BASSAM KHAWAJA is the Leonard H. Sandler Fellow at Human Rights Watch, working in the Children’s Rights Division. His work focuses on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), in particular child refugees and the right to education. Before joining Human Rights Watch, Bassam conducted legal research and advocacy on US targeted killings and drone strikes in the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic. He previously interned with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut, the New York Legal Aid Society Immigration Unit, The Advocates for Human Rights, and with Human Rights Watch in the MENA Division and the International Justice Program. He received a bachelor’s degree from Macalester College and a law degree from Columbia University, where he was a James Kent Scholar and Editor-in-Chief of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.
What human rights work are you currently involved in?
I work for the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, where I’m currently working on a report about access to education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. There are currently more than 250,000 Syrian refugee children out of school in Lebanon—the report documents the barriers keeping children out of school, identifies particularly vulnerable groups such as older children and children with disabilities, and advocates for policy changes and humanitarian support to ensure that more children are able to realize their right to an education in the coming school year. Human Rights Watch’s approach focuses on fact-finding investigations and advocacy. For me, this has involved field interviews with Syrian refugees and educators, legal analysis, writing the report and shorter blog posts, advocacy with government officials, humanitarian agencies, and donors, and speaking with the media.
In what ways were you involved in human rights during your time at Columbia Law School?
At Columbia I was in the Human Rights Clinic, where I worked on a project team advocating for greater transparency and accountability for US targeted killings and drone strikes, alongside a coalition of human rights organizations. I also worked with Rightslink, the Human Rights Law Review, the Student Public Interest Network, the International Refugee Assistance Project, and the student-led human rights working group. I interned with Human Rights Watch in Beirut and New York, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the NY Legal Aid Society immigration unit. As a research assistant, I had the opportunity to help design and conduct human rights trainings in Yangon, Myanmar.
What motivates you to be a human rights lawyer?
I see human rights law as a powerful tool for social justice advocacy. I’m drawn to the broad set of strategies and approaches that exist within the human rights framework, and the opportunities for collaboration with local and international partners. The human rights field is also still emerging, with ample opportunities for innovation, critique, and improvement. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
What advice would you have for students interested in pursuing a career in human rights?
Be strategic about your time in law school. Think carefully about the skills and experience that are important to the type of work you want to do, and make sure that you don’t leave law school without them. Take full advantage of the resources and opportunities at the law school. Get as close as possible to the type of work you want to do through internships and experiences outside of the classroom, starting as early as possible. Seek out guidance and mentorship from students, professors, supervisors, and alumni. The human rights community at Columbia is an incredible source of support and inspiration.