Welcome New Students

As I think I’ve made clear over the recent months, I really had a fantastic summer in Washington, D.C.! I was able to get a real, solid, substantive understanding of some major issues in environmental law, write a lot, research even more, and enjoy the excitement of living in Washington for ten weeks. I was able to host a few UO law friends and met others (Emily Follansbee, Scott Marcinkus, Sarah Altemus-Pope, Alison Gary, and others) for happy hours and outings throughout the summer. But most importantly, I feel like I really got the chance to better understand what a career in environmental law might actually be like and how I could contribute once I graduate from Oregon. For those of you preparing applications for your 2L summer–whether it be through OCIs, externships, or other means–in environmental law or elsewhere–I think you have this to look forward to.

Even more so, I was able to develop relationships with some real experts in the environmental field. Beveridge & Diamond engages itself in very important environmental law work, employs some of the smartest people I’ve met, and hires the experts in field. I was overwhelmed with its in-house expertise, which in turn gave me the chance to learn from the very best. Of course, it was a challenging work environment, so I worked hard all summer, but I felt like it really paid off. I return to Oregon with a better understanding of the intricate web of statutes, regulations, and case law that makes up the environmental law field, and a job after graduation. Definitely a productive and enjoyable summer!

As we return to school and many of your are beginning your job search process, don’t hesitate to stop by the hallway or in the library–I’m happy to share even more of my Washington experiences!

-Nadia Dahab


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Nearing the End

Several of the few thousands signs seen in San Salvador on the National Day for Missing Children.

I landed in San Salvador 8 weeks ago today, and while I hate to speak in clichés and say that this has been an “unforgettable journey”, I don’t know what else to say.  It is common knowlege that the human species as a whole is very adaptable, and I personally consider adaptability to be something I’m good at.  I haven’t been all over the world, but I have traveled a fair amount (both domestically and in other countries) and I feel like I can be relatively comfortable and “at home” in many situations.  But I have to admit I’m surprised at how comfortable I have come in this hot, hectic, smoggy city where I stick out about as much as anyone could.  I am looking forward to going back to my life in Eugene, my house, girlfriend, pets, etc., but I will miss El Salvador and I definitely plan to return.

As I write this I have 7 more days of work with Pro Búsqueda and approximately 9 more days in San Salvador.  The work so far with this NGO has been a balance between the mundane and the surreal-both very important but very different for me.  I spent the first week working with the Executive Director on fundraising and political outreach (focusing on US organizations and the US embassy) and in my downtime did translation of grant proposals and the Association’s website (i.e. the mundane).  Then the first weekend I was invited to come to one of the psycho-social workshops that they hold for victims and their families (the surreal).  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but was quick to say yes, and while I have done many things I could write about I will focus on this workshop:

I originally decided to intern here to learn more about the legal reparations that Pro Búsqueda seeks on behalf of the victims of forced disappearance and to investigate the problems they encounter related to the corruption and impunity in the Salvadoran government, especially the judicial system.  But after a week of reading and translating documents I was repeatedly reminded of the broad nature of the work they do and how multi-disciplinary human rights work is.  From an academic standpoint, I admit I was not particularly interested in fundraising or psychosocial workshops, but what I previously knew only on an intellectual level soon became very real to me: these victims need far more than a lawyer.

What I definitely didn’t expect was that this was the women’s workshop (focusing on issues such as domestic violence, gender-based education and stereotyping, sexual and emotional abuse, etc.) and that I was the only male in the room (there was a mens workshop the previous week).  I sat for 6 hours with three victims of forced disappearance and about 10 other family members of missing children that had either already been found or were still being searched for. The ages ranged from a 10 year old whose several aunts were kidnapped (and the pain was taking a continual toll on her family) to a 60+ year old Assemblywoman in the national legislature whose child was taken almost 30 years ago.  The three women who were themselves victims, who had been “found” by Pro Búsqueda, were in their 30s and, while their stories were somewhat different, they had all been taken at gunpoint by uniformed soldiers from their parents when they were young.  It was led by a Psychologist who works with Pro Búsqueda and several PB employees and we went through different checklists and discussions about gender stereotypes and how gender-related problems affected each of them in their efforts to live a “normal” life and deal with the physical or emotional wounds they have.  At first almost all of them (me included) seemed a little unclear about how I fit into the group, but as we got going the room became comfortable and everyone seemed willing to share.

