SOAS law students establish international human rights advocacy network

A group of law students from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS) have established an advocacy network which aims to rival the Harvard Human Rights Clinic in its reach and power.

The network, Banyan, allows students to work pro bono on cases which aim to further human rights, development or social justice and are committed to practical change. The group is offering its research skills and knowledge to civil society agencies, development groups and law firms.

Its network of 50 postgraduate law students has already worked on a number of high profile international projects, including supporting legal historians working on the Kiobel case, which alleges that Royal Dutch Petroleum and the Nigerian government committed violent acts against oil exploration protestors in the Ogoni region. Students helped draft briefs to the US Supreme Court and their research was cited in court.

Co-founder Luke Smitham said: “In October 2011, a professor of mine, Dr Amanda Perry-Kessaris, forwarded me an email from a research associate called Deval Desai regarding the need for students to conduct legal historical research for an amicus curae [friend of the court] brief being submitted by the Harvard Human Rights Clinic in the case of Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum. We chatted and concluded I should get some fellow students involved.

“From thereon in, Deval assigned research to 7 students (including myself) and we worked on this until about January 2012. The case was adjourned to a second hearing and so we continued working on it until about April 2012. Now we are still awaiting the verdict. The Kiobel case is one of the most important corporate accountability cases to have been heard so far, and any decision will have outcomes for many people around the world.”

He added: “Following the work on the Kiobel Case, Deval, Jess and I decided that it shouldn’t just be ‘luck’ that determines whether or not students are afforded these opportunities. Without working on these sorts of projects, it can be impossible for law students, particularly with an interest in human rights, development or social justice advocacy goals to get internships, let alone jobs, following graduation. Therefore we wanted to provide a central hub and create a network for students and third parties (civil society organisations, NGOs, law firms) to be able to connect more easily.”

The result is Banyan, which has, over the last 12 months, provided pro bono legal advice to support the implementation of the government of Guinea’s new mining code; helped an NGO monitoring the human rights impacts of multi-stakeholder initiatives and researched and drafted a report for the Aegis Trust regarding the Sudan and the International Criminal Court.

Smitham said: “Over the coming year we would like to provide further opportunities to SOAS students and further establish ourselves within the SOAS School of Law. Without SOAS, and especially the law school and the professors who backed us and gave us invaluable advice, Banyan would never have come to fruition.

“We want to ensure it continues to grow and becomes a mainstay of the law school, in the same way the Harvard Human Rights Clinic has in the USA. For now, that involves getting further projects and more students to take part.”

UCL students are working to raise rights awareness in Hackney (28 November 2012).