n 1977, 23-year-old Stephanie Farrior walked through the doors of the
Amnesty International office in downtown Washington, D.C. “I’d like to
volunteer,” said Farrior. Soon she was hard at work writing letters, in her
case, on behalf of a Chilean man “disappeared” under the reign of dictator
What Farrior didn’t know at the time is that a couple of decades later, she
would head up Amnesty International’s (AI) legal work during the Pinochet extradition hearings. It was a watershed moment in the world of international law, and
affirmed the idea of universal jurisdiction—that former heads of state are not immune from prosecution outside their countries; that some crimes are so heinous
that they can be prosecuted in any court in the world. Farrior, then Amnesty’s
legal director and general counsel, had a front-row seat to history. “It all came full
circle,” she says.
And today? After six years leading Vermont Law’s
International and Comparative Law program, Farrior,
60, says her goal is to train students to be the kind of
lawyers she would have hired at Amnesty International:
smart, but practical; versed in theory, but devoted
to action. “She really wants her students to be on the
front line of trying to transform the world,” says
Joseph Kaifala ’13, who was among the first batch of
fellows in Farrior’s latest project: the Center for Applied
Human Rights, to which she’ll devote her full attention
upon returning to Vermont Law following a sabbatical
this year. “At the end of it all, she brings [theory] back
into reality, and forces you to reconsider the lives of
victims of genocide, or victims of discrimination,” says
Kaifala. “She wanted us to know that we can use international
law to make changes on the ground.”
It’s an approach that makes Farrior—who arrived at
Vermont Law in 2008 with an impressive pedigree in
human rights law—particularly well suited to the South
Royalton campus. “We’ve always taught more international
courses than you would expect from a school
in the woods in Vermont,” says Pam Stephens, acting
director of the International and Comparative Law program.
Bringing Farrior into the mix felt like a logical
step for what was then an emerging program in international
law. “Her work fit the ethic of the school.”
Farrior’s international chops are practically genetic.
Her father was a Foreign Service officer, her mother,
one of the first Western experts in Chinese oracle
bones. The pair met in China, married, and Farrior
was born in Thailand. She spent her formative years
in international schools in Asia. As a high school
junior, back in the U.S., Farrior had her first inkling that she might want to be a lawyer after researching a
term paper on the history of treaties between the U.S.
government and native tribes. “Every treaty had been
broken,” she says. “It was shocking.”
Farrior sensed that legal know-how, paired with advocacy,
could be an effective tool for protecting human
rights. But she took, as she puts it, the “long road” to
law school—in part because she didn’t think she was
cut out for fiery courtroom cross-examinations she
saw in media accounts of high-profile trials. In the
end, that which Farrior thought might limit her in the
courtroom—a humble and diplomatic demeanor—was
a strength in her chosen field. She earned her JD from
American University in 1982, remaining active with
Amnesty International while she studied for the degree.
She went on to serve as a legal expert for AI on
multiple field missions. That work took her to Pakistan
to investigate so-called honor killings and to Yemen
to meet with government officials about unfair trials,
torture, and arbitrary detentions. In 1997, a high-level
mission to Malawi regarding the death penalty resulted
in a massive success: The president commuted all
death sentences, and put a moratorium on executions.
Farrior earned her LLM from Harvard in 1990. In
the years since, she’s contributed to the development
of the international law on gender discrimination, as
well as efforts to establish the International Criminal
Court. Her scholarly publications, on topics such as
gender and racial discrimination, are cited by United
Nations experts in their reports to the U.N., and are
required reading in the international law courses at
Berkeley, Chicago, American, Toronto, and other law
schools. “She’s already made a tremendous contribution,
and I think that contribution is about really
making sure that international law, in the way that it’s
interpreted and practiced, is inclusive,” says Karima
Bennoune, a professor at the University of California Davis
School of Law, who worked with Farrior at Amnesty
International. In fighting for the human rights of
women, and recognizing that human rights violations
could be perpetrated by “non-state” actors, Bennoune
says, Farrior was a trailblazer—“way out ahead of
where the old guard in human rights was.”
Behind the scenes, she’s lauded as a mentor and
friend. In a field that sometimes encourages “prima
donnas,” says Agnès Callamard, the director of the Columbia
Global Freedom of Expression and Information
Project, Farrior is anything but. “She is just a committed
human rights lawyer, who goes to great lengths
to defend and argue her cases but does not necessarily
seek to be in the spotlight,” says Callamard. That
sensibility made her segue to academia a natural one.
Farrior arrived at Vermont Law following stints at
New York University and Penn State law schools. In Vermont, she found a “critical mass” of students interested
in human rights and social justice advocacy.
Under her leadership, the school was included for
the first time in the “Where to Study International
Law” list in the National Jurist publication pre-Law.
Farrior points out that the school offers several opportunities
unusual for a U.S. law school, for which
she credits her predecessor, Professor Linda Smiddy,
and other colleagues. Students can earn international
dual degrees, pairing a JD from Vermont Law with degrees
from foreign law schools. Several classes include
overseas trips with lectures; meanwhile, on campus,
international students are fully immersed in classes
and student activities.
“People sometimes think, ‘Oh, it’s in little South
Royalton, Vermont,’” says Farrior. “But from its founding,
there’s been a strong consciousness at Vermont
Law School about the world and the role we play in it.
It’s one of the most exciting things about the school.
There’s a shared sense among students, faculty, and
staff that we are part of something larger than ourselves.”
That’s perhaps nowhere more clear than it is at
the Center for Applied Human Rights, where Farrior supervises
students working directly with NGOs and IGOs
such as Article 19, Child Soldiers International, and the
Global Initiative for Sexuality and Human Rights. That
means firing up Skype to speak with French-speaking
LGBT activists in Burundi, as Cristina Mansfield ’14 did
as part of her research for a shadow report to the U.N.
Human Rights Committee about Burundi’s compliance
with the International Covenant on Civil and Political
Rights. It means gathering facts from transgender activists
on the ground in Bolivia, as another student did
for a similar shadow report to the U.N.
It’s complicated and time-consuming work. But Farrior
puts the emphasis on practical skills: Fact-finding.
Understanding useful legal frameworks. Writing for
an audience that may not be familiar with the law, and
which may use English as a second, third, or fourth
language. When legal experts can deploy all of those
skills well, Farrior says, they can provide an “entry
point” for activists—and be more effective advocates
themselves. That’s what she wanted to become, when
she began her own career in international law. And
it’s what she wants to help her students achieve, too.
Farrior’s passion for the subject has swayed more than
a few students in her time; she laughs as she recalls
the Penn State student who started law school fully
intending to go into the family business—only to be
led astray by Farrior’s classes on human rights.
Of course, at Vermont Law, she doesn’t have to do
much to recruit would-be activists. “They come readymade,”
A good thing, too, because she says the work of
human rights lawyers isn’t close to being finished.
“Governments change their tactics,” says Farrior. And
lawyers need to keep up.