Q&A With Lawyers Beyond Borders Author, Maria Armoudian

by Briana Johnson on September 7, 2021

This is a guest post by Maria Armoudian, author of Lawyers Beyond Borders. She is Senior Lecturer of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. Follow Maria on Twitter, @armoudian. This volume is available for purchase in hardcover and paperback, as well as accessible ebook formats. 


What led you to write Lawyers Beyond Borders: Advancing International Human Rights Through Local Laws and Courts? Why do you think now is an important time to release a book like this? 

I had long been aware of really egregious violations of human rights occurring throughout the world. But it seemed that most victims and survivors had no recourse or remedy, mostly because of the international political and legal structures and those systems in their own home countries. 

So when I found out about some of these remarkable cases in which the survivors were able to find some semblance of justice and restore some aspects of their lives and livelihoods, I was inspired to learn more. With a multimillion-dollar settlement from then California oil company Unocal, for example, Indigenous Burmese villagers, who had suffered forced labor, torture, and living in hiding, were finally able to restore aspects of their lives. The advocates’ thinking, creativity, and commitments inspired me, so I set out to understand their motivations, ideas, and the local-international connections — between the international human rights and U.S. civil rights movements and beyond.

We are facing incredibly challenging times in which so many rights that have been hard-fought and hard-won are being eroded. This work offers a forty-year historical perspective about some of the intricacies in advancing rights movements and can shed light on earlier advances that were bold, audacious, and, at the time, unimaginable by most people. But these advocates, particularly Peter Weiss, Rhonda Copelon, and their Center for Constitutional Rights colleagues, were relentlessly visionary, innovative, and persuasive. They were willing to take—and win—these seemingly impossible cases that ended up changing the legal terrain, at least for the time being. That started a movement that informed Congress, which then sought to help and use these same ideas to lead the world, and passed legislation for that purpose. Their work was then expanded by the great minds, including those at Earthrights, the Center for Justice and Accountability, the ACLU, and civil rights lawyers in private practice, particularly Paul Hoffman. Since Brown v. Board of Education, while there had been an ebb and flow, Congress and the courts had overall been expanding rights. But sadly, that has all changed, and the U.S. has since turned its back on so many aggrieved persons who deserve justice, throwing up bigger and bigger obstacles. 

Today’s intertwined global and local crises need a new level of creative advocacy and ideas to find our way toward just solutions. The lessons drawn from creative advocacy are useful for all times but especially for crisis-level ones we are facing today. 

The U.S. often sees itself as a leader for speaking out on violations of international civil liberties—does your scholarship confirm that traditional idea line of belief, or does it push against it? 

The U.S. has at times been a leader and at times lagged behind other countries with rights. Some of those periods of leadership are documented here in Lawyers Beyond Borders. For example, as I noted in the previous answer, inspired by the work of Peter Weiss and his CCR colleagues, Congress passed legislation to lead the world in redressing survivors of torture and other egregious violations, using the idea of universal jurisdiction. Congress sought to get other countries to join in the battle against impunity and to redress and help heal survivors of these violations. President Bush Senior signed that legislation into law. But the original law that it was meant to complement, the Alien Tort Statute, which Weiss and his colleagues had used for this purpose, has now been whittled away by the Supreme Court, even though Congress meant to affirm and expand it. Then, in the “war on terror,” the U.S. joined the ranks of the violators. We in the U.S. are still struggling to define who we are as a country—the champion of human rights? Or “anything goes” in a perceived self-interest? These decisions are, of course, collectively constructed by many actors, ideas, and institutions, and so they are constantly changing.

Many of the cases you describe in the book don’t receive justice—why is it important to include these cases in tandem with the wins? 

Sadly, most didn’t find justice. But looking at these cases side-by-side, chronologically, and sequentially, we can better understand what happened, why it happened, and what is happening now with regards to human rights, human rights redress, and rights more generally—as the global rights movements are interconnected, largely through their ideas and advocates. And while each case has unique aspects, there are common political forces across them that when examined together give us a clearer picture of justice in our times, where we’ve been, where we are headed, and what factors could alter that direction.

How do you think your book adds to, builds upon, and/or challenges the work in your field? 

This book draws on the previous scholarship of rights, public law, lawyering, creativity, and ideas, so it builds on that work. It contributes to U.S. and human rights history, politics, and the literature of ideas, creativity, and sociology. 

With a 40-year examination of the movement, the cases, and backstories of the cases, Lawyers Beyond Borders reveals the struggles, obstacles to justice, some of the solutions, and the process of solving those problems. It tells behind-the-scenes stories about law, lawyering, politics, and rights, and it gauges and reveals the advocates’ ideas, thoughts, strategies, and creativity through the process. It also touches on the psychological consequences of these abuses, particularly the trauma that torture and other violations leave with the survivors; how that can transfer to their supporters, including some of the advocates; and how the process of litigation can sometimes restore a sense of agency that may have been destroyed through the violations.

Obviously, there is a big problem of attaining justice in international politics. For many survivors of torture, genocide, slavery, or other egregious human rights abuses, redress has slipped between the jurisdictional lines of law. Part of the book’s intention was to show one way that rights are constructed, inspire new ideas, reinvigorate some classic ideas, and develop thoughts about new ways of attaining global justice and redress for the world’s most vulnerable. Creative advocates are working to rethink the current international system for how people regain their agency, dignity, and livelihoods, given global politics. 

How do you think this book can aid civil rights activists and international law practitioners in advancing civil litigation in the U.S. and abroad? 

For one, I think the book demonstrates the vision, audacity, ingenuity, and care of these advocates who set out to develop a fabric of rights and recourse for people who were left without, using the tools they had. Through case studies, it shows how ideas, creativity, and grit can overcome some of the most intractable problems. It’s partly about using our agency to work within the institutions and structures to change those very institutions and structures—largely on behalf of people whose agency has been destroyed. It also shows how sometimes the problems are just too overwhelming for a small group of dedicated advocates, and reveals some of the missing pieces to advancing these aspirational or principled ideas, such as when countermovements hijacked the progress made toward making a more just world. To understand these issues, a combined study such as this that incorporates four decades of a developing movement, a look at individual case studies, and the advocates’ thinking is really important. And while they are largely political and legal issues, there are a host of obstacles that intertwine with these that need understanding—the personal and the practical—to solve these life-and-death matters.

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