For years, Clinical Professor Jim Cavallaro tried to teach the ins and outs of the Inter-American system from his office in Cambridge. He developed a mini-course on the system. He took a small group of students to Washington to observe a day of sessions at the Inter-American Commission.

“But at some point, given how much work our Clinic does before the Commission and Court, I realized Harvard should have a structured means of studying the broad jurisprudence and practice of the Inter-American system,” said Cavallaro, executive director of the Human Rights Program. “And where better than Costa Rica, the seat of the Inter-American Court?”

That’s when Cavallaro and Stephanie Brewer ’07 decided to create an on-site course in San José, where students could learn the law on the ground, including from judges, practitioners and stakeholders in the system. This January, the 20 students enrolled in “Doctrine and Practice of the Inter-American Human Rights System” came away with a deeper understanding of that system—plus an immersion in the world of human rights adjudication.

The students spent their weekdays in classes at the American Institute for Human Rights in San José and in conversation with lawyers at the nearby Inter-American Court. Many had already done significant human rights clinical work, and the class served as an incubator for discussion about the Inter-American system.

Marissa Vahlsing ’11 said of the on-site class: “You get a perspective on this system in a way that you are unable to get when you are at school. Being somewhere else where the Inter-American system really matters, that’s what is really important.”

Vahlsing came to law school because she was interested in human rights law and its intersection with environmental justice. She’s now been involved with HRP’s International Human Rights Clinic for four semesters. She was an intern with an NGO in Argentina, where she fought to compel a local agency in Buenos Aires to provide water to the people in its community. She went to Colombia to do field work, led by Cavallaro, involving an indigenous community and a multinational corporation. Cases decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights gave her a framework for analysis.

“When we studied those cases in class,” Vahlsing says, “it was so useful to see the mechanics of it from a doctrinal perspective … The practice also informed how I had made sense of it in the classroom. I really appreciated that.”

Virginia Corrigan ’11, who also interned in Buenos Aires through HRP, echoes these sentiments. “The class was a good chance for me to step back from all the practice I’d been doing and get a more theoretical grounding.”

Cintia Reschke de Borba LL.M. ’11 who received her bachelor’s degree in law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and was affiliated with a human rights NGO in Brazil, has also worked through the Clinic on a wide variety of issues, including police violence and prison reform. Many of the cases she looked at involve the Inter-American system. Getting to see the court where so many of these cases were headed provided unexpected insight.

In particular, Borba remembers a small team of lawyers and interns working on a case in the court: “They had at least fifty very thick folders of documents piled up on a table,” says Borba. “We come from the other side, the side of the litigators and the practitioners; we are representatives of the victims. You always complain that the commission and the court take so long to make decisions, so it was interesting for us to see just how much material there can be to be reviewed in one single case, and how there is often not enough staff.”

All three students agreed that it was extremely powerful to meet with former Chief Judge of the court Sonia Picado. The first woman judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Picado served on the court between 1988 and 1994, and has since become the Costa Rican ambassador to the United States. Picado spoke extensively about her experiences with discrimination as a woman in the heavily male dominated Inter-American Court system, and about the growing presence of not only female judges on the court but also a general awareness of women’s rights.

In class, students discussed issues currently coming before the court, including the protection of indigenous rights in the context of development projects. Vahlsing adds that Brewer and Cavallaro were able to talk students through cases in which they themselves had been involved. Brewer litigated a case they studied in class, involving two men who were kidnapped and tortured by Mexican authorities after defending their community and ancestral land from logging operations by the United States. Cavallaro has litigated extensively before the court, in addition to working with Central American refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border and with rights groups in Chile, challenging abuses by the Pinochet government. He also founded the Global Justice Center, a leading Brazilian human rights NGO.

In addition, Cavallaro and Brewer collaborated on a critiquing the way human rights courts work: “Reevaluating Regional Human Rights Litigation in the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Inter-American Court.”

When asked about time spent outside the classroom, Corrigan chuckles. “Every day you’re in class for three hours having intellectually taxing discussions. In the afternoon you come home, and there are one hundred more pages of cases to read. We were thinking about it all the time. I remember one weekend—we had the weekends off—we went out to the Caribbean coast, and instead of going out drinking or dancing or listening to reggae, we sat outside our hotel around a table talking about social justice.

“We were all so fired up and so passionate about what we were doing. I think that was really the best part of the experience, being around so many people who cared.”

Vahlsing plans to move to South America next year to work on issues of human rights and private actor accountability—all issues that came up in class in Costa Rica.“[Brewer and Cavallaro] know this material as practitioners and academics, and it comes alive when those doctrines, rules and stories matter for people’s rights. “It was one of the best classes I’ve taken at Harvard, and it wasn’t even at Harvard,” she said. “I took particularly good notes while I was there because I know in the next five years I’ll be looking back at them.”