October 2023

In this interview, Professor Sarah Knuckey - Clinical Professor of Law, Human Rights Institute Faculty Co-director and Director of the Human Rights Clinic - speaks with Bassam Khawaja, - Columbia Law School Smith Family Human Rights Clinic Supervising Attorney and Lecturer in Law – about his journey from Columbia Law School student to international human rights advocate, including his work to combat global inequality and poverty.

You graduated from Columbia in 2015. What did you do after graduation and how did your career develop since?

After law school, I worked as a Sandler Fellow with the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, where I researched and wrote a report on barriers to education for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. I stayed on at Human Rights Watch as Lebanon Researcher for two years based in Beirut, working on the full range of human rights challenges in the country—everything from the health impacts of burning waste on communities to abuses in the military court system.

I then worked as Senior Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, supporting his mandate’s investigations into how countries around the world address poverty and inequality and addressing larger global issues such as how we systematically exaggerate progress on poverty eradication or how climate change impacts people in poverty. After the UN mandate ended, we built on that work by launching the Human Rights and Privatization Project at NYU Law, documenting the human rights impacts of running public services for profit, especially for low-income people—something that we had seen repeatedly on UN country visits. This involved working on everything from the impact of privatizing public buses in the United Kingdom to stealth privatization of healthcare in Kenya. We have an upcoming report this year addressing how human rights actors can more effectively tackle this widespread but under-covered issue.

What brought you back to Columbia to teach in the human rights clinic?

I’ve often said that the Human Rights Clinic was the most important experience I had in law school, and I was delighted to get the chance to come back and teach in it. The clinic is a unique opportunity for students to get to do cutting edge human rights work alongside incredible partners around the world with close supervision and support—and is some of the best possible preparation for a career in human rights that you can get.

In the Clinic, I’m directing a project on poverty and inequality, which is currently partnered with the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and Oxfam America. I’m also co-directing a project on climate change and transitional justice that works with our partners at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies on ways to address longer-term climate concerns as a part of Yemen’s peace process. These projects provide an opportunity for students to do cutting edge work on often-neglected economic and environmental rights while still in law school, collaborate with some of the absolute best organizations working on these issues, and build crucial skills for future careers in human rights.

Why have you decided to focus on issues of inequality and poverty?

For the past five years or so I’ve focused on poverty and inequality as human rights issues. This came out of years of work in which people and communities I was speaking with regularly emphasized that their main concerns were overwhelmingly economic—their ability to work decent jobs, to get enough food for their families, to have a safe place to live. These issues have been comparatively neglected at many of the largest human rights organizations for decades now, but affect billions of people around the world, and are often the cause or result of wide ranges of human rights violations. I’ve come away with a strong conviction that poverty is always a political choice and I think it’s crucial to address this not just through development, philanthropy, or economic policy but as a human rights issue, with binding obligations on states. A large part of my work has been to try and develop better human rights approach and methodologies to doing so, including where it touches on large government policies—everything from fiscal policy to workers’ rights to social support systems to privatization. We’ve tried to bring these approaches into the human rights clinic so students get early experience working with this framework. 

What advice would you offer to students interested in building a career in human rights?

Our time in law school goes by incredibly quickly and I think it’s important to use it to get as close as possible to the work you think you’d like to do after graduation. Luckily, there are amazing opportunities to do so starting in your very first year, whether it’s through the 1L Advocates Program, pro bono work, research opportunities at the Human Rights Institute or Clinic, getting involved in student groups like Columbia Law School Human Rights Association (formerly Rightslink), doing an externship with an organization here in New York or summer work anywhere in the world. Seek out mentorship and guidance. You have access to some absolutely incredible people right here on campus—book office hours and talk to them about the work you’d like to do. Learn or improve a language. Get out of the four-block radius around campus and take the time to explore the city and its surroundings. Take mental health seriously and start building sustainable practices for long-term work. There are so many ways to approach social justice work, and identifying how you personally want to contribute to a movement over the long term is really crucial.

We’ve heard you are an avid and skilled climber. What attracts you to climbing?

When the weather’s good, I try to spend weekends climbing up at the Gunks, just an hour or so north of the city. It’s a great way to take a break from work, spend time with friends, and get out under the sun. It forces you to focus on what you’re doing in that moment and nothing else—and it quite literally shifts your perspective on the world as the trees open up below you. Once the weather turns colder, I like to spend weekends hiking or skiing in the snow up in the Catskills.