A Voice for Global Justice
Law Professor Erika George fights to end practices that erode human dignity.
One day in 2003, when Erika George was working at an international law firm in New York City, she got an unexpected phone call. She had put her name in the pool of applicants looking for teaching positions at U.S. law schools, specifying that she preferred schools in Chicago or New York. And now here on the phone was a professor named Mitchel Lasser, telling her she was exactly the kind of candidate his law school was looking for. She and Lasser talked for half an hour—about European trade law and a professor they had both had at Harvard—before he said the school would like to fly her to Salt Lake City for an interview.
“Why would you want to do that?” George asked, puzzled about the destination. And that’s when she learned that Lasser was calling not from Chicago or New York but from the University of Utah, where he was head of the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s hiring committee. She wonders, even now, if he conveniently forgot to mention the school’s name when she first picked up the phone.
Perhaps he knew that Utah might not be the first name that came to mind for a black woman interested in global justice.
“We were very keen to have her at the law school, desperate even,” remembers Tony Anghie, a professor of international law who was on the hiring committee that year. “She had done work in South African human rights, and had also worked with a major Wall Street law firm. Everyone was so impressed and engaged with her.”
George, in turn, was impressed with the U but had reservations about taking the job, so she talked it over with a mentor from her Harvard Law School days, who advised her: “If you have at least one person who is an intellectual soul mate there, that’s probably where you need to be.” George had already met two—Lasser and Anghie.
She’s been at the U for 13 years now. From her office, with its peaceful view of the foothills and her Goldendoodle, Mojo, sleeping contentedly in the corner, she has become a worldwide expert on human rights law and the abuses it tries to eliminate, a long list of miseries that includes child slavery and sex trafficking.
George is especially concerned about transnational corporations and the abuses that occur along their “supply chain”: how the candy bars and cell phones we buy might come to us at the expense of another human’s safety and freedom.
She hopes that her new book, Incorporating Rights, which will be published by Oxford University Press next fall, will provide a comprehensive look at these abuses, as well as the positive steps that some businesses have taken to correct them. Her premise is that business culture can change, lawyers can make a difference, and consumers can urge corporations— through boycott and “buy-cott”—to end practices that erode human dignity.
Her hero growing up was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who as a chief counsel for the NAACP won the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case 16 years before she was born.
George and her sister, who is also a lawyer, were raised in South Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s. Their mother was an elementary school teacher who had grown up in segregated Louisiana; she met their father at the all-black Southern University in Baton Rouge, and both were civil rights activists. “Mom got arrested so many times, the story is that they couldn’t afford to bail her out one more time so they migrated north.”
There were two things George learned early on from her parents: education was crucial, and social justice was worth fighting for. And there was also a third strand to her childhood and adolescence, she says: “I had a tremendous case of wanderlust.”
“My very first trip was to the park by myself.” She guesses she was about 4. “I found a person to help me cross the street, and I talked to all the people in the park, mostly elderly people, and then someone helped me back across the street.” It’s easy to imagine what she was like: a little girl with a giant smile and an ability to put everyone at ease.
By the time she wandered back home, her mother was hysterical with worry. “But I had the best day ever,” she remembers. By the time she got to the University of Chicago in 1988, she had developed an interest in global politics. Her bachelor’s degree was followed by a master’s, also from the University of Chicago, in international relations. She wrote her thesis, a year before the Rwandan genocide, on the emergence of ethnic conflict in post-colonial societies. In 1994 she entered Harvard Law School, where she first discovered her passion for international human rights law—the perfect marriage, she says, of her other two passions: civil rights and the world.
“I did well in law school,” she says, “but I have shockingly high standards for myself.” Partway through her first year she got a B+ in one of her favorite classes; distraught and near tears, she went to the associate director of the school’s Human Rights Program, Kenyan-born Makau Mutua, to tell him she was going to drop out.
“He started laughing at me: ‘You think this is a challenge? Ha!’ It was sort of like, ‘I walked up Kilimanjaro backwards in the snow, and you’re upset about a grade?’ ” When he asked her where she would go if she left law school, and she couldn’t come up with an alternative, she went back to class. The next day she also wandered into her first yoga class, which began a lifelong interest in trying to find balance in her life. (She currently teaches a gentle restorative form of hatha yoga for the Body, Mind, Spirit Department at Snowbird’s Cliff Spa on Saturday mornings—except in the summers, when she retreats to Chicago to mentor law students and spend time with family and friends. And, too, she says, “the pool of potential life partners is more promising” there.)
“I did not enjoy law school,” she freely admits now, hoping that her candor will help current and future students who have lost confidence or are disillusioned by what she calls “the reduction of worth to a letter grade.” George attributes some of her own resilience to her law school mentor, Prof. Martha Minow, who is now dean of the Harvard Law School. George was her research assistant, and Minow remembers her as imaginative and mature. “And very clear about her concerns about the world.”
Minow, says George, helped her see that “the kinds of things that law school counts may not be the kinds of things that are most valuable.”
