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Claire Elder '11

Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Follows Her Passion for Human Rights to Ireland

Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio

Major: European History

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Film Society
  • University Scholars
  • Polo Team
  • College Democrats
  • Phi Beta Kappa
  • Pi Beta Phi Sorority

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • CIEE program in Ferrara, Italy (fall semester 2008)
  • 13 Year Abroad in Belgium
  • Internship with the Ohio Bankruptcy Trustee

Why did you apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant?
I chose to apply for the Johnson Opportunity Grant in order to fund my research at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, so that I could advocate and aid the development of international human rights law around the world.

How does your work under the grant apply to your studies at W&L?
This internship has allowed me to use my knowledge of European and African history to better understand international law, UN policies and the procedures of the International Criminal Court and the ad hoc tribunals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. My history background has allowed me to more eloquently develop my research.

What has been the most unexpected aspect of your grant experience so far?
The most unexpected aspect of my internship is the amount of influential and accomplished people in the human rights field who I am working/meeting with.

Post-Graduation Plans: Law School

Favorite W&L Memory: Fall Semester in Ferrara, and Bernard Schlink's and Jens Meierhenrich's lectures.

Favorite Class: It is hard to choose, but two classes have had the greatest impact in fueling my passion for human rights: Professor Jasiewicz's Post-Communist and New Democracies, and Professor Jennings' Genocide in the Congo and Rwanda.

Favorite Lexington Landmark: Lex. Co. Coffee Shop


Claire Elder applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend the summer as an intern at the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway, one of the world's premier university-based institutions for the study and promotion of human rights and humanitarian law.

William Butler Yeats described Galway, Ireland, as the "Venice of the West," a place for romantic adventures and relaxation. For me, Galway is the hub of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, a place for me to pursue my passion for international and human rights law. This interest grew gradually, by watching a man beaten mercilessly by the French police in the Gare du' Nord in Paris, by stumbling upon an article concerning the exponential growth of human trafficking in Europe, and even by reading the plight of the Ethnic Roma in the New York Times. After applying for internships with Amnesty International and multiple NGOs, I realized that what I needed to do first was to surround myself with the resources to understand the details and problems facing human rights law.

At the Irish Centre for Human Rights, I have the pleasure of working and researching with Professor William A. Schabas, one of the premier scholars on genocide and international human rights law. My projects include a linguistic and contextual evaluation of the origins of the phrase "crimes against humanity" and writing the 2009 annual reports on the final judgments, completion strategy and legal developments of both the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. I also assist Ph.D and LL.M students at the Centre with their individual projects.

One day, June 30th, was especially memorable. I woke up at 8 a.m. to the clamoring of pans and the scurry of feet, as the six other interns, mostly law students from the United States and France, prepared themselves for work. The office is conveniently located less than a five-minute walk away. During the last two weeks, the interns were able to attend, free of charge, the summer courses on Minority Rights, Indigenous People, and Human Rights Law and on the International Criminal Court. The courses had just ended the previous day. The final lectures were on "Customary International Law and the Protection of Minority Rights," "Multiculturalism, International Law and Indigenous People," and "Conceptualizing Religious Hate Speech as a Notion of International Human Rights Law." While the participants--diplomats, lecturers, law professionals and students from all over the world--boarded planes and flew home to various destinations, the interns returned to their research projects.

Taking the long way to work that day, I passed the same Roma woman I usually saw nursing her child on the street, the usual bands playing on bustling Quay's street. But to my surprise, I also saw the Galway Congolese Association (GCA), dressed in tradition garb, demonstrating on the street and clamoring for justice. Ten minutes later, the GCA knocked on the Centre's door, denouncing our indifference and failure to act against the human rights abuses in the Congo--especially the recent murder of the prominent human rights defender, Floribert Chebeya Bahizire.

I was the one that opened the door. I was the one that was confronted with the outrage.

Fortunately, a class I'd taken at W&L (Professor Jennings' seminar on Genocide in the Congo and Rwanda) enabled me to understand the issues they discussed. The GCA mistook the Centre for an NGO, and as a research institute we were only able to listen, agree and advocate. Standing in the doorway, I felt the same sense of helplessness which I had felt at the Gare du' Nord, but this time I could at least explain to the other interns why they had come to seek our help. I soon discovered that June 30th marked the 50th anniversary of Congolese independence from Belgium. Yet they were not celebrating.

With no definitive assistance being offered by the Centre, the CGA departed unappeased. The next day, one of the Ph.D. students informed me that a Congolese and a Nigerian immigrant had died in government subsidized housing on June 30th--one from malnutrition and one from an unknown, untreated disease. There was no subsequent report in the newspaper.

This internship has been and continues to be an enriching experience. By living with law students, attending the summer courses, and compiling my own research, I have become familiar with legal terminology and with the techniques for analyzing UN documents and statutes, which will prepare me for law school. The internship has improved my analytical and research skills, and the constant research and discussion of the current affairs of the UN, the ICC, and the ad hoc tribunals has infused me with a genuine love of politics that will continue upon my return to W&L.