Exploring International Human Rights Law in Canada

Reflections on a summer as an IHRP in-house research assistant

By: Vivian Cheng (2L)

This summer, I worked as an in-house research assistant for the International Human Rights Program (IHRP). As someone who came to law school hoping to pursue human rights and social justice work, I consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to work closely on pressing issues in these areas through this fellowship, and to have made an impact — no matter how small — on real people’s lives. While I didn’t get to work in the Swiss palace that houses the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or travel to a different European city every weekend, I had an incredible experience.

Over the summer, I gained substantive legal research and writing skills authoring two reports on international issues that require attention in Canada. The first report outlined the liability of government, administrative bodies, and corporations if an employee sexually exploited someone or had been sexually exploited while abroad. The second provided a snapshot of the law for stateless persons in Canada; i.e. legal procedures and protections afforded to stateless individuals, and areas where Canadian law fell short of its obligations to the international community.

The challenges of advocating for the international human rights approach were fascinating and made this work incredibly intellectually stimulating. Above all, I enjoyed picking apart the nuances in this area of law. As I delved deeper into my research, I discovered that Canada has often adopted a lower standard for protecting human rights than the conventions they signed required. In other instances, I could not find evidence of a clear-cut approach to ensuring justice for survivors. Because of the ill-defined and nascent state of law in my work, I had to think creatively — turning to doctrines of contract law, torts, legal process, administrative law, and business organizations, among others, to make my case or articulate its weaknesses. To this end, I had to learn quickly, synthesizing all this information to offer comprehensive and nuanced answers to complex research questions.

The program also offered opportunities to work collaboratively and socialize, albeit over Zoom. The IHRP staff and fellows had bi-weekly coffee chats, where we could talk about our lives, our work, and other human rights issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic (bonus: I saw so many pets). Working with Ashley Major, the IHRP’s in-house lawyer, was particularly rewarding because of how much support and feedback she gave me. Before this fellowship, I had never written a substantive research document, so her feedback was invaluable.

I still hope to one day visit Europe and revel in the beauty of the Swiss alps, the delight of pain au chocolat, and the magnificence of European architecture, but for now, I am satisfied to have done important work this summer.

If you are at all interested in international human rights or are seeking an intellectual challenge, I definitely recommend taking advantage of IHRP’s fellowship program. It was truly an enriching and transformative experience that instilled confidence in my ability to work successfully within legal advocacy.