U.Va. Law Students and Alumna Pursue Human Rights Work with Help from Fellowships

May 28, 2010 — Recent University of Virginia law graduate and Sri Lanka native Nilakshi Parndigamage has been working on human rights issues since she was a teenager.

"I don't think I ever seriously considered any other line of work," said Parndigamage, who, before attending Yale University, worked with the United Nations in Sri Lanka to stop forced domestic child labor. "If you do that at an early age, you have some sort of realization and it's hard to go back to something else."

Parndigamage and more than a dozen other U.Va. law students and an alumna are the recipients of human rights fellowships sponsored or co-sponsored by the Law School this year.

The fellowships allow recipients to work anywhere from South Africa to Ecuador with the goal of tackling some of the world's most troubling human rights problems.

Annalise Nelson, a 2007 graduate of the Law School, has been named the Orrick International Court of Justice Traineeship Fellow for 2010-11. Sponsored by international law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, the fellowship includes an award of up to $50,000 to cover expenses while Nelson works at the World Court in The Hague.

Nelson –the sixth U.Va. alumnus accepted into the trainee program in six years – will begin her nine-month position in September.

"It's very rare to have an opportunity to get to really be immersed in the field full-time doing public international law, and the ICJ is a great opportunity for me to be able to do that," Nelson said.

She said she was heavily invested in human rights issues in law school, including the International Human Rights Law Clinic.

"Because I've been well-versed on the private international law side, I wanted to try something that was going back to my first interest, which was public international law."

Rising second-year law student Laura Jolley is this year's Class of 1957 South Africa Human Rights Summer Fellow. The N.C. State graduate worked on HIV issues during her time in the Peace Corps in Lesotho, in southern Africa, after which she pursued a master's in public health from George Washington University.

Although she had planned to work for the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg, South Africa, that organization was recently incorporated into one that also addresses larger human rights concerns. The new organization is named Section 27, after the portion of the South African constitution concerned with socioeconomic rights.

"They exemplify one type of cause-lawyering in how they've addressed the needs of those infected and affected by the disease, and now they've expanded to a broader purpose, and to work with them and see how they've made that progression will be really interesting," Jolley said.

Jolley, a participant in the Law School's Program in Law and Public Service, has been involved in the fight against HIV for much of her life.

"I've always been interested in diseases of poverty, ever since I was a child," she said.

For Parndigamage, recipient of the Monroe Leigh Fellowship in International Law, the funding offers a way to continue her life's work in human rights.

Parndigamage plans to complete an unpaid internship with Cohen, Milstein, Sellers & Toll, a mid-sized law firm in Washington, D.C., with a prominent but small human rights litigation practice.

The two-person department primarily represents foreign victims of U.S. companies in lawsuits filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act and other U.S. laws. "Cohen Milstein is greatly respected for their groundbreaking international human rights litigation work, and I'm lucky that I can start my career as an attorney getting hands-on experience with them," said Parndigamage, whose international human rights work after graduating from Yale included assisting the Slobodan Milosevic prosecution before the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague and interning for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Cape Town.   

Parndigamage is sharing the Monroe Leigh Fellowship with Calleigh McRaith, who is receiving a smaller portion of the award to work for the International Center for Transitional Justice in Cape Town, South Africa. McRaith also received a Public Interest Law Association grant.

Other students earning PILA fellowships for human rights or public international law work include:

•    Micki Bloom, Institute for International Law and Human Rights, Washington, D.C.
•    Wes Boling, Institute for International Law and Human Rights, Washington, D.C.
•    Claire Boronow, Minority Rights Group International, London
•    Salima Burke, Center for Applied Legal Studies, Gender Unit, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
•    Ashley Brown, U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania
•    Robert Castillo, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania
•    Amelia Dungan, Secretariat of Pacific Communities, Fiji
•    Kathryn Fennig, International Justice Mission, Guatemala City
•    Hernando Montoya, Asylum Access, Quito, Ecuador
•    Katherine Reynolds, Center for Human Rights Legal Action, Guatemala City
•    Joel Sanderson, U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Arusha, Tanzania
•    Madison Saniuk, International Justice Mission, Manila, Phillippines
•    Anisha Singh, International Bridges to Justice, New Delhi

Some students are self-funding human rights work:
•    Carolyn Greco, International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, The Hague
•    Emerald Greywoode, Timap for Justice, Sierra Leone
•    Geoffrey Grissett, International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, The Hague