Amnesty International and Harvard

03 November 2011


Charlotte Leslie writes:

I touched down in New York City late at night. It was unseasonably cold, even for December, and a bitter wind brought the felt temperature down to -17°C. At times on that night and in the days that followed, as I experimented with different combinations of down, possum fur and merino, navigated violent pram-wielding parents at the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, narrowly avoided being mown down by last-minute Christmas shoppers in Macy’s, and was stranded in Harlem by apocalyptic snowfall, I had to remind myself why I’d chosen to leave the southern summer.

I’d moved to New York to take up a research internship with the international human rights advocacy organisation Amnesty International in the northern spring. Between January and May this year I conducted legal and factual research for use in two projects: a campaign to expose the human rights dimensions of maternal health and mortality, and an upcoming report on the human rights dimensions of inter-American migration and American immigration enforcement practices. As part of these projects I researched and described government misconduct towards immigrants, traced the rhetorical impact of Amnesty’s campaign to frame maternal health as a human rights issue, and researched and drafted memoranda on the existence of a right to health for undocumented migrants and the drivers of inter-American migration. In the course of this work, I gained valuable experience in multiple levels of international legal practice, a richer understanding of the connections between health and immigration policy, as well as a salutary appreciation of the contours of these debates in the United States.

In May I retired the knee-length sleeping-bag-like jacket that I had worn every time I left the house since December (we were then almost umbilically attached), and said goodbye to New York. Distressingly, my new home - Cambridge, Massachusetts - is four hours closer still to the North Pole. I’m now doing a Master of Laws at Harvard Law School, focusing on the relationship between public law (the relationship between government and its citizens) and public health (the study and practice of improving the health of populations). I will be writing my LLM paper on one aspect of this relationship: the degree to which international human rights law complicates public health decision-making in the immigration context. With this focus, I’m blending the insights I gained in my time at Amnesty International with my experience in government legal work and public health policy in New Zealand.

The opportunities for academic engagement and professional development here are legion. I’m taking a workshop on political risk with the Dean of Harvard Law School, an equality course with veteran radical feminist and all-around thorn-in-authority’s-side Catharine MacKinnon, and a delightfully gossipy brand of constitutional law with a charismatic constitutional historian. In January I will be travelling to Ghana to work with local advocacy organisations implementing the right to health and securing the rights of those with psychosocial disabilities. And it seems that anyone with something to say really does end up travelling through here at some point. In only the first three weeks, I’ve sat in while America’s top law professors workshopped their ideas on the constitutionality of President Obama’s healthcare reform, heard a journalist explain his investigation into the use of slave labour in Florida’s tomato industry, and have even seen Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan address students on her efforts to secure a frozen yoghurt machine in the Supreme Court cafeteria.

I still hate tipping, and break out into a cold sweat if required to split the bill in a restaurant. I can never work out which way to look when crossing the road, and cannot make myself understood on the telephone (the number “seven” is particularly problematic). I also never have any idea how much meat I’m buying or what the weather will be like because I cannot understand pounds and ounces and Fahrenheit. More seriously, I also still see the incongruity of so many iPhones and so many homeless side-by-side in the New York subway and in Harvard Square. This is a country going through difficult times, and it is a continuing privilege to work with and learn from Americans struggling to understand, and change, their country for the better.