Law student Melissa Rice tells of her summer as a legal intern in Southeast Asia

Posted On October 27, 2009
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Georgia State Law student Melissa Rice with Thai familyBy Melissa K. Rice, Georgia State Law student

Last spring, Professor Lisa Bliss recommended that I spend my summer as a human rights legal intern withBridges Across Borders Southeast Asia. With the help of a Public Interest Law Association Fellowship of $3,000 – funded by money raised at the annual PILA auction – I was on my way to the other side of the world.

Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia focuses on greater cooperation among different human rights bodies in the region. One of the avenues of fostering this cooperation is their summer program, which hosts around 50 law students from all over the world. During the program, I spent one month in Chang Mai, Thailand, and two months in Vientiane, Laos.

While in Chang Mai the entire group participated in intensive training on community legal education and teaching skills. Our training complete, we were off to the rural countryside of Thailand, where each of us spent a week living with a Thai family and teaching English as a second language in local schools.

After this week of immersion, we all moved on to work in different governments, law schools, non-profit organizations and international non-governmental organizations in various countries. This was one of the most beneficial aspects of the internship for me because, in addition to working on my specific project, I learned about a range of different human rights issues and approaches to working in the field.

During the final two months of my internship, I worked on a variety of projects with Care International in Laos (Care), whose goal is to promote the rights of vulnerable women. The bulk of my work centered around a research project on the Laos Bar Association (LBA).

To explain about the current situation in Laos, recently the Prime Minister has signed a decree that will allow civil society organizations to form. Previously, all local organizations have been required to work only with approval of the communist government. Therefore, the allowance of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) may reflect, for the first time, an area where the people might express their own ideas and conduct their own programs.

Care International recognizes the weight of this opportunity as well as the challenges that brand new organizations face and wishes to offer their support so that they may succeed. The LBA is positioned uniquely as an organization formed by governmental decree in 1996. However, it’s currently working almost completely separate from the government, instead relying on the aid of several international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

The LBA is moving towards complete autonomy as it writes its first body of law for lawyers, covering professional responsibility, ethics, duties and the like. In the future, the LBA will likely operate as a CSO in Laos as supporting international organizations withdraw their aid. Therefore, Care is interested in how the LBA develops, the challenges they face, the training programs they use and the support they need. Care seeks to utilize this knowledge in order to support both the LBA, as well as other developing local organizations in order to forward the rights and recourses of vulnerable women in Laos.

I conducted a series of interviews with Lao member attorneys of the LBA, foreign-funded staff members working with the United Nations Development Project at the LBA, and interns at the LBA. With the information gathered from these interviews, I wrote a report charting their formation so that Care can determine how best to assist the LBA in continuing to offer sustainable services such as legal aid, practical lawyer training, continuing legal education and promotion of the profession.

Through the process of researching the LBA, I discovered the unfortunate truth that the organization’s national attorneys are not prepared and equipped to operate without the substantial aid – both in human resources and financially – contributed by INGOs such as the UN.  My opinion is that the INGOs and the international community at large have a specific idea of how the LBA should operate and the tasks it should accomplish, which they are operating currently. However, while the Lao nationals – the attorneys themselves – have the same vision for a successful legal profession, they do not necessarily have the same strategy in mind for achieving that goal. There is a huge culture gap in communications, operations and standards.

The entire summer equipped me with a variety of new experiences, as well as exposure to the inner-workings of INGOs, governments, foreign law schools and non-profits. I learned an incredible amount about the region, human rights issues faced and approaches by differing bodies to address those issues. Finally, I was able to gain in-depth insight into the Lao legal system and the challenges associated with forming civil society organizations.

If you would like to learn more about Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia, you won’t have a better opportunity than this Tuesday, October 27, when Georgia State Law and PILA host Bruce Lasky, BABSEA’s founder and director, and Wendy Morrish, the organization’s Southeast Asia Regional Community Legal Education Coordinator. They will be speaking at a very special Thai lunch event, which begins at noon in Room 170 of the Urban Life Building. Come hear more about legal and human rights issues in Southeast Asia as well as the internship itself. I will also have the opportunity to tell you a bit about the work that I did promoting sex workers’ rights in Laos.

My commitment to enabling other students to pursue their own public interest goals is so strong that I am serving as this year’s PILA auction chair. This year the auction will be held on February 20, 2010, at the Atlanta Freight Depot. I hope to see you there.

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