Being a white, middle class, 28 year old male who lives in Eugene, OR, it at first felt odd to answer questions like “how often are sexually explicit or derrogatory jokes made at you and how do you feel they impact your self esteem?”  Not to mention that these are sensitive issues and I want to choose my words very carefully, which is much harder for me in Spanish.  But things quickly became more comfortable and I found it to be extremely valuable.  The problems inherent in these types of cases are astronomical and multi-faceted: many of these women have been looking for their children for over 25 years and have run into road blocks and in many cases actual verbal abuse from all levels of their own government: everything from thick layers of red tape to literally being told they should stop making up fantasies and get back in the house where they belong.  Along with that, the “found” children suffer not only from the lack of reparations or even legal recognition of the abuse they suffered from their own government, but also from serious psychological and identity-related issues, being torn by who they now know they were and who they have been brought up to be.  I could write much more about this experience, and hope to some day, but in reality it was just one day in an seemingly unending string of surprises that has made up this trip.  I am as of yet unsure whether my summer here is more beneficial for my legal education or my international studies degree, but I do know one thing: However I use these experiences in the future, I am certain that I made the right choice by coming here.

Sunset at the main Cathedral in León, Nicaragua.

Final notes:
Last week, I took a two day trip up into the mountains of Chalatenango (north of El Salvador), which is a region where many of the dissappearances took place and where the Director of Pro Búsqueda is from (I stayed with her 80 year old mother and two sisters).  The office was closed last Friday and this Monday for the Agostinas vacations, and I took the chance to visit Nicaragua for the weekend: two nights in León and one in Managua.  I enjoyed Nicaragua but was surprised how happy and safe I felt coming “home” to San Salvador.  My father lands here next week, and I will be ending this trip by traveling with him to Guatemala and flying home in early September.  Because I´m doing the joint J.D./M.A. program, I will spend the 2011-2012 school year working on a Master’s degree with the International Studies department at UO, with a focus on human rights, corruption, and impunity.  So that means my classes don´t start until the end of September!

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Returning Home Soon As a Published Author

Author Nadia Dahab on the streets of Washington D.C.

What a great end to the summer it has been.  Work at Beveridge & Diamond has been busy as ever.  Just last week, I finished an assignment where I was published–no kidding!  I wrote a few short articles for a firm newsletter it distributes to many clients and potential clients, and I finished an article that will be published in an American Bar Association Journal!  Writing about everything from toxic tort law to class actions, land use permit extension acts and natural resource damages, the summer has definitely been full of opportunity.

The Library of Congress

I also finally had the chance to see more of Capitol Hill and the surrounding area.  Admittedly, it’s been hard to get out and sight see with all of the things that, between work and OLR, I have going on.  But I just can’t get enough of how much happens out here, and it has definitely been interesting to see the nation’s capital hard at work.

Headed back to Oregon soon, though, and boy will it be great to get out of this heat!

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Bike & Build in Duluth

We recently built with Habitat for Humanity and Northern Communities Land Trust in Duluth, MN.  It was a great day and the visual results of our labor were incredible.  We weeded a heavily overgrown front yard, installed an area for perennials to be planted next year, and repaired and painted a picket fence.  The local Fox TV affiliate came out and covered the story….

Bike & Build in Duluth!

I continue to be inspired by the build days we’ve had along our journey.  It’s incredibly refreshing and rewarding to put in a little manual labor to help troubled communities inch along in the direction of stability and safety.  As I begin to think about post-law school careers, I hope I’ll be able to find something that provides both intellectual and physical satisfaction.

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Back to Work After a Break in Honduras

Author Will Johnson looking over the Caribbean sea in Tela, Honduras.

After visiting the famous Copán Mayan ruins in south-western Honduras, I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday last week staring out at the Caribbean sea in Tela, Honduras.  Tela is not as small as I thought from what I had read about it, but it is definitely less touristy than other parts of the northern coast, and the beaches were beautiful.  After a long day of traveling we dropped our bags in the first cheap beach hotel we could find and spent several hours floating in the calm, clear waters of the Caribbean (a welcome change from the relatively dirty and very rough waters of the Pacific in el Salvador).  We later splurged for a nice hotel the night before my birthday (built like a lookout tower that provided amazing views of the whole town and beach, with our room and balcony sitting about 5 floors above the next highest building in town). Despite the incredible heat near the coast we had an amazing time.

We returned to San Salvador over the weekend, and, after sending Laura to the airport Monday morning, I began my work with Pro Búsqueda, a Salvadoran NGO that has been working since 1993 to locate children who were forcibly “dissappeared” during the war (see probusqueda.org.sv for more info, but FYI the site is almost completely in Spanish).  The work they do is as interesting as it is complex and varies from what I would consider traditional private investigative work to political and social activism, judicial reform, lobbying, education, and even psychological services for victims and their families.  The organization has proven the existence of nearly 900 “disappeared” children and reunited close to 400 of them with living family members, sometimes with the parents who stood at gunpoint and watched as the military walk away with their crying child.

