Nicole Barrett

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?

Nicole Barrett

This series is aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day. Discover the stories of these UBC Vancouver and Okanagan individuals, who contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.

Nicole Barrett is the director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at The Peter A. Allard School of Law. Additionally, she is the executive director of the Allard Prize initiatives. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Stanford University in International Relations and received her master’s from Columbia University in International Affairs. She also has a Juris Doctorate from Columbia Law School.

Her career has been a whirlwind of remarkable experiences. Her devotion to the rule of law has taken her across the globe. She’s been a trial lawyer and legal officer at the Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague and was a law advisor for the defense of Guantanamo Bay detainees. She worked on the National Task Force on the Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada. Through all these experiences she has remained sincere and indefatigable.

UBC Communications and Marketing sat down with Nicole to talk about her experiences and the important work she has accomplished in her law career.

Q
Have you always known you wanted to pursue law?

A: No, not really, I went to law school later. I actually moved right after I graduated from college to Prague to be involved with the process of democratization in Eastern Europe. It was an amazing time, with change happening before your eyes, so I worked for several years in Prague. Some of my motivation for the human rights work that I do now stems from excitement around the democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. After Prague, I went back to graduate school and continued to study Eastern Europe and completed a master’s degree in international affairs (IR). That was a two-year degree — so still not in law school!

After the IR degree and some more work overseeing democratization projects in Eastern Europe, I finally went to law school to gain some practical tools. I wanted to work on promoting social justice in the international framework. Looking back, I think there were always elements of the legal work that I do now in both my studies and international work. But it certainly wasn’t a straight path.

I really enjoyed law school. I knew during law school that I didn’t want to become a corporate lawyer. Many who start law school without real world experience don’t know exactly what they want to do afterwards. It’s very easy to get trapped in business law because that’s where a lot of jobs are and it’s very straightforward. It’s the beaten path, you make a lot of money, and there are many attractive aspects to corporate law. But I knew I would never be a corporate lawyer. I did work at a big law firm after law school to gain experience, but it was never in my mind that I would stay and climb the ladder. I was there until I could figure out how to do meaningful international work with my law degree.

Q
You work closely with students at the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at The Peter A. Allard School of Law. What do you think is most valuable about this program?

A: The clinic is now in its third year. We do really interesting and great work. I work closely with the students on specific legal cases or human rights related reports. We partner externally and have had excellent partners thus far. In the first year we partnered with the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was an amazing opportunity for the students to support the ICC’s ongoing investigations and cases.

The other big project from the first year was with the Cambodian Tribunal, working on the case of two Khmer Rouge leaders. We worked on a portion of the appeal judgment for the Supreme Court Chamber of the Tribunal focused on enslavement as a crime against humanity. We’re eagerly awaiting the Tribunal’s final judgment to see what role enslavement plays in the final judgment.

This year we’re working on two anti-corruption projects because I am now also the director of the Allard Prize for International Integrity, which is one of the world’s leading anti-corruption prizes, administered here at the Allard School of Law. To tie in work that would help with the anti-corruption focus of the Allard Prize, the clinic focused on two anti-corruption projects. One was an analysis of the proposal for an international corruption court. Right now there is a big advocacy push to develop this court. We also partnered with Transparency International on a grand corruption case against a former president, who is alleged to have stolen many millions from his country. Our task was to help construct the legal case and figure out the best venue to file the case.

The clinic students are highly motivated in part because the work is so compelling. As a result, students do a tremendous amount of work — often more hours than they get credit for. It’s gratifying to work with them as I can see them become very concerned and then motivated to correct injustice, often trying to figure out how they can remain involved with international justice and human rights issues after law school.

Q
What is a piece of advice you give to your students?

A: I’m often asked for career advice. I make a point not to be overly zealous in selling human rights-type legal work, because I recognize it’s not for everyone. It can be difficult.

One piece of advice I give to those who do want to pursue a human rights career, is that you will need to think more creatively about job options than those headed to big law firms. The corporate law world offers a hierarchical and predictable track, while the human rights world is more horizontal. Those who are open-minded and willing to live with some uncertainty are likely to be happier in the human rights world than those who are looking for predictable career outcomes.

I encourage students to think about what they are really, really interested in and then to build their own portfolio that includes work that will lead them to where they want to go. It does require more thinking.

Q
How did your work at the Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague influence you?

A: My work in The Hague was very absorbing because the cases I was working on were determining responsibility for some of the world’s most serious crimes. The Yugoslav Tribunal, like most international criminal tribunals, considered cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Given the severity and magnitude of the cases, it was hard not to find them significant.

Victims would come forward and talk about their entire families, sometimes their entire towns, being massacred. There is obviously a lot of emotion involved with such traumatic events. You really feel motivated to do what you can to help. Some witnesses were threatened, some recanted their testimony due to fear and a few were victims of mysterious “accidents” before testifying. Once you work on cases of such gravity, it’s not easy to go back to doing “normal” law — helping with a business transaction, say, or drafting a trust.

Quote

My work in The Hague was very absorbing because the cases I was working on were determining responsibility for some of the world’s most serious crimes.

The Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague

The Yugoslav Tribunal in The Hague

Q
You were an international humanitarian law advisor for the defense of Guantanamo Bay detainees. What drew you to this work? Could you explain what this experience was like?

