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What’s it like to be an Advocate for Human Rights? An interview with Amy Bergquist

AmyBergquist

Amy Bergquist is the International Justice Program Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights. Her job responsibilities include coordinating The Advocates’ advocacy at the United Nations and working with diaspora communities to improve human rights situations in their home countries.  Amy also represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty  and was recently elected as the World Coalition’s Vice President.

Describe your typical day or week at work.

There’s nothing typical, so it’s not boring. There’s always something new. I keep up with correspondence with international partners and pro bono volunteers. I do a lot of writing, editing, and researching. Then there’s prepping and facilitating presentations, workshops, and trainings. I also respond to requests and questions on a variety of topics from a variety of people, many of whom have never before interacted with The Advocates.

What kinds of problems do you face on a day-to-day basis?

Finding on-the-ground facts and information and determining which facts are reliable. Also, people see our name and think we can do everything related to human rights, so if they have a request that isn’t something we do, finding referrals for them can be a challenge. It’s also a challenge to get the word out about our organization to potential partner organizations.

What do you most like about working in this field?

I like that the organization is small enough that there is not a lot of hierarchy and appreciate the autonomy I’m given. I have the ability to collaborate with partners, to help them do their work more effectively and make a tangible difference with them.

What do you like the least about it?

Human rights advocacy is frustrating. Accomplishing goals is slow, and sometimes it feels like we’re not getting anywhere. You have to celebrate the victories you get, but sometimes those victories aren’t there or are small. But this just shows that our work is needed.

What is it like to work for this particular organization? How would you describe the culture at The Advocates?

Our work is volunteer-based, which means that we’re not guardians of a castle that no one else can enter. We’re inclusive in our collaboration with others. You don’t have to be an expert in human rights to make a difference.

Tell us about your career path that led you to this job.

In college, I was interested in human rights issues, especially refugee issues. I tutored refugees and did my honors thesis on refugee issues. I also had an interest in law. Then I lived in Moscow for a couple of years, where I taught and developed my Russian skills. After that, I came home, got my teaching degree, and taught for 11 years. While I was teaching, I coached debate and found myself living vicariously through the students I was coaching. I was teaching social studies to recently arrived refugees and got to hear a lot of their stories. These factors were what drove me to giving law school a try so I could pursue law and human rights. During law school, I volunteered with The Advocates, where I did fact finding with Minnesota’s Oromo community. I participated in an immigration clinic representing asylum seekers. I was also a research assistant for a professor who was an expert in the field of human rights. After law school, I did some judicial clerkships and then spent a year in private practice. Then The Advocates had a position open up, and they hired me. I’ve been here for about six years now.

What experiences best prepared you for this job? How did you learn to do your work?

There’s a lot of learning on the job, which is a good skill, especially at the UN where things are always changing. Being a research assistant gave me the skill of figuring out how to do things I’ve never done before. It’s also important to know how and when to ask for help.

What is a typical career path in this field? Are there opportunities for advancement?

My career path is not typical. There are a lot of ways to do what I do without a law degree. On the law side, it’s good to go to a law school that has some human rights programming, particularly clinics. Take advantage of being a research assistant for someone who is involved in human rights. I did judicial clerkships after law school, but they don’t necessarily have ties to human rights. There are clerkships at the Hague, which may be beneficial. Go into private practice and do pro bono for for a human rights organization. Get support in a private firm and develop skills that will benefit human rights organizations. It’s unusual to go straight from law school to a human rights organization.

What does the future look like in this field? Is anything in the field changing?

There’s more of an emphasis on letting organizations in the global south take on leadership roles. We’re a great potential partner to organizations in the global south, and we’re building a reputation so organizations know that we are available for collaboration. We’re not trying to impose a particular model or dictate to our partners.

How could a student best prepare themselves for a track in human rights?

Get involved with human rights-oriented student organizations. Attend lunchtime talks and, if you attend the University of Minnesota Law School, participate in the asylum law project. Attend CLEs and try to meet people – it’s a way of networking without being “network-y,” and people are pleasantly surprised when law students show up. Get involved with committees of state bar associations or the ABA. Organizations that have law student components may not be human rights specific, but you can offer to set up presentations and CLEs for them on human rights topics, and then you’ll be the one calling potential presenters, and it’s a good way to get yourself out there. Judicial clerkships in U.S. courts aren’t super relevant, but they’re a good way to develop your legal research and writing skills.

Read more about Amy Bergquist’s work in the areas of the death penalty, as well as  LGBTI rights and discrimination based on sexual orientation/gender identity.

Young artists share their vision for a world without the death penalty

Abolishing the Death Penalty: in Memory of John Thompson 

The Death Penalty Doesn’t Stop Drug Crimes

African Commission Urges Cameroon to End LGBTI Discrimination

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for LGBTI Rights in Africa

Out in the Cold: LGBT Visibility at Olympics Key to Ending Homophobia

Russia’s “Gay Propaganda” Law: How U.S. Extremists are Fueling the Fight Against LGBTI Rights

Locking the Iron Closet: Russia’s Propaganda Law Isolates Vulnerable LGBTI Youth

The Wild East: Vigilante Violence against LGBTI Russians

Moving Forward: Four Steps and Six Strategies for Promoting LGBTI Rights Around the World

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Building the Capacity of Russian-Speaking Lawyers to Protect Women’s Human Rights 

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Our Legal Training Academy fellows from Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan working together on a UN treaty body exercise.

Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.  

 

The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.  

 

In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.

For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”  

 Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.  

 

In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said, 

“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”  

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.