The logo of Pro Búsqueda, the NGO Johnson will work with for four weeks.

Through this investigative work, they have also uncovered the systematic nature of forced dissappearances in El Salvador during the war and have presented the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with evidence of a complex but organized business that benefited and involved local lawyers, public and military officials, and even state institutions.  While the cases vary (they assume there are several thousand cases), the children were often taken from parents or family members during military operations in the mountainous regions (especially the northern Chalatenango and eastern Morazán regions) and then sold as “orphans” to unsuspecting families in the US and Europe.  Some were even raised by military officers themselves, all the while being told that their families had been killed during the war.

To this day Pro Búsqueda struggles to have the Salvadoran government make major legal changes, find anyone legally culpable for these crimes, or even support their work in any way, even though the IACHR recently held the state responsible for the disappearance of several children during the war (see the case of the Hermanas Serrano-Cruz, available on the IACHR website).  But I met a few weeks ago with the head of the human rights department at the Salvadoran State Department, and he gave me hope that at some point in the near future the current government will formally recognize the state’s involvement in these horrible HR abuses.

I realize that I am not qualified or fluent enough in Spanish to do some of the most interesting and complicated work they do, but I am happy to have the experience of working with them and confronting the problems inherent in human rights law and post-conflict Central American politics.  I am also helping them with some often mundane, but very important work such as grant writing, translation of documents and their website, and initiating contacts with US-based human rights organizations and even the US embassy.  To be honest, it is hard to sit in an office after a month and a half of moving around so much, but I am extremely greatful for their willingness to give me an inside, honest view of human rights work in Latin America.  I only hope I can help them in some way and return the favor that I feel like they are giving me.

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Updates From D.C.

A group from Beveridge & Diamond takes a break from the city at Shenandoah National Park.

Wow, the summer has flown by so quickly!  But it really has been great–I have had some really great experiences with Beveridge & Diamond, have worked on some really fascinated projects, and have actually had a chance to see the city a bit!

Two weeks ago, a group of us from B&D went out to Shenandoah National Park for a day hiking trip.  It was great to get out of the city, see the Virginia countryside, and spend some time outside of the office with some of my coworkers.  Of course, all of the Summer Associates attended, as did a number of the firm’s partners.  The hike was about six hours–definitely a challenge–and really made me realize how many gorgeous places there are all throughout this country!  It’s been easy to get wrapped up in D.C. life this summer, so the trip out to the trails was much needed.

Visiting U of O School of Law students Alex Gibney and Kira O'Connor with author Nadia Dahab on the balcony at the Newseum, looking over the National Mall.

Last weekend, Alex Gibney and Kira O’Connor (both rising 3Ls) came to visit me out here!  It was really comforting to see some friendly faces, and we did so many of the touristy things that I’ve meant to do all summer long.  We went to the National Archives and read the Constitution (the real thing!), visited the American History Museum, the Newseum, ate at Good Stuff Eatery (D.C.’s best burger), and visited Georgetown.

As far as work goes, the best part of this summer has been seeing the practical side of the theoretical education that I’ve been working so hard at.  My background (pre-law school) is in engineering, and in law school, I’ve missed the technical part of my previous job.  At B&D, I’ve seen my two worlds collide, as we work with wastewater treatment plants on Clean Air Act compliance, litigate the merits of biosolids and solid waste importation ordinances, and apply the Clean Water Act to a technical issue of stormwater discharges.  It’s been so fun and has definitely given me a glimpse of what I hope to do more of in the future!

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A Hard Days Work

Bike & Build volunteers work on demolitioning and removing an interior chimney in Beloit, Wisconson.

On the 16th of July, our group of Bike & Builders had the chance to volunteer in Beloit, Wisconsin, with the nonprofit group Community Action.  I was placed on a team of six and tasked with the demolition and removal of an interior chimney in a house constructed in the 1920s.  Let me preface the rest of this entry by noting that the temperatures in Wisconsin are at a 15-year high, with the mercury hovering around 95 on the day we were working.  To make matters worse, the humidity in Beloit was nearing 90% on our work day.  The work was gritty, grimy, sweaty, and tough, but was a great opportunity to make a tangible difference in a tough neighborhood.

A Bike & Build worker in Beloit, Wisconsin.

