.S., such as access to legal assistance, compliance with human rights by state and local governments, domestic violence and juvenile detention without parole; and corporate social responsibility, particularly toward populations in impoverished countries.

“We have a group of really extraordinary people, all of whom are pursuing truly important work, from protecting gold mine workers in Peru and working with civilians in Papua New Guinea exposed to corporate pollution, to trying to improve transparency, investigations and compensation for civilian victims of drone strikes‚” Sarah says.

Sarah joined HRI and Columbia nearly 10 years ago, following teaching stints at the Harvard, University of Michigan and University of Texas law schools, and her alma mater Oxford University. Prior to her Skadden fellowship, she received a master’s degree as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford,  graduated from Yale Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. Aside from a two-year stint as the counselor on international law at the State Department’s Offce of the Legal Adviser, she’s been with HRI and Columbia since 2007.

Among other projects, Sarah is helping lead HRI’s Harmonizing Standards in Armed Conflict initiative, which explores avenues for expanding the humanitarian protection standards set forth in the Geneva Conventions to non-international armed conflicts,  such as the current ones in Syria and Afghanistan. The project’s steering committee is made up of leading academics and civil society experts in human rights and international humanitarian law, and current and former military personnel from the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, among others.

In addition to her work at HRI, Sarah was appointed in 2014 to a four-year term as the U.S. representative on the U.N. Human Rights Committee, which is tasked with overseeing countries’ implementation of their international human rights treaty obligations. Sarah’s goals over the remainder of her term include developing the committee’s jurisprudence and strengthening its overall effectiveness by connecting it to other U.N. and regional human mechanisms. Sarah also serves as the U.S. independent member of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s expert advisory body on the protection of fundamental rights, and co-directs the American Law Institute’s project on the Restatement (Fourth) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States.

Sarah’s work, particularly on the Geneva-based U.N. committee, requires almost constant travel, but her family — her husband, Edward Tuddenham, a public interest lawyer she met during her Skadden fellowship, and their two children — are extraordinarily supportive, she says. This summer, they’ll all move with her to Geneva for a month during the Human Rights Committee session.

“It’s extremely gratifying work, and I find that it feeds back into my teaching, because I’m able to bring real-life examples into the class,” Sarah says. “I can engage students directly in the work of these different bodies, which helps them understand how human rights law works and exposes them to the real-life problems that victims and oversight institutions are facing.” 

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