A: At the Yugoslav Tribunal, I developed expertise in international humanitarian law, the law of war, and international criminal law. While I was at the Tribunal, the world was just learning of an immense legal crisis — the U.S. had interned suspected terrorists at their military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) and claimed that the detainees had no rights under either the US Constitution or the Geneva Conventions. Reports were leaking out that some of the detainees were being tortured. The way the U.S. government was interpreting the law of war was completely different from the way we had been interpreting the law of war in The Hague. They were attempting to prosecute crimes that never existed under the laws of war and were contorting and twisting the law to serve their own political ends. It was unprincipled and outrageous. I wasn’t the only one who was shocked; lawyers across the world, particularly in the U.S., were shocked. Some of the detentions and treatment of prisoners was a real affront to the rule of law and the democratic principles the U.S. claims to stand for.

The Guantanamo military commissions were quite surreal. It was very clear the government didn’t want anyone to know what was going on. At the Baltimore airport, the Guantanamo flights weren’t listed; you were just given a counter to go to. The officers down at Guantanamo who were running the courtrooms had removed their name badges. It was a bizarre, cagy environment. Observers from civil society were not allowed to move freely — they were given ‘minders’ to accompany them wherever they went. Later it came out that the government was actually eavesdropping on some of the attorney-client rooms, which should have been private. It was so wrong. There are so many things wrong about Guantanamo military commissions. Including that they’re still operating.

I was writing blog posts for Human Rights First when I was at GTMO. I would attend hearings and blog about significant developments to get word out about what was going on. I also worked as a humanitarian law consultant for the Center of Constitutional Rights on several significant cases. It was a big human rights moment in the United States. There was something significant to resist against, which made it easy to rally the troops.

Quote

The Guantanamo military commissions were quite surreal. It was very clear the government didn’t want anyone to know what was going on.

Q
What kind of work did you do on the National Task Force on the Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada? What did you learn through this experience?

A: The National Task Force was an eighteenth month task force that was established by the Canadian Women’s Foundation. We were specifically focused on sex trafficking. It was a national task force, with trafficking experts from all over Canada and from many different sectors. There were government people, people who had formerly been trafficked, academics, NGO workers, and people working on the front line, providing services to victims.

The task force conducted significant research and fact-finding. The results were eye-opening and disturbing, but at the same time it was an amazing experience because of the careful and collaborative way we conducted our work. The task force ultimately spoke to approximately 160 victims of sex trafficking. We traveled across Canada and met with stakeholders. The task force convened one big round table where former trafficking victims came together, which was quite a powerful event. It was difficult in many ways, but also important. Difficult but important seems to be a common theme in my work.

Nicole Barrett
Q
These sound like really challenging experiences. How do you personally interact with these often discouraging realities?

A: I think it is difficult work. It’s also, I find, more rewarding work. I guess that goes ultimately to my own personal code of ethics. I could be making a lot of money as a corporate lawyer somewhere, but for me money isn’t the most important thing. Doing valuable work and feeling like I’m contributing to something positive in the world is more important for me.

But there are real challenges. You can experience vicarious trauma from working on these types of cases. Some people are more affected than others. I find myself to be a fairly resilient person, but there were some winter days in The Hague where the bodies were really piling up. The flip side to vicarious trauma, though, is vicarious resilience, where you see people coping and even thriving despite horrible experiences. So there is a real upside to my work as well. Also now, working on the Allard Prize, I have the privilege of finding and meeting people who demonstrate exceptional courage and leadership in combating corruption, which is very inspiring. So, it’s not all discouraging.

Quote

I think it is difficult work. It’s also, I find, more rewarding work. I guess that goes ultimately to my own personal code of ethics. I could be making a lot of money as a corporate lawyer somewhere, but for me money isn’t the most important thing. Doing valuable work and feeling like I’m contributing to something positive in the world is more important for me.

Q
Is there any one person who has inspired you throughout your career?

A: I don’t have a single mentor, but there have been several people along the way who have played mentorship roles and I still draw upon lessons from them. I clerked for two US federal judges who were both brilliant jurists and wonderful men. Both gave me important advice, insight and work experience that I still draw upon today. Louise Arbour is a great international jurist who I very much respect. Although she wasn’t a personal mentor, I admired her work and found it motivating — she is so smart, sensible and courageous. At the corporate law firm where I practiced, Sullivan & Cromwell, I worked with a partner who taught me the importance of writing. He was a master wordsmith. I still think about which words he would choose. So, I think along the way I collected important life and professional lessons from various people that still influence my work today.

Through hard work and resilience Nicole Barrett has found a way to unite both her passion for international relations and human rights. Her career as a lawyer has taken her through difficult and challenging conditions but she has never wavered in her commitment to support human rights and stop worldwide injustice.

As for what is next for Nicole, she will continue her work with the Allard Prize Initiatives, teaching at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC and leading the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic. In the past year alone she has welcomed influential figures to speak at the university such as Egyptian-Canadian Journalist, Mohamed Fahmy, and Ben Wizner, Edward Snowden’s Legal advisor.

September 2016 marks the third year the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic has been running at The Peter A. Allard School of Law.


Story Credits

Special thanks to our story partner: Nicole Barrett, Director, International Justice and Human Rights Clinic, The Peter A. Allard School of Law.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Cindy Connor, Online Producer; Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Paul Joseph, UBC Photographer; Michael Kam, Web Developer; Lina Kang, Web Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Manager, Digital Communications; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Mormei Zanke, Writer.

Published: January 2017