Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 37, Number 2

Making a Case for Human Rights

In Mike Newton's International Law Practice Lab, students may find themselves working for governments in exile.

by Grace Renshaw Jonathan Misk

This fall, four students in Professor Michael Newton's International Law Practice Lab—Jonathan Misk, Rachel Perkins, Aparna Shewakramani and Lin Zhou—drafted a position paper in support of the Burmese government in exile. Their clients, who are Burmese nationals, represent a government forced into exile in 1990, when Burma's oppressive ruling military junta refused to turn over power after an opposing party won a democratic election with a landslide victory. The students' paper, written on behalf of two groups representing members of the exiled government-the Members of the Parliament Union and the National Council of the Union of Burma-argues that the military junta still in power in Burma does not represent the country's people because it seized power and was not democratically elected. The paper also meticulously documents the legal basis for categorizing the obstruction of humanitarian relief to civilian victims in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008 as a crime against humanity. "The report was adopted by several governments in support of a challenge to the junta's United Nations credentials and was widely circulated in the U.N. at the 63rd General Assembly," Professor Newton says.

Until Cyclone Nargis devastated Burma, eradicating entire villages and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without shelter, food or potable water, many people outside the country were unaware of the extent of the oppressive control Burma's ruling military junta exercises over its citizens. In the cyclone's aftermath, international aid organizations found their efforts to deliver basic aid severely hampered. Junta officials first denied that aid was needed. When they did express willingness to accept help, junta officials insisted that aid supplies be turned over to them, leaving aid organizations with no assurance that aid items would actually reach Burmese citizens in areas hardest hit by the destructive storm. "The struggle over getting aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis was in the news for weeks," Professor Newton says. "That dramatically increased international awareness of Burma's oppressive regime, which may be the only good thing that happened as a result of the cyclone. The human suffering was immense, and this government deliberately pursued a policy that exacerbated that suffering."

When a group of exiled Burmese politicians sought legal expertise to support their efforts to strip the junta, which has been in power since a coup in 1962, of its seat in the United Nations, Newton garnered the project for the International Practice Lab. One of the brief's authors, 2L Jonathan Misk, acknowledges that it's unlikely that the paper will topple the junta, at least in this session of the U.N. General Assembly. But "it highlights the situation in Burma and raises awareness of the fact that there is a Burmese government in exile," he says. "We're also involved in a complementary project to assist citizens of Burma who live in the U.S. in filing claims against the junta under the Alien Tort Statute." The Alien Tort Statute (ats), which the U.S. Congress enacted in 1789, allows foreign nationals to file suit "for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The ats languished in obscurity until 1980, when a Paraguayan citizen successfully invoked the statute to sue the police officer who had tortured her son to death in Paraguay. In recent years, victims of human rights violations have filed ats complaints against multinational corporations complicit in those violations, including a recent suit filed by a group of Burmese villagers against California-based Unocal. That suit, settled in 2005, alleged that Unocal knowingly used forced labor to construct a gas pipeline in Burma and contracted with the ruling junta to provide security for the pipeline project. The junta, in turn, used tactics such as murder and rape to displace villagers and force them to clear the way for the pipeline. "Even if you question the way the ats was interpreted in the Unocal litigation and other ats cases," Misk says, "these cases do have the positive effect of gaining greater visibility for human rights abuses around the world."

Misk spent last summer working as an intern in the National Security Section of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C. He became interested in applying to Vanderbilt because of the strength and reputation of its International Legal Studies Program. "A family friend in the U.S. diplomatic corps suggested I look at Vanderbilt and mentioned that its international law program had placed interns in courts and tribunals based in The Hague," he recalls. "The Practice Lab and internship programs allow you to gain substantive advocacy experience that goes above and beyond the typical classroom experience. It's a very dynamic program."