This summer I will be working with International Bridges to Justice, an international legal nonprofit focusing on criminal defense. Although I was originally planning to work in person with the Phnom Penh office, I am working remotely from Williamsburg. This allows me to work with staff from the Geneva headquarters as well as staff members working in some of the twelve countries IBJ currently has programs in.
I applied for this internship because having the chance to combine my interests and experiences in international relations and development with my professional goals of working in the legal field is very meaningful, and it is not an opportunity I anticipated receiving this early in my law school career.
My interest in international development began in college. As an undergrad, I began studying Chinese in part because of the important role China plays on the world stage. I chose to study abroad in Beijing to sharpen my language skills, gain first-hand experience in a country that came up in the news a lot, and out of a sense of adventure. I chose to intern at an American NGO in Beijing to learn about the realities of working abroad. And after graduating college, I moved to Taiwan to teach English before being accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer and return to China. This time, I lived in a rural town outside Chengdu in Southwest China. There, I taught English at a vocational college. I was the only American and one of the few foreigners in the area I lived in, and for the two years I lived there, I learned to live and work in an unfamiliar, unpredictable, but ultimately incredibly welcoming and dynamic community.
Although I learned a lot, I often found myself listening to the amazing stories my students told me about the challenges they faced. I applied to law school because I wanted to advocate and work directly with individuals on finding solutions.
This past weekend, I attended a virtual panel by IBJ Myanmar staff entitled “Towards a Public Health-Based Approach to Drug Law Enforcement in Myanmar,” and wrote a report based on the event and my research. It featured international perspectives as well as firsthand experiences from lawyers and public health advocates working in Myanmar. The panel was held in recognition of the U.N. International Narcotics Awareness Day. The goal was to encourage criminal defense attorneys to emphasize the importance of taking a holistic approach in defending clients with drug charges. The criminal justice approach in Myanmar to drug charges, even for low-level offenses, is focused on punishment, rather than rehabilitation. IBJ Myanmar encourages lawyers to work with stakeholders, including the client, their family, nongovernmental organizations, and the police, to emphasize the benefits of treating drug offenses from a public health approach because and to make it clear how damaging to public health and safety it is to harshly punish all drug offenses.
The detriment of the “war on drugs” in the United States is clear, but it was interesting to hear how similar policies impact people around the world. IBJ Myanmar gathered feedback from the participating defense lawyers and will plan future training sessions based on their needs, and I hope to be involved.