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A Voice for International Human Rights

In 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 Augusto Pinochet.

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,” says Farrior.

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.