by Anoush Baghdassarian J.D.’22
I first learned about the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) in the summer of 2015 when I was interning with Cardozo Law School’s Holocaust and Human Rights Clinic helping do research for the Jesuits Massacre Case CJA successfully worked on. In 2008 CJA filed criminal charges in Spain against El Salvador’s former President and 19 former military members. Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano was living in the United States at the time and had been sentenced to 21 months in prison due to immigration fraud. Spain had requested his extradition to stand trial there, and as Montano’s release date neared in April 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a complaint for his extradition to Spain. So, the summer of 2015 was an exciting time to say the least. To aid the extradition process, I spent many of my summer days in the Columbia University archives scanning and reading declassified U.S. government documents about El Salvador’s 12-year civil war and different communications between government officials. I also spent many days in the Clinic learning and writing about two tools that would impact my career trajectory in significant ways: universal jurisdiction and the Alien Tort Statute. Both of these tools allow courts to hold perpetrators accountable for crimes they commit outside the country in which they are being tried. Both of these tools demonstrated to me how the law can be a tool for redress and repair that doesn’t exist in other fields. Both of these tools are heavily relied upon by CJA. It was decided, then; I would pursue a career in law and hope to have the opportunity to work with CJA again at some point in my career. Both of those things came true.
It was a privilege to have the opportunity to work with CJA this past J-term through an independent clinical. This was an experience I had been looking forward to for many years because of CJA’s unique focus on U.S. civil litigation for atrocity crimes perpetrated abroad. Their ability to use civil litigation tools to achieve justice for communities of victims who otherwise might be without it, were it not for their work, resonated deeply with me. Growing up as a descendant of genocide survivors, I saw firsthand what happens when a community is denied justice. The pain, indignation, helplessness, and sense of defeat is palpable. You try for as long as you can to grasp and redeem that last bit of dignity that was taken from you. You keep fighting, you will always keep fighting, but at some point, the flame of remembrance grows dim and you resolve to live with open wounds that are passed on through the generations in the form of transgenerational trauma. Then, when the conflict reignites, because protracted, intractable conflicts tend to do that when there is no accountability for past actions, new wounds are created on top of old ones and the cycle of harm is just continuously fueled by impunity. There are many types of justice and not all of them have to come from the law. In fact, they shouldn’t all come from the law. Still, legal redress and accountability is an incredibly important part of not only helping communities move forward, but also of preventing the past from repeating itself, and preventing repeated harm to individuals and their ancestors. When I learned and recognized and began to appreciate how important the law is, I also learned how relatively new international criminal law and international human rights law are, and how important, groundbreaking, and precedent-setting the work CJA is doing is.
My time with CJA was incredibly meaningful and worthwhile and I am very grateful to the organization and to the independent clinical office for helping make this a reality, especially given the numerous challenges presented when it comes to remote internships. Right away I was working on substantive legal issues of the kind I have been craving. I remember that when learning about jurisdiction in my 1L Civil Procedure course, I was reminded of my initial exposure to universal jurisdiction back in the summer of 2015 and since then in internships, my master’s program, and more. I started running hypotheticals through my head trying to figure out how the U.S. concepts of jurisdiction could be used to hold those liable for extraterritorial human rights violations accountable here in the U.S. You can imagine how thrilled I was when my first assignment at CJA went to the heart of that question. In Civil Procedure we, understandably, didn’t dedicate much time to these relatively rare/nontraditional cases. To have the opportunity to write a legal memo on such jurisdiction questions and to try to solve a real legal conflict was a step up from the hypotheticals I’d run in my head. My subsequent assignments were also substantive learning experiences in which I learned about the different steps to successfully pursue these cases. I did so by helping at different stages of active cases, using my language skills and open source intelligence investigation experience to contribute what I could to their complex schemas.
In addition to learning from my assignments, I also had the privilege to learn from each member of the legal team. Each attorney made time to meet with me one-on-one and the informal learning that took place there was invaluable. I learned more about how intentional they are when they think about which cases to take, whether there is a role for a U.S.-based organization to play there and what impact US-based litigation might have in the home country. These are important considerations that shouldn’t be neglected or taken lightly. Their commitment to affected communities is apparent in their work with organizations on the ground regarding transitional justice measures and in their assurance that victims’ voices are the ones influencing the case’s trajectory. Most importantly, I learned more about their individual trajectories and their motivations for doing this work, all of which I deeply resonated with.
Six years after my first exposure to CJA, I can say my resolve to pursue accountability for atrocity crimes has only grown stronger. My tools have expanded from universal jurisdiction and the Alien Tort Statute six years ago, to, the Torture Victims Protection Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the terrorism exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, the Crime Victims Rights Act, and so much more. Watching the lawyers at CJA reconfirmed for me the power that law has as a tool for redress and repair when it comes to victims of egregious human rights violations and it inspired me to continue finding as many ways I can to immerse myself in and master the law so I can use those tools for justice. It inspired me to continue down this path I started on at age 11 when I began presenting to my history classes about the Armenian Genocide in the hopes that my peers’ recognition would help prevent history from repeating itself. It inspired me to continue along this trajectory finding ways to seek justice for communities denied it that I was following when I wrote and produced plays at ages 17 and 21 respectively about the Genocide and about Argentina’s Dirty War, when I co-created an archive at age 22 documenting 200+ Syrian refugee testimonies that I collected on the ground, and now at age 25 as I write reports to the UN special rapporteurs in my free time and continue pursuing my legal education to one day have a command of the law that can help prevent communities from living for multiple generations without dignity or justice.