Cynthia SoohooAssociate Professor
For some lawyers, there is a seminal case that becomes the turning point in their vision and life’s work. For Cindy Soohoo, it was Doe v. Karadzic. This precedent-setting case sought compensation for victims of Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his campaign of genocide and torture in Bosnia. It is fitting that Soohoo has now joined CUNY Law as the director of the Law School’s International Women’s Human Rights (IWH R) Clinic—because 17 years ago, one of Soohoo’s key collaborators on the Karadzic case that proved so influential in her life was IWH R cofounder Rhonda Copelon.
Soohoo worked on this case when she was an attorney at Howard, Darby & Levin (now Covington & Burling). The opinion in the case ultimately expanded the ability to sue private actors under the Alien Tort Claims Act.
Although she was always interested in social justice, a career in international human rights was not something Soohoo envisioned for herself when she became a lawyer. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, she remembers thinking about the relationship and differences between minority community experiences and majority community experiences. “I saw the law as a means toward social change,” she said.
While attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Soohoo did not take any courses in global human rights. “I was focused on issues in the United States,” she said, “and I viewed human rights work as something outside of the U.S.”
But her perspective began to change after collaborating with Copelon and the Center for Constitutional Rights on Karadzic. The case led Soohoo to take a closer look at the legal approaches used by those working on human rights advocacy around the world. “Look at the standards for discrimination, for example,” she said. “In the U.S., if you can’t find a smoking gun to prove intent to discriminate, you don’t have a claim. International human rights law looks at whether or not a law or policy has a discriminatory impact.” She continued, “The U.S. courts were becoming more conservative, and I saw human rights as more progressive and consistent with my own views of social justice.”
She joined the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School in 2001 as a supervising attorney and eventually became director of the Bringing Human Rights Home Project at the school’s Human Rights Institute. While there, she built a national network of civil society and non-governmental organizations from across the country that were using human rights approaches as part of their overall strategies. She also coedited a three-volume book called Bringing Human Rights Home: A History of Human Rights in the United States, which was named one of the “best books in the field of human rights” by the U.S. Human Rights Network.
Building on her work at Columbia, Soohoo joined the Center for Reproductive Rights in 2008 as director of U.S. legal programs, focusing on applying a human rights approach to the center’s U.S. work. She explained that “one of the major reproductive rights challenges in the United States is that, while Roe v. Wade is still good law, states have been allowed to pass laws restricting the provision of abortion services and funding. Although women have a right to abortion, their access to abortion services is often dependent on where they live and their socioeconomic status.” At the center, she tried to use human rights standards to get people to think differently about issues and to change attitudes. “One of the questions we asked a lot is ‘How do you have a right to something if you don’t have access to it?’ From a human rights perspective, a state shouldn’t undermine a women’s right to autonomy. It should be ensuring access to make those rights real,” she said. She and her colleagues worked to change perceptions about abortion providers in the U.S. who are often the target of harassment and discriminatory laws designed to prevent them from providing services and to challenge the practice of shackling pregnant women who are in labor at correctional and detention facilities.
Looking for an opportunity to take a more international approach to human rights—and remembering the pathbreaking work of Copelon and the progressive position of the IWH R Clinic—Soohoo joined CUNY Law this fall as the new IWH R Clinic director. “It’s a heavy mantel to take on!” she remarked. Since its inception, “the clinic has been at the forefront of integrating a gender perspective into human rights law,” she continued. “Rhonda was a visionary. She was 10 or 15 years ahead of everyone else,” Soohoo fondly remembered.
As clinic director, Soohoo wants to ensure that students are exposed to a broad range of human rights strategies and forums. Clinic projects will involve advocacy at the U.N., regional human rights bodies, and U.S. courts on a range of human rights issues around the world. For example, the clinic will be working with the Center for Reproductive Rights to protect women’s reproductive health in the Philippines, where laws and policies effectively ban abortion and many forms of contraception. Soohoo also plans to continue focusing on reproductive rights and issues of gender-based violence, building on the existing work of the clinic in Haiti and developing new strategies. Partnering with the Legal Aid Society Trafficking Victims Legal Defense and Advocacy Project, students in the IWH R Clinic will work with victims of human trafficking in New York County, representing those looking for post-conviction relief for prostitution-related convictions.
Soohoo, like so many others, was drawn to CUNY Law because of its mission and committed students. “The students are outstanding. Sometimes law students are not comfortable working on the front lines with communities, but CUNY Law students often are both legal advocates and organizers. Many of them already have a tremendous amount of experience doing human rights work, and they’re incredibly engaged in their communities.” She continued, “It’s amazing to be surrounded by great colleagues at a law school with a clear social justice mission.”