Students, with U help, go abroad for human rights

Seth Woerhle

Ask law student Intesar Elder for a moment that stood out from her three-month human rights internship in the Palestinian’s West Bank and you’ll get a story that sums up the mixture of hopelessness and optimism the Arab-Israeli conflict has created.

The story begins when Elder was one month into the internship she obtained through the University’s Human Rights Center, as she was waiting at one of the necessary checkpoints to take a trip to Ramallah.

“An Israeli soldier refused to let a 17-year-old boy cross for no apparent reason so he stood there waiting for 15 minutes,” Elder said. “He got so frustrated and humiliated that he said ‘I’m just going to go,’ and the soldier picked up his Uzi and pulled the trigger.”

The gun was unloaded, Elder said, but she said she believed the soldier had intended to kill the unarmed boy. She told the next soldier about the incident and was surprised to find him receptive.

The Israeli listened to her complaint, and then went to address the previous soldier.

At a time when constant retaliations by both sides were frustrating the prospect of peace, the altercation seemed to offer a glimpse of a shared starting point.

Elder’s internship was made possible by the University’s Human Rights Center, formed in 1988.

The HRC awards fellowships to between 20 and 25 students a year. The grants are typically $2,500 to $3,500.

Students and others can apply for the organization of their choice, which is researched for validity by the HRC staff.

The organization has placed almost 300 fellows in about 50 countries since the program began in 1989.

Elder, who returned to the United States in September to continue pursuing her law degree, lived with her mother in the West Bank during her stay and worked with three different organizations: Miftah, the Jerusalem Center for Women and the Jerusalem Center for Human Rights.

She wrote proposals for European Union grants and researched alleged Israeli violations of human rights and international law.

Part of the same program, international relations senior Kim Walsh spent 10 months in Seoul, South Korea with the Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, getting out information about the plight of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea.

She said her time in South Korea allowed her to see her home country from the outside.

“It was a total change in perspective to see the U.S.’s diplomatic relations with other countries,” Walsh said. “I didn’t think they were so aggressive at putting their agenda as the main focus of anything that happens in the world.”

Like Elder, Walsh has a family connection to her country. She stayed with members of her extended family from Sept. 2000 to June 2001.

Minnesota District Court Judge LaJune Thomas Lange is part of the selection committee for the fellowships and was a fellow herself in 2001, attending U.N. conferences in Geneva, Switzerland and Durban, South Africa.

She explained that to qualify for a fellowship, a student must demonstrate certain skills, such as speaking the country’s language. Students should have contacts on the ground and be able to explain how they’ll serve both their chosen organization and their home community when they return.

Lange said over time, she’s seen the international community fully embrace the cause of human rights.

“One thing that you see overseas is how much ground has been gained by global organizations and individuals who are committed to human rights,” Lange said. “We’re no longer standing alone as the most competent in the world when it comes to human rights.”

Seth Woehrle welcomes comments at [email protected]