Supporting a New Generation of Human Rights Lawyers

Aryeh Neier has been, in the words of human rights professor Robert K Goldman, “an indispensable leader in the struggle for justice and human dignity” both in the United States and around the world for more than 40 years. After heading the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, Aryeh spent 19 years as president of the Open Society Foundations, stepping down in 2012, and taking the role of president emeritus.

During his career, Aryeh supported many individuals who have gone on to become leaders in their turn in the human rights movement. So it seems appropriate that the Open Society Foundations are now honoring him in the naming of the Aryeh Neier Open Society Justice Initiative Fellowships—a program that seeks to nurture the human rights lawyers of the future.

This new program is now offering a two year fellowship for four young lawyers who already have some experience of human rights work, aimed at giving them practical experience of human rights litigation and legal advocacy in two different environments. During the first year, they will spend one year working alongside staff of the Open Society Justice Initiative in our offices in New York, London or Budapest, assisting our legal work in support Open Society’s broader goals of building open and tolerant societies. During the second year, the fellows will get more practical experience by developing this work with one of our partners around the world.

While defined by our goal of “using the law to protect and empower people around the world,” the Justice Initiative’s  work ranges from the battle against statelessness, to global criminal justice reform, and from supporting freedom of information and expression to fighting police ethnic profiling.  

The new two year fellowships mark an evolution of the Justice Initiative’s efforts to support a network of human rights litigators through training and work experience. In 2002, the centerpiece of this work became a two year fellowship, comprising one year of study at the Soros-funded Central European University, and a second year spent with a grass roots human rights organization. In total, 115 young lawyers from 48 countries participated in this program; more than 90 per cent of them continued their work on human rights, with some now working as leaders in their fields.

For human rights lawyers who often face difficult and lonely struggles in their home countries, these fellowships have offered a chance to realize that they are not alone. According to Anna Yerofeeva, a Russian lawyer, her fellowship let her feel like “a real ‘citizen of the world’ in the field of human rights.”  Simeon Koroma, fco-founder of Timap for Justice, a legal group working in Sierra Leone, found that interacting with human rights lawyers from around the world provided insight into “similarity even within such wide national diversities”.

The Aryeh Neier fellowships seek to continue this work of building a community of human rights legal expertise, while linking the network of fellows directly to the Justice Initiative’s diverse range of litigation, research and advocacy. These fellowships also fit into a broader effort by the Open Society Foundations to support the work of  talented individuals who are committed to social justice, an effort that has also included our U.S. Justice Fellowships, and the more broadly focused Open Society Fellowships.

The new fellowships are just part of the Justice Initiative’s continuing efforts to support a global network of practical human rights legal expertise, including through the establishment of university-based legal clinics and legal training and education. This year, the Justice Initiative will convene the third annual one-week Summer School in Human Rights Litigation at the CEU in Budapest. The one week course is designed to serve human rights activists as well as lawyers, by providing insight into the practicalities and the challenges of using human rights litigation to push for change. The classes are presented by Justice Initiative legal experts and by CEU academics. The deadline for this summer’s course has already passed, but we will be inviting applications for the July 2015 litigation summer school at the end of the year.

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