An Interview with a Former Lawyer for the Making Amends Campaign

Making Amends Defined

Amends is the practice of recognizing harm done to civilians in armed conflict over the course of legal combat operations. Amends may take the form of apologies, dignifying gestures, and sometimes compensation. This is an emerging issue at the intersection of human rights, humanitarian and international criminal law. It is a unique concept, and often difficult to grasp the subtleties of its many facets.

The Making Amends Campaign is a global coalition of organizations that care deeply about civilians in war and believe civilian suffering can be minimized.

I recently interviewed the former lead lawyer of the Making Amends Campaign, who headed the movement for a year and a half. Not only does she have excellent insight into non-profit work, but as a woman who wanted to be a human rights lawyer, as she says, “Pretty much since elementary school,” also has great advice for prospective lawyers in the field. I asked her about the campaign itself, as well as her experiences as a lawyer in a rapidly evolving field and mined her for advice to budding human rights and humanitarian lawyers.                             

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into this field?

“Perseverance perseverance perseverance. It’s not an easy field for American students. It’s incredibly competitive, but you can carve your own path. Just narrow down what you want to do, whether advocacy, policy, field work and send a well-crafted resume.”

Any advice for prospective law students when choosing a university 

“Seek out a well-established program, like Harvard, Columbia, or Berkeley or go into one of the top 30 with a strong program. If you go to a school not known for its human rights program, you might have the opportunity to really stand out, and you might acquire skills that make you attractive to employers later.”

She also highlighted an important tip for aspiring lawyers: fieldwork is extremely beneficial. In a field that is very small, and very competitive, anything you can do to make yourself stand out is a definite plus. But, she added, “International law is changing rapidly. Human rights law is catching on in the US,” which means that it is highly likely more positions will develop in the field.

You’ve said a couple times now that pursuing human rights law is especially difficult for American students. Why is that?

“Human rights law is catching on in the US. But it’s easier how it’s set up in Europe, whereas in Europe the focus has been on human rights for quite some time.”

You’ve been a human rights lawyer, or aspiring human rights lawyer, for most of your life. But since you began actually using your degree, have you found there to be any drawbacks to working in the human rights/non-profit field?

“I would say the only drawback is the pay. The work is incredibly fulfilling, but you have to absolutely want to do it. You’ll usually only be making half of what your peers in private practices are making. But like I said, it’s incredibly fulfilling and at the end of the day you know you’re doing something that will make a difference.”

Now, since Blueprint JD focuses on increasing diversity in the law, whether ethnically, socio-economically or the area that is practiced, this seems like a good time to ask you: Do you think the law needs more diversity?

“Yes definitely. There needs to be more substantive diversity as well as ethnic diversity in students and professors alike in US law schools. In a lot of US schools, there’s still the feel of a boys’ club. But some of the most fearless human rights lawyers I know have been women.”

Can you describe the evolution of the Making Amends Campaign over the year and a half that you headed it?

“It’s really taken off. I think it latches onto values people have already held for a long time, and it addresses an important missing link in dignifying war victims. The civilians caught in war’s crossfire were just treated as invisible before. But the amends campaign, I think, has been extremely successful in raising awareness for the protection gap in this particular area of the law. 

Why did you decide to work on the Amends Campaign? Did it draw on any of the work you had done previously?

“I decided to work on the campaign because it was intellectually challenging, and very advocacy heavy. I was able to apply everything I had learned from past experiences, and drew on the intersection of human rights, humanitarian and international criminal law. We really had to work at advancing amends as a policy priority, including at the UN and with a number of individual states. I am happy to say the concept of amends has really been gathering steam.”

As the former Making Amends director stated, the decision to pursue human rights and humanitarian law as a career should not be taken lightly. If you are to be successful, you should be smart about the law school you choose, as not all law schools offer the option to focus exclusively (or even partially) on human rights law, and once you’ve received your degree the challenges won’t stop. Human rights law is an extremely competitive field in the US with fewer positions for human rights lawyers than for those who may have chosen to focus on other areas of the law. But don’t be discouraged! The demand for human rights lawyers is increasing, and the satisfaction gained from upholding your own personal ideals while helping others is the greatest reward of all.

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Erin Osterhaus

Contributing Editor at Blueprint JD
Erin is our resident "expert" on issues relating to the law in the international non-profit/NGO setting. She spent the last two years in DC in the (successful) pursuit of an MA from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, and is currently an Associate at Center for Civilians in Conflict, where she works on issues related to international humanitarian and human rights law. In her spare time she reads books, lots of books, writes articles on media and music, and occasionally goes for a run. In the future she dreams of becoming a full time writer and editor for an international affairs publication, while writing fiction on the weekends.