George fashioned a course of study at Harvard that included several research trips abroad, including a month in South Africa, and an internship with Human Rights Watch. There were also summer jobs and later full-time jobs at big international law firms in Chicago and New York.
“You know,” said her mother on a visit to one of those firms, “in a different generation you wouldn’t even have been able to clean the floors here.”
“And I knew she was right,” says George. “There’s kind of this sense of having privilege and opportunity that so many others didn’t, that so many people worked so hard for others to have. And that it’s important to do something with that.”
But she knew she didn’t want to work in corporate law for the rest of her life. She joined Human Rights Watch full time as a fellow in 1999, and researched and wrote a book called Scared at School: Sexual Violence Against Girls in South African Schools.
“In each of the three provinces visited,” wrote George, “we documented cases of rape, assault, and sexual harassment of girls, committed by both teachers and male students. Girls who encountered sexual violence at school were raped in school toilets, in empty classrooms and hallways, and in hostels and dormitories.” What she saw in South Africa, George says now, is that the girls “were learning how to be unequal.”
The book got the immediate attention of government leaders and the media in South Africa. George was invited to testify before a session of Parliament, and the country has since adopted laws and policies to address the problem.
But that doesn’t mean the problem disappeared. A 2014 follow-up study by the law schools of Cornell University and the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa found that “sexual violence persists in South African schools with disquieting regularity,” and that abusive teachers “do not face meaningful consequences.”
Clearly, human rights advocacy is not for the impatient.
George now teaches international human rights law, constitutional law, and international environmental law, often encouraging her students to tackle real-world problems. Last spring, she assigned her International Human Rights Law class to research and compile recommendations they then submitted to the World Bank, which is in the midst of revising its social and environmental policies.
She serves as co-chair of the law school’s Global Justice Committee, where she directs the Migrant Women Project. Earlier this year, she released a new research report on the project, “Prevention and Protection Partnerships: Empowerment through Rights Education,” co-authored with students. The study examines the plight of refugee and immigrant women in Utah who are victims of domestic violence.
Nubia Peña, a third-year student who worked on the study with Libby Park and Sheena Christman, calls George “an exceptional professor” who reinforced her desire to be “emotionally invested in the plights and rights of women and children, while using law on my side to justify policy reform.”
The report encourages local government agencies in Utah to better understand and employ the national U visa, which provides legal protection for battered women who may be in the country illegally.
George is eager for the report to have an impact rather than, as she says, “just sit on a shelf collecting dust.”
The human rights movement—the idea that all humans should have the right to live a life free of torture and forced labor, a life where they have freedom of religion, expression, movement, a fair trial—took hold after the Holocaust. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It held countries accountable—but it said nothing about the actions of industries or individuals.
Nearly seven decades later, by some estimates at least 21 million people in the world are essentially slaves, and one-third of these are children. Some of these children have been kidnapped and forced to work in harsh conditions.
The cocoa industry is just one example of abuse and the uneven remedies that have tried to halt it—progress that is full of good intentions, weak follow-through, and layers of policy rhetoric. In 2010, representatives from Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, as well as the international chocolate and cocoa industry, signed a declaration to support an international protocol that would be a framework for accountability. But a 2014 Tulane University report found that while some hazardous activities performed by children in cocoa agriculture have decreased, others have actually increased, particularly the exposure to agrochemicals.
Despite the fact that some corporations have budgets larger than those of the states in which they operate, says George, their actions often occur “in a regulatory void.” A binding treaty that would hold them accountable has failed to gain traction, and it’s not clear whether such a treaty could be successfully monitored and enforced anyway. Instead, the U.N. has approved “Guiding Principles.”
George applauds recent British and California laws that require companies to report what they’re doing to combat human trafficking in their supply chains, and President Barack Obama’s executive order to do the same thing for items procured by the federal government. She applauds the work of groups like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (“a radical rock star” group that includes investor nuns).
She hopes her new book will energize consumers and investors—the people who buy chocolates and laptops, T-shirts and stocks—to reward the businesses that are trying to improve their human rights records, and to punish those that aren’t. “I’m interested,” she says, “in how we leverage the power of many.”
Her academic papers tend to be dispassionate and footnote-heavy, using terms like norm-generating activities and operationalize. She is not out to shock with graphic examples, but to reach governmental policy makers, as well as corporate general counsels who might be able to change policy from within. She is after an “evolution in corporate consciousness,” she says.
George is both an advocate working for change, and a professor who has the luxury to step back and analyze. It’s a balance of urgency and distance that she hopes can make a difference. There are hundreds of human rights organizations in the world, all of them trying to undo the awful things human beings do to each other, most of them having limited success. Add to that the fact that international human rights can be a hard sell in America at a time of increasing global fears about terrorism and more focus at home on job growth and a shrinking middle class.
But George is a human rights lawyer. She’s used to the worst. And hopes for the best.
—Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based journalist and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.