When I say “tough,”  I mean there were drug deals going on next door, liquor bottles scattered throughout the streets, and one block from the scene of a murder that had occurred a week before our arrival.  The day was our harshest experience of the trip so far, but really put things into perspective.  It’s become easy to feel like we’re traveling through the world in our own, safe, harmonious little Bike & Build bubble.  The experience working in such a tough neighborhood in Wisconsin made the cause we’re supporting much more real.  Thanks to those in Janesville who hosted us, and to the brave and dedicated folks of Community Action who organized our work day.

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Month One Ends at Vice President’s Office

Will Johnson (right) meets with Vice President Sanchez Ceren (left) along with Professor Mauricio and Lidia Chica, a retired Salvadoran teacher and education activist.

Last Friday marked my 30th day in El Salvador and is also the official end of my academic work with Professor Mauricio of the Stop Impunity Project.  Also on Friday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Vice President’s office for a cup of coffee and a brief meeting about the successes and continuing problems inherent in the Salvadoran education system (he is also the Minister of Education).  While education is not necessarily the focus of any of my work or my academic interests, I was happy to sit and mostly listen as two other US grad students (working on MA’s in international education) asked most of the questions.  He also addressed my questions regarding US support and cooperation with his current education programs and how his government is addressing the recent security problems in schools (there were almost 100 murders of students in 2010 and the violence is continuining this year).

Vice President Sánchez Ceren has an intersting past that includes leading an armed resistance movement before the civil war officially started and later being a signatory to the 1992 Peace Accords on behalf of the FMLN.  I have read and heard a fair amount about the man and was very interested to meet him, but to be honest I do not have a lot of patience with politicians (here or in the US).  I understand why they often act the way they act, but they have a unique ability to talk a lot without saying anything.  Sanchez Céren is part of the first leftist government ever to exist in El Salvador and is thus in a very tenuous position in terms of trying to push for the FMLN’s long standing social and economic goals while realizing that the economic and political power still sits mostly with those from the right.  Thus, I understand the position he is in and did not expect to get any extremely difficult questions answered, but I must admit that I have trouble listening to broad based talking points (that often sound great but don’t really answer the questions I have) whether I am watching NBC news or sitting across the table from a very powerful and interesting person in San Salvador.  But I do not mean to complain – I am amazed that he was willing to talk with us and was impressed with his overall warmth and interest in us and what we were doing.

I also spent each afternoon last week meeting with a local Human Rights lawyer and being walked through five of the most important and emblematic HR cases that have happened in El Salvador (or at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, focusing on a Salvadoran issue).  The lawyer was young, energetic, and fascinating, but I must admit I learned more about corruption, red tape, and foot dragging within HR regimes than I did about how to actually win cases.  But since corruption and impunity are two of my major interests and are what brought me to El Salvador in the first place, the information she was able to share with me and her approach to teaching were both well received and much appreciated.

Will Johnson with his girlfriend Laura, who flew in to visit on Wednesday, at the Laguna de Alegría.

On Wednesday my girlfriend Laura and her younger brother landed in San Salvador, and starting Friday night we began our travels together (I have about a 10 day break before my internship begins, and we are hitting the road).  We first went to the small town of Alegría and visited the nearby lagoon, which sits in the crator of volcano.  Tonight (Sunday, 7.17) we are in the northern mountain town of La Palma and will cross the border tomorrow into Honduras.  Hopefully we will make it to the Caribbean coast by mid week so I can have a relaxing birthday on the beach (Friday).

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Thoughts From the Road

Kyle Smith riding the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls.

One thing I’ve been struck by on this trip has been the high number of luxury items that’ve been offered for sale in peoples’ front yards along our route.  Hot rods, boats, jet skis, and other “niceties” have been parked along the highway at regular intervals throughout New York and Pennsylvania.  These items serve as a constant reminder that life in this country isn’t as easy as it was five years ago, and that as a result, Americans are reevaluating what matters most in their lives (call me optimistic).  One silver lining of an economic downturn?  Perhaps.
For me, this trip has provided a chance to reevaluate my own priorities and reflect on what’s most important as I prepare to enter a new chapter of my life after law school comes to a close.  While working “in the real world” before enrolling in law school at Oregon, I accumulated a lot of stuff.  At the time, I felt ready to settle, to put down roots, and to begin the process of building a “life.”  I don’t feel that way now.

My yearning for adventure and the unknown grows every day on this trip, and a large part of me is anxious to get back to Eugene and begin parsing out the things I own that I no longer want or need.  Simplicity is a word I’ve come to value so much after living out of a duffel bag for the past month, and I’m looking forward to transferring that perspective to my life at home in Eugene.

Career-wise, I’ve realized that salary is of little importance, so long as I’m comfortable in my day to day life.  This realization has been terrific, as it opens up a wide array of new job opportunities and experience that might have otherwise gone unexplored.  I’m looking forward to returning to Eugene and having a nice, long talk with our new Assistant Dean for Career Services, Rebekah Hanley!

