Experiencing the Power of International Law in Human Rights and Public Health

By: Juliana Shulman, PHRGE Fellow at UNAIDS

When beginning law school, rarely do you imagine that in your second year you will find yourself in a room full of dozens of countries’ human rights leaders as they review and discuss a document that you helped draft. Let alone a document that – eventually – may improve or save the lives of millions of people living with HIV or at risk of becoming infected with HIV. Yet, that is exactly where I found myself earlier this month, in the fall of my 2L year. Shulman photo

As a PHRGE fellow co-oping in Geneva with UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS), I have had the rare opportunity to see firsthand the power and politics of human rights, law, and public health, intersecting on the global stage. As a member of UNAIDS’ Human Rights and Law team, I have now worked with an international team of human rights lawyers to draft amicus briefs for ongoing litigation about the reproductive rights of women living with HIV. I have explored the ways that criminalization and punitive laws (targeting sex workers, same-sex relations, and drug users) hinder public-health efforts. And I have drafted reports on ensuring zero discrimination against people living with HIV in health-care settings.

But in addition to the work that I have helped advance, perhaps most remarkably, to me, is that I have had the opportunity to witness firsthand how international agencies work.

Like many who go to law school, I came to Northeastern filled with passion for social change and grasping for the tools necessary to make a meaningful difference. Countless times throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and legal training and as an organizer at an international advocacy organization, I have turned to reports, treaties, resolutions, and charters drafted by UNAIDS and other international agencies. I had looked up to these agencies and their immense power with curiosity and a bit of awe.

And yet – almost immediately upon my arrival in Geneva – I was recruited by a colleague to help draft one of these very documents. In particular, I helped research and draft a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the International Guidelines on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights with a high-level panel on the current status of human rights and HIV.

The Guidelines were a groundbreaking document when they were introduced; twenty years after their original introduction, the HIV epidemic, global public health, and the human-rights perspectives have changed immensely. While the resolution and the resulting panel seemed fairly trivial at first, they lay the necessary groundwork to have a much deeper global discussion of the current human rights issues at the core of HIV prevention, testing, and treatment, particularly for key populations impacted by HIV around the world.

Suddenly, I was not simply researching U.N. resolutions from a law school library. Now I was on the other side of the table, providing technical assistance and strategizing for political support as UNAIDS helped quickly usher the resolution from a mere idea to a meaningful vote. I was answering emails from countries’ representatives to the Human Rights Council, and helping to provide the legal and public-health background to advance this issue. I was watching as countries formed small alliances on particular issues contained within the resolution, standing together to voice their support for or their desire to omit specific words, sentences, and ideas.

This is how I found myself – mere weeks into my internship – in a room of dozens of languages and backgrounds watching the United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously agree to adopt a resolution that I helped craft, research, and revise, after having witnessed seemingly endless political – and sometimes heated – discussions about everything from LGBTQ rights to the rights to comprehensive sexual education. I watched as international politics merged with the linguistic powers of the law, on something that, ultimately, may have a substantive impact on individuals’ experiences and public health.

While the mysterious world of international law is, admittedly, still quite a mystery, it is all becoming a bit more clear. The veil surrounding international agencies has been just a little bit lifted to reveal the complicated and frankly, sometimes dreary, world of politics that lays underneath.  As I prepare to return to law school next month, I look forward to bringing these experiences into the classroom and into my sprouting career in public health law.

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