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Human Rights Law Clinic Aids Haitian Cane Workers

by Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
posted October 14, 1998

For years, Haitians who toiled in the rural fields of the Dominican Republic have endured police beatings, arbitrary expulsion from the country as well as a lack of health care, most schooling and the right to vote.

But now a Boalt Hall lecturer and students from her International Human Rights Law Clinic are hoping their efforts will help end such abuses.

Lecturer Laurel Fletcher led four students to the Caribbean country last spring to document the abuses. Their findings were presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organ of the Washington DC-based Organization of American States, on Oct. 7.

Fletcher hopes the effort will spotlight the issue and pressure Dominican Republic leaders to reform. It is just one of several projects launched by the law school's Human Rights Law Clinic, which opened in January 1998 with Fletcher as staff attorney. Boalt Lecturer Carolyn Patty Blum directs the clinic.

"The skills that we give these students are going to serve them well regardless of what they do," said Fletcher. "Students here learn how to think about complex problems and how to solve complex problems."

Fletcher is no stranger to such work. The Harvard Law School graduate performed pro bono human rights work in Yugoslavia, South Africa and Beijing. Before coming to Boalt in January, she represented plaintiffs in class-action, employment discrimination lawsuits.

At Boalt, she said, "I saw my role as providing the opportunity for students to really dig in and figure out how they could help solve a problem."

In March, about two months after the clinic opened, Fletcher 's group visited the island of Hispaniola, site of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Elise Brown, of the East Bay Community Law Center, also served as a supervising attorney during the trip.

In the Dominican Republic, many individuals of Haitian descent work 12-hour days in the sugar cane fields, chopping cane with machetes, sometimes slitting their arms and legs in the process. Often, says Fletcher, the workers are not paid for months. They subsist on beans and rice, huddle in shacks covered by corrugated tin roofs, and live in fear that police will bus them back to Haiti.

Field workers told the Boalt group about individuals plucked from their communities with no opportunity to show they were in the country legally and no opportunity to tell family members of their fate.

They looked to the law students for a voice.

The clinic plans to continue working with Dominican Republic-based human rights organizations to assist them in documenting abuses and, when appropriate, filing legal action alleging international human rights law abuses.

Says Fletcher, "We have a moral responsibility to assist them in the long-term battle and not just provide a Band-Aid solution."


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