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Cornell Students Present Amicus Brief to Inter-American Court of Human Rights
students testifying at the IACHR in Barbados
Pictured above: Cornell Law students Ayesha Umana Dajud, J.S.D. ’25 (fifth from left, front row), and Maria Alejandra Anaya-Torres, J.S.D. '25, (fourth from left) testifying at the IACHR in Barbados.

This April, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights met for a landmark public hearing in Barbados, the first of its kind addressing the obligations of states to respond to the climate emergency specifically within a framework of human rights law. Amidst a host of prominent experts from around the world filling three jam-packed days of oral arguments, a team of students from Cornell Law School was in attendance to present their own brief.

Their journey to Barbados began a year earlier, when Ayesha Umana Dajud, J.S.D. ’25, learned of an open call for briefs for the historic hearing. Originally from Colombia, Umana Dajud has been involved in international human rights and social justice work for years. She believed it was important to participate.

She brought the idea to Muna Ndulo, director of the Berger International Legal Studies Program, who agreed to act as an advisor, and they began recruiting a team, which came to include JSD candidate Maria Alejandra Anaya-Torres ’25; J.D. students Erin Elliott ’24, Leo Ray ’25, and Jason Bae ’25; and professors Jocelyn Hackett and Allison Chatrchyan.

“I was motivated to participate by the importance of environmental and human rights issues – we are dealing with a challenge that is threatening the existence of humankind and the world, and each of us has a role to play in that struggle,” says Ndulo.

He adds, “This was a great opportunity to expose our students to international litigation, so they can acquire the skills to address these issues.”

The team divided the work of researching and writing the brief into six sections. Umana Dajud chose to focus on states’ obligations to children and future generations. While working at Colombia’s main environmental law firm in 2018, she had followed a Colombian Supreme Court case that recognized the standing of several young plaintiffs to sue the government over deforestation. “Witnessing this case from the outside marked an important precedent in my professional path as a human rights defender, because it highlighted the importance of new generations impacting the world to produce a change. Taking an active role in those fights is imperative.”

Elliott ’24, who recruited the two other J.D. participants, handled the section examining climate information dispersal, “just transition” policies, minimization of economic and non-economic damages associated with climate change, and public environmental education. She also took the lead on researching other groups’ submissions to the court in order to determine areas where the team could provide unique arguments or information.

“I wish that more people understood the fundamental role of environmental education in shaping the way societies advance towards clean energy,” says Elliott. “We have seen the significantly positive consequences brought about when such education is implemented, particularly in encouraging ‘green’ behavior. States already have obligations to inform their people of pending environmental dangers; what good is such an obligation if that information is neither properly disseminated to the public nor understandable in the form in which it is shared?”

After nine months, the brief was finished in December 2023, but the team’s work was not done. It was now time to prepare and practice for the hearing, which they were able to attend in person thanks to the support of the Berger International Program.

In Barbados, Anaya-Torres and Umana Dajud, representing the team, had only 10 minutes to present their brief, followed by 50 minutes of questions from the judges. Given these constraints, they decided to focus their comments on three main topics:  1) children’s rights to a healthy environment and participation in decision-making processes; 2) the need to protect women environmental human rights defenders through a holistic and intersectional approach; and 3) the need to implement adaptation measures to help the Caribbean and climate-induced displaced populations.

“I learned that it is much more powerful, when presenting before the court within a limited timeframe, to focus on a few of your more daring or contentious arguments,” says Elliott. “In a setting with so much global interest, every obvious or safe contention will already be argued—so the best use of one’s time is to push the envelope with a few unique points that will stand out to an exhausted judge.”

Umana Dajud reflected, “It was a great experience, because it allowed young voices to be heard by one of the most important international human rights tribunals. We could sit together with famous experts on the topic and engage in the discussion as peers. I would recommend that any law student who aims to practice human rights look for these enlightening and empowering opportunities.”

As for her main takeaway from the whole experience: “If you have an interesting project and are willing to work hard on it, you will find the team and the support to make it happen.”

She intends to continue defending human rights after earning her J.S.D., with plans to work on international human rights strategic litigation from an international organization or from Colombia, as well as to become a clinical law professor.

Elliott, who graduated this spring, will be starting as an associate attorney at Dechert in New York City. She says, “I hope to carry on with human rights work in a pro bono capacity at that firm, which is ranked as one of the top ten for pro bono in the United States—very excited about that.”

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