Pamela MerchantThese questions were written by Savannah Wooten, a UNC sophomore studying Public Policy with a focus on International Human Rights. Her academic interests include international criminal law, transitional justice, atrocity prevention, politics, peacekeeping, and negotiation strategy. She is widely involved in the Triangle’s human rights community and hopes to pursue a diplomatic career.  Sarah Kerman conducted the interview over the phone.

What initially sparked your desire to pursue a career in human rights?  

As a young person I was interested in justice and civil rights.  And, I am a product of my generation.  I came of age in the mid-70’s and was active in the anti-apartheid movement and then later in Central American solidarity efforts. Those two movements greatly influenced how I view the world and our collectively responsibility to affect change where we can.  It was a natural progression to eventually become involved in the international human rights field.

As a human rights lawyer, how does your work differ from those who engage in human rights via politics, advocacy, or social programming?

Litigation is an important component of a successful overall human rights.  Litigation supports and complements work in the political and advocacy arenas.

The Center for Justice & Accountability’s approach to human rights litigation is unique in that we seek to develop cases in partnership with the broader human rights community and civil society.  CJA’s model rests on four pillars: 1) giving survivors a voice and agency in accountability mechanisms; 2) using transnational civil and criminal litigation to catalyze human rights prosecutions in the countries where abuses occurred; 3) partnering with diaspora networks, survivor communities, and in-country NGOs and prosecutors; and 4) providing expert advice and legal assistance to prosecutors in human rights trials in national courts.   At the same time, it is very important to be strategic about which cases to file, especially in the U.S. where the courts are less receptive to human rights cases.  Sometimes, the right path to take is a political path rather than a legal one.

During your 9 years as Director of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), what notable developments were made in the field of transitional justice?  

There have been many developments over the past nine years, but two that stand out are the prosecution of former Peruvian President Fujimori for human rights abuses and the prosecution of Guatemalan military dictator General Efrain Rios Montt.  Both of those prosecutions were held in national courts in Peru and Guatemala respectively and were conducted with integrity and adherence to the rule of law.  CJA was privileged to work with local prosecutors on both prosecutions.

The field of transitional justice has grown and evolved a great deal in the past nine years. Today, all of our cases are developed within a transitional framework with an end goal of supporting justice and accountability efforts within the home country..

In what ways do national politics interfere with transitional justice processes? What methods can lawyers and justice advocates use to overcome this interference and deliver justice? 

A critical component of any successful transitional justice effort is to have the support of the national political system.  It’s a delicate balance and societies in post-conflict situations are still finding their ways. For example, there have been many successful  human rights prosecutions in Argentina and in Chile.  At the same time, there has been a backlash in Peru after the Fujimori prosecutions and subsequent human rights prosecutions have languished.

A huge set back happened last year in Guatemala.  Their former military dictator, General Rios Montt, was successfully prosecuted for genocide in Guatemala.  The prosecution went forward because there was a moment when the Attorney General and the three judge panel overseeing the case were free from political interference.  Unfortunately, just 10 days after the conviction the verdict was overturned by a higher court due to political pressure. The Attorney General, Claudia Paz y Paz, was denied the opportunity to run for office again and the three judges on the convicting panel have received death threats and sanctions.   Despite these setbacks, we all just have to keep moving forward.

Often, transitional justice is referred to as two-faceted: a successful transition must deliver both truth and justice. As someone who has primarily worked in the pursuit of justice, what is your opinion of transitional truth processes (i.e. truth commissions)? Does the pursuit of an objective truth hinder legal proceedings? Can it complement them?  

Truth commissions are often integral to successful human rights prosecutions.  CJA relies extensively on the evidence developed by truth commissions and have advocated for the establishment of more truth commissions.  Most recently we have called for a Truth Commission to be established to investigate post  9-11 abuses in the U.S. and post-civil war abuses in Sri Lanka.

What advice would you give to students pursuing a career in transitional justice? 

Follow your passion and be as creative and entrepreneural as possible about finding meaningful work.  The good news is that the field is growing and changing fairly quickly.  The more challenging news is that this is an untraditional field and there are not a lot of obvious job openings.  I encourage students to take charge of finding your own path. It’s important to have strong language skills and an interest in living overseas. In addition to law school, don’t forget business school or working for an NGO on the operations/finance/communication and development side of things.  There are many ways to work in the field and contribute to the growth of a successful NGO and meaningful change.