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2021 Summer Fellowships: Project Expedite Justice Summer Fellowship Experience

My name is Chelcie Barnett and I am a second-year law school student at the University of Dayton. Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work with an international human rights-based organization that works to provide a pathway to justice for people victimized by war criminals, mass atrocities, and other human rights violations. It was a rewarding experience and opened my eyes to the various levels of structural barriers that prevent justice.

About the Organization:

I worked with Project Expedite Justice (PEJ), a nonprofit organization that works on an international scale to empower local communities seeking justice. It was founded in 2016 by Cynthia Tai, a former prosecutor with experience in both the U.S. and at the International Criminal Court. PEJ partners with local communities to train locally-based lawyers and investigators to obtain evidence and build their cases in a manner that meets international legal standards. They also take a victim-based approach, meaning they only get involved in cases if PEJ is requested to do so by victims, their families, or local community members. 

The goal of PEJ as an organization is to help make justice more accessible to those who may not generally have accessible pathways to justice. I was excited about working with PEJ because of this victim-centered approach. As a white woman born in the U.S. where our justice system, though far from perfect, provides a general pathway to justice for individuals harmed by human rights abuses, it has become ever-more important to me to avoid paternalistic approaches. “Paternalism” refers to the idea that people in positions of power or authority act against or regardless of the will of a person or community under the guise of knowing better or to protect their best interests. For example, drugs need to be illegal because they can cause you to harm if you use them. 

I find the paternalistic approach problematic because it is based on the assumption that only those in positions of power or authority know the “right answers,” therefore, giving them an excuse to not listen to those with differing ideas. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Just because I have found success in using one solution doesn’t mean the pathways I used to get there were the only ones that could have led me there. My experiences in a particular area may inform my general actions, but recognizing what makes my experiences distinct from others’ is necessary for understanding the value of diverse ideas. 

The reason I brought up paternalism is that the opposite of a paternalistic approach is one based on listening to the contributions of others and collaborating to find solutions. I was excited to learn that PEJ employs a listening-based approach to understanding the experiences and needs of victims of international human rights abuses to most efficiently help them to access justice. They use this approach to help legal practitioners build their skills and create more equitable pathways to justice. I was a fan before I even applied.

My Experience:

I could probably write several blog posts about the things I learned and the experiences I gained while working with PEJ for just 10 short weeks. The international legal system, human rights abuses, and the legal system of Sudan are just a few of the broad topics I explored during my fellowship. However, the lesson that stands out the most is the ubiquity of systemic barriers to accessing justice.

My projects with PEJ required me to spend time researching and learning about the history of Sudan, its political, social and legal structures. The country has a tumultuous history and has been in conflict off and on for decades. Most recently, Omar al-Bashir, the country’s dictator that took control through a military coup in 1989, resigned in 2019 following months of civil unrest. Sudanese citizens began protesting in late 2018 after al-Bashir's government decided to triple the prices of goods during a time when the country was already suffering from severe inflation and a shortage of goods. These protests continued en masse for months, resulting in mass arrests of protesters and the government’s use of brutal force to quell the massive demonstrations around the country. Omar al-Bashir finally resigned after five months of these massive protests. 

The violent clashes between al-Bashir’s military and protesters were not the dictator’s first instances of violating human rights. Throughout his dictatorship, al-Bashar became known for instigating atrocious acts against political opponents and ethnic and religious minorities. Notably, al-Bashar became the first sitting head of state to be charged by the International Criminal Court because of his role in directing mass killing, rape, and pillage against Sudanese citizens living in Darfur. Since Omar al-Bashir’s resignation in April 2019, Sudan has been in a transitional period while they negotiate and reestablish a system of government that represents the will of the people.

My work with PEJ focused specifically on appealing death penalty cases. Due to the widespread corruption of al-Bashir’s administration and appointed judges, there are grave concerns that individuals who have been sentenced to death in Sudan were not given proper due process with adequate legal representation. Additionally, death was often used as a deterrent against those who disagreed with al-Bashir’s presidency or policies. Now that the country is in a transitional period, it is important to review each and every one of these cases and overturn the death penalty in as many as possible.

In the U.S., it is readily apparent that racial bias and discrimination concentrates and result in systemic abuses of people of color. Part of this widespread racial discrimination is the creation – intentional or not – of barriers to accessing justice. Identifying these barriers in an existing and developed legal system can seem a bit nuanced at times, but reviewing the state of Sudan’s legal system makes for a perfect corollary for identifying such barriers in the U.S.

During al-Bashir’s dictatorship in Sudan, he placed his political allies and those who agreed with his general biases against non-Muslims on the judiciary. This sort of bias is clear because judges who agree with al-Bashir’s views will interpret the law in a manner consistent with al-Bashir’s own biased views. Plus, if the judges didn’t agree, they were easily replaceable. Building a criminal justice system on these biases will inevitably lead to these biases bleeding through to all aspects of how the law is created and enforced. This transitionary period is meant to weed out a lot of this corruption to build a more equitable and just system.

The U.S. never experienced a formal transitional period after abolishing slavery. Nor was there a transitional period following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or at any other time since the American Revolution. However, there is a lot of pushback against this same narrative in the U.S. – that racial biases that existed at the time the criminal justice system was forming bled through to the creation and enforcement of laws as they exist today.

Much like people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, countries built on transparently racist systems should not assume simply changing laws transforms an entire system and removes bias. There may not be an overtly discriminatory dictator pulling the strings of the justice system in the U.S., but there have been overtly racist presidents, legislators, and judges. To assume racist legacies have not outlived their proponents is to choose to be blind.

Having the opportunity to learn about international human rights law and work with legal practitioners fighting to combat injustice was transformational. Not only did it encourage me to continue pursuing work in the international human rights sector, but it also helped me see the ways in which the legal systems in the U.S. and Sudan are more similar than different.


Chelcie Barnett is a second-year law student at the University of Dayton, where she is also working towards a graduate certificate in sustainability. Her coursework combines areas of human rights and environmental law, with a dash of sustainable development. She also serves as a graduate fellow in the Hanley Sustainability Institute, where her work is focused on examining feasible and practical strategies for building sustainability and community resilience in Dayton and the greater Miami Valley region. After she graduates in 2023, she plans to use her background in biology, environmental health, and epidemiology to find innovative legal and policy-based solutions rooted in sustainability and resilience to protect individuals, communities, and the environment from the impacts of our rapidly changing climate.

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