Sonnenberg steps up to human rights challenges in Russia

by Margie Kelley

Post Date: December 9, 2003

The hardest part of Stephan Sonnenberg’s job last summer was telling his clients about the likelihood of a five-year wait for their day in court.

Still, the Chechen refugees were excited as they sat with Sonnenberg ’06 in Ingushetia, a neighboring republic to the war-ravaged Chechnya, as he collected testimony about their “disappeared” relatives for cases to go before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

A little hope, it seemed, was better than no hope at all.

“It was incredibly intense,” said Sonnenberg, well aware that the work he did last summer-and continues even now-is more than just a learning exercise. It will, he hopes, have real consequences for people whose lives have been devastated by a brutal and seemingly endless war between the Russian government and independence-seeking Chechnya.

It is a huge commitment that Sonnenberg took on last year as a 1L, when he established a student group-HLS Advocates-Russia/Former Soviet Union-focused on human rights advocacy in the troubled Russian state. As part of the Human Rights Program’s HLS Advocates, a new student organization that tries to assist human rights lawyers abroad in practical ways, Sonnenberg’s group already has about 20 student members interested in helping victims of human rights abuses in that region. The group has set about developing a network of lawyers in Moscow, Chechnya and Ingushetia that will be able to provide cases that they can prepare for the ECHR.

In addition to his near-total immersion in the work of this group, Sonnenberg is also a joint-degree student at HLS and the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford. When he’s finished, he’ll have his J.D. and a master’s degree in law and diplomacy (MALD).

The program is intense, but perfect for Sonnenberg, whose early experiences in Russia left him searching for a broader set of skills.

A Chicago native and 2000 graduate of Brown University, Sonnenberg was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and spent the following year in Volgograd, studying the effectiveness of nongovernmental organizations providing development and humanitarian aid.

“In my opinion, the most effective NGOs were ones dealing with Chechen refugees,” said Sonnenberg, who speaks Russian fluently. “That year, I helped develop a humanitarian relief project in Ingushetia.”

But he soon realized that aid workers had to walk a razor-thin line of neutrality, which often proved impossible.

“It’s a huge problem that the entire aid community deals with-everybody who tries to be nonpolitical runs into the barrier of where you draw the line,” said Sonnenberg. “You were always asking, ‘If you work with the government and security forces, are you plugging into the system that’s destroying the lives of refugees?’ But if you go without government help, you can find your program gets no funding. … To be effective, you’re going to have to make some decisions and hope you’re right. That’s what convinced me to go to law school. I wanted to do international human rights and development work, but I needed the thinking toolbox of law school.”

With financial support from the Human Rights Program, Sonnenberg traveled to the region during last winter’s break to establish the network of lawyers there that he’d need to get the legal aid project under way. He then spent 11 weeks there last summer collecting evidence and testimony for six cases that HLS students will prepare for the ECHR.

“The real challenge is sustainability,” he said. “It’s disingenuous to tell people you’re going to work with them if you can’t at least put in a major effort to make sure it’ll be there in a few years. We’re trying to build the capacity of these lawyers in Russia.”

Looking ahead, Sonnenberg sees himself going straight to a job in human rights after graduation rather than going to a law firm. But he doesn’t see himself, say, being a diplomat, either. “I feel like the traditional ways of approaching international relations are sort of in a rut and a lot of the problems don’t get solved,” he said. “I’d love to be in a spot where you can actually think about what you’re doing at the same time that you’re doing it-sort of mix practice with theory.”

For now, Sonnenberg is too busy to worry about life after graduation. Most days, he’s not in bed before 2 a.m., thanks to a schedule that seems better suited for two people. In addition to his Fletcher School classes, and managing the Russian cases with his HLS Advocates group, Sonnenberg is co-editor of a forthcoming “how-to” guide for human rights practitioners in Russia, to bring cases before the ECHR. He also volunteers once a week in the HLS Mediation Program and has recently accepted an offer to serve as a teaching assistant to Assistant Professor Guhan Subramanian during the winter-term workshop in the Program on Negotiation.

All the “extras,” he said, are as critical to his education as any class work.

“I’ve always done a lot of extracurricular stuff-that’s what made school a good experience for me,” he said. “I naturally gravitated toward doing something here at HLS. When combined with your academic interest, it’s that much more rich and worthwhile.”

As for human rights, Sonnenberg said his drive comes from having been “really lucky in my life. There’s a lot of talk about human rights, but it’s not so simple to go and do it. It’s just very gratifying to be grappling with these issues. It gives me hope that there’s a better way to do things and structure society than we’re doing right now.”