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