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A Right-Based Approach to Lawyering: Legal Empowerment as an Alternative to Legal Aid in Post-Disaster Haiti

By: Meena Jagannath, Nicole Phillips, Jeena Shah

This resource is from the Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights, Volume 10, Issue 1, Article 2, Fall 2011.

As traditional legal assistance to marginalized communities tends to be top-down and exclusionary, much like the traditional distribution of humanitarian aid, human rights lawyers in Haiti seek to apply the rights-based approach to their lawyering—providing “legal empowerment” as an alternative to “legal aid.” This article discusses how the legal empowerment approach to lawyering has used organizing and community engagement alongside legal representation to reinforce the capacity of Haiti’s judicial system while opening up valuable political fora for communities left vulnerable by the earthquake; these communities may then use their own voices to claim their rights. Through case studies of successful advocacy strategies with two of the most vulnerable populations in post-earthquake Haiti—women and the displaced or homeless—this article highlights how international human rights lawyering can, and arguably should, include elements of grassroots organizing and community engagement to obtain justice for individual victims and to advance social justice more broadly.