High up in the Empire State Building

By Jessica Michelin

One of the first images that comes to mind when I think about New York City is the Empire State Building. This 102-story skyscraper towers above the city surrounding it and attracts an estimated four million visitors annually. This summer, I wasn’t one of those tourists though. I was a local, commuting for twelve weeks to my office in this iconic landmark. It doesn’t get much more stereotypical New York than that, right?

Views from one of the conference rooms at the office.

Despite the size differences between New York City and Montreal (New York has a population of roughly 8.3 million to Montreal’s 3.5 million), moving to New York from Montreal was not such a big change for me. I went from one North American metropolis to a different North American metropolis. While other human rights interns were navigating new cities with different languages and cultures, I navigated my way through tourists trying to find the entrance to the rooftop observatory. Trust me when I say that it was still a challenge, but I know that overall I spent the summer in a much more familiar environment than most of my fellow interns. Reading the blog posts of my peers, I could not help but wonder if I had been given the easy route this summer. Was I actually pushing myself outside my comfort zone?

I also could not help but wonder if I was missing something by spending my days sitting at a desk, far away from the countries and problems that I worked on. Especially as an intern, I was often assigned a project that was only a small piece of the puzzle. Couple that with the fact that many assignments involved more technical legal questions, and it could be difficult to make the projects that I was working on feel connected to real situations. Was I sitting in an ivory tower, conveniently disguised as the second-tallest building in New York City?

Watch out for King Kong! We had some fun at the interactive display on our way to the observatory.

I don’t think these questions are exclusive to human rights work. I have heard the same questions from my classmates while we’ve sat at a table in the library, studying cases that feel far removed from people whose problems they address. As a law student, it is easy to think that when we get to the ‘real world’, things will be hands-on all the time. I think the reality is that no matter the job, some time is going to be spent sitting at a desk staring at a computer screen or researching a case. In those situations, it becomes important to find ways to connect with stories behind the problem. In my case, reading transcripts of interviews taken on the ground helped connect me to the situations I was working on. When I listened to a talk given by a judge from a country I was researching, the challenges I had been writing about no longer felt theoretical. Sitting across the room was a person directly dealing with those challenges every day.

Reflecting on our time at HRW at the 86th floor observatory of the Empire State Building.

So, did I spend my summer in a professional ivory tower? In some ways yes, but in other ways, no. I know that after my work this summer, I developed attachments to countries on different continents, countries that I knew very little about before starting at Human Rights Watch, and that I may never have the chance to visit in person. I gained a better understanding of the challenges different countries face in achieving justice, and the challenges people face every day to live their lives in peace and security. I learned about the role of politics in international law, which make things move so slowly one day, and then so quickly the next. I do not doubt the value of being on the ground in the thick of things, but there is still plenty of room for growth even when staying a bit closer to home. After all, I learned all this sitting at a desk in the Empire State Building.

Summer School in Advocacy

By Jessica Michelin

At the UN for the first time! Notice the giant smile on my face.

A highlight of my summer internship with Human Rights Watch was being invited to attend conferences and meetings held at the UN Headquarters. Sure, anyone can sign up for a tour of the UN and visit the building. But there is something about showing up in a suit, ID card in hand, that feels different than visiting as tourist wearing shorts and a fanny-pack (okay, I’m playing up the stereotype here). Beyond the initial awe of walking through the building and sitting in on meetings, going to the UN was a stand-out experience for me because it was there that I received my first big lesson in advocacy this summer.

On July 17th, the World Day for International Justice, I attended a conference about why #JusticeMatters.

It was at the UN that my supervisor showed me the importance of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. After the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur, my supervisor instructed me and a fellow intern to follow her down the stairs to where journalists sometimes wait to interview the Prosecutor. We hovered in a corner. Now, a little known fact about me is that I hate breaking rules. I get so nervous about breaking rules that I don’t even like doing something that could potentially be breaking a rule. This means that I am not usually a hoverer or a loiterer, because I’m always too nervous that some security guard will nicely tell me to please move along. Despite my natural instincts not to hover, I followed my supervisor’s lead, and she eventually caught the attention of a journalist. They made small talk for a bit, and then the journalist asked my supervisor if she had anything she’d like to say about the briefing. Leaning confidently into the tape recorder, my supervisor delivered a concise and clear comment on the briefing. As we walked away, she shrugged “maybe the journalist will use that quote.” Sure enough, the next day my supervisor’s statement was included in the news article. By placing herself in the journalist’s path, my supervisor was able to make her voice heard.

The hallowed halls of the UN Security Council

All second-year students at McGill are required to take a course called “Advocacy”. We learn about many different ways to advocate for a client: demand letters, mediation, and oral advocacy at a mock trial. These lessons were interesting and helpful, and I will carry those skills with me into my career. The advocacy lessons I learned at Human Rights Watch were a bit different, but equally as important. At Human Rights Watch, I learned about the power of using other people to get your message heard. A newspaper picking up a story with a well-placed quote may reach a broader audience than an organization could reach on its own. An idea being pushed forward by one person may go further than if that idea is pushed by another person. My advocacy course taught me how to be a better advocate when I’m the one at the table. But my impromptu advocacy lessons this summer taught me how to be a better advocate behind the scenes. I learned that sometimes being an advocate means getting the ball rolling and letting someone else run with it. Or in some cases, rolling the ball directly into someone else’s path so that they have no choice but to run with it.

I was lucky to work with two fantastic fellow interns this summer. We all agreed that it was pretty awesome to go to the UN.

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