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Lawyers Using Expertise to Fight Abuses Overseas

July 09, 2006|Sheila Flynn | Associated Press Writer

DALLAS — Attorney Victor Boutros finds few chances for heroism in his commercial litigation work.

So it was a welcome change when he recently found himself involved in a raid on a South Asia slavery operation, helping to document people experiencing freedom for the first time.

"There is a huge draw, I think, to being able to use the skills and the gifts that you learned in law school and in law practice to serve those who are suffering," he said. "I think most lawyers went to law school with the idea of doing something noble."

Boutros, 29, is one of dozens of lawyers volunteering to fight human rights abuses in developing nations through the International Justice Mission, a Washington-based nonprofit. They combat slavery, forced prostitution and human trafficking by helping in raids and training prosecutors, hoping to curb abuses by bolstering local legal infrastructures.

"I think the legal profession in America is largely alienated from the heroic," said the group's founder, Gary Haugen, who left his job with the U.S. Department of Justice to begin the nonprofit nine years ago.

"I can take lawyers to places around the world that they can see that people don't die because a lawyer showed up," Haugen said. "I think that's a pretty inspiring experience."

On Boutros' trip, he and four other Dallas-area lawyers -- including his wife -- assisted in the slave raid and advised local attorneys, reading briefs and scrutinizing arguments. They also drilled lawyers on courtroom procedure for a case being brought against a woman accused of selling her young daughter's virginity.

"The director of the office really asked us to drill them as hard as they could so they could prepare," Boutros said.

About 200 full-time mission staffers work in offices in Asia, Africa and South America, assisted by legal interns and volunteers.

The Christian-affiliated organization received a $5-million grant in March from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to finance further efforts to combat sex trafficking and other crimes. Charitable donations account for 90% of the group's budget, and governmental support finances the remainder, Haugen said.

"The idea is to work yourself out of a job -- to go over, model the casework, recruit a team of nationals, train them and then transition the leadership over to the nationals," Haugen said. "You don't have to actually go get all the bad guys. You just need to send enough to jail to change the calculation of what you can get away with."

But some critics question the long-term effectiveness of that approach.

"I think that they take a model of justice that comes out of very American tradition, where there's some accountability for the criminal justice system, and they export their expectations to settings where the criminal justice system is really part of the problem," said Mindy Roseman, academic director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.

"There's corruption, there's ineffectiveness, there's untrained, insensitive actors within all levels of the system," she said.

Other critics say the work is more for the benefit of volunteers than victims, who may not want to be saved or could be forced into even worse conditions after raids.

Peter Rosenblum, associate professor of human rights at Columbia Law School, called the liberation philosophy "hero tourism" and "cowboy-like."

He advocated organizing workers and empowering them as more fruitful pursuits.

But Boutros said he felt the group's efforts were invaluable. He hopes to take more trips and inspire other attorneys to join in the work.

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