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Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office

The banner outside of the Ombudsman office, which includes Professor Mauricio's Stop Impunity Project.

Last week, I participated in a seminar on the human rights (HR) situation in El Salvador that took place at the Escuela Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, a school within the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (the highest HR authority within the Salvadoran government).  The seminar was roughly 8 to noon every day, and each day focused on a specific HR situation (e.g. Rights of women/girls, rights of indigenous peoples, security/violence as a threat to HRs, education rights, and the environment).  Several days we heard from Ombudsman within the various thematic departments, but we also heard lectures from attorneys who fight for Human Rights on behalf of NGOs and a Professor who works with Salvadoran indigenous populations.  The class was composed of myself, several other students from the US, about a dozen students from the University of El Salvador, several local activists and a few lawyers.  It was a great experience both in terms of knowledge and perspective gained and in terms of making connections within the HR world here and in Central America in general.

However, I was a bit dissapointed when the week ended, and I came to the conclusion that here in El Salvador, as with many other HR regimes around the world, there continues to be a huge (and possibly increasing) gap between acknowledging the HR situation and making formal recomendations, and actual implementation of necessary changes.  When the Ombudsman, Dr. Menéndez Leal, personally asked me for a comment on how the seminar went and how it could be improved in the future, I told him that what I felt was missing was a more in-depth discussion of how the Ombudsman´s office (and the Salvadoran state in general) was actually able to fight against HR abuses. I hesitate to say this, but I must admit that I am still slightly unsure of how victims of major abuses can use the Ombudsman´s office (or the Salvadoran legal system at all) to find any form of real reparations or even public vindication of the abuse(s) they suffered.

I was hoping we could walk through at least a case or two and see what steps the office took, where they ran into resistance, and where they were successful.  Without that I am unable to conceptualize what is working and what isn´t working, and how (if at all) I or anyone else can help make the system better.  Dr. Menéndez Leal quickly admitted to the foot-dragging within the government (even the current leftist FMLN governrment) and reminded me that out of all the victims that come to their office to report HR abuses, the vast majority (in fact almost all) bring current reports against state agencies (e.g. the National Civil Police or the Attorney General´s office).  But later that night, over beers and more papusas, he reminded me that not that long ago (20 years) even the idea of a HR Ombudsman in El Salvador seemed impossible, and he explained that for all the legal authority they technically have the situation is, as it always seems to be, completely political.  After nearly every conversation with officials here, I have heard the same response: those with power, from both the conservative and “liberal” factions, are either explicitly or implicitly opposed to working together towards major political and legal reforms.  Each time I hear this I am reminded of the ridiculous particianship within the US Congress right now, and I realize how similar we are to many other seeminly different peoples around the world.

Will Johnson at the Izalco Volcano.

Other experiences:
On Saturday, I drove west from San Salvador to the famous “Ruta de las Flores”, visited the Izalco volcano, the Tazumal Mayan Pyramid, and went to Professor Mauricio´s hometown of Ahuachapan.  On Sunday I went to visit a University student who lives in Puerta la Libertad, and she took me and a few friends to a beach (Palmarcito) where she recently competed in a surf competition.  It was small and not touristy, the kind of beach I could have never found on my own, and I enjoyed a lot.  That is until we missed a bus back to San Salvador and ended up catching one of the last busses on a Sunday night, which was very crowded.  For anyone who hasn´t been in Central America, imagine your old elementary school bus (quite literally), painted with crazy colors and Jesus pictures, with a mix of rap and reggaeton music blasting, every possible seat taken and (according to my count) 32 people standing in the aisle, smashed together and going 60 MPH through windy highways for about an hour.  But, even though it was uncomfortable, part of me enjoys those experiences because they are the ones I’ll never forget.

The last week with Professor Mauricio:
This coming Friday ends my time with Professor Mauricio.  This morning we met with a famous Salvadoran author (Manlio Argueta) who is also the director of the national library, and each afternoon this week we will meeting with a local attorney to discuss her experiences trying to fight for human rights.  She works for several NGOs, and is especially involved with the Madelein Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights in their work discovering and exhuming mass graves not included in the 1993 UN Truth Commission.  I have met her before, but only socially, and I am looking forward to possibly learning more about what it really means to fight for HRs in this country from within the legal system.  We also have a scheduled meeting the the Vice President of El Salvador on Friday morning, Salvador Sánchez Ceren.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed though, because I realize how low we are on his list of priorities and know that it could be cancelled at any time.

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