Interviews: Geesu Lee

What inspired you to pursue human rights law?

In 2015, I volunteered to serve as a UN peacekeeper in Lebanon for one year. I was an army officer of the Korean Contingent. Toward the end of my service in Lebanon, there was a suicide bombing in the nearby capital city of Beirut, causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. I felt powerless as human dignity, which I was supposed to protect as a UN peacekeeper, collapsed right next to me. On the very next day, there was another suicide bombing in Paris, carried out by the same terrorist group, again killing and injuring hundreds of innocent people in France.

Over these two consecutive days of bloodshed, the world’s response truly shocked me. I saw the difference in the way that the victims of each attack were mourned. Worldwide media coverage, and the displays of solidarity on social media with pictures filtered with the French flag, contrasted with a nearly unknown tragedy in Lebanon that was so real and personal to me. I felt that a hierarchy of condolences was established as some victims received more compassion than others, depending on their origin, religion, socioeconomic status, or the color of their skin.

Experiencing such turmoil and mixed feelings, I began to think more deeply about human rights and the dignity that everyone deserves to receive as human beings. Realizing that the most vulnerable people were often left without protection and their voices were not heard, I wanted to do something to address the challenges that those people were facing. Going through this series of solemn and eye-opening events sparked my interest in the field of human rights and helped me establish a guiding principle for my career: compassion, respect and fairness. There and then I decided to dedicate my life toward fighting injustice.

Tell us about your journey from Columbia Law School to TrialWatch at the Clooney Foundation For Justice.

At the beginning of my second year at Columbia Law School, I had an opportunity to join the year-long Columbia Human Rights Clinic program. One of the projects that clinic students could participate in was TrialWatch, an initiative at CFJ.

I was immediately drawn to the idea of serving as a trial monitor, observing proceedings against pro-democracy activists and other targeted populations like journalists and women who were unjustly detained and charged with criminal violations for their activism. The role and responsibilities of a trial monitor to ensure judicial impartiality and advocate for reforms were truly appealing to me.

Although trial monitoring would usually involve travelling to a certain country for courtroom observation, due to COVID-related restrictions at the time, I had to work remotely. Despite such limitations, I had ample opportunities to collaborate with local partners, review trial observation notes, conduct legal analyses, and eventually contribute to TrialWatch’s Fairness Report, which assesses and grades the fairness of a trial based on human rights standards.

I enjoyed my experiences while working at TrialWatch and learned a lot as a legal advocate for human rights. Most importantly, I gained a clearer vision of what I was passionate about and how I would like to start my legal career after law school in a meaningful way.

At the end of my third year at Columbia Law School, I was fortunate enough to secure fellowship funding that allowed me to return to TrialWatch. As a legal fellow at the Clooney Foundation for Justice, I am now focusing on trials in Asian countries and contributing to the foundation’s advocacy work by engaging with local and international partners across the region.

Would you encourage people to pursue trial monitoring?

Becoming a trial monitor does not necessarily mean that you must have an extensive background in the legal field or demonstrate established credentials as a lawyer. In fact, anyone who is passionate about promoting justice, human rights, and the rule of law should be encouraged to become a trial monitor.

When I first worked on trial monitoring, I had just completed my first year at law school and hardly understood the substantive work that TrialWatch was involved with. However, the Trial Monitoring Training Program offered by TrialWatch—through a convenient online platform for anyone interested in the subject—was extremely helpful for me to set foot in the field, and other fellow trial monitors and colleagues constantly provided me with great help along the way.

Given that TrialWatch has multiple ongoing projects across the globe and is expanding its outreach, there will always be opportunities for prospective trial monitors. I especially encourage students and young legal advocates to be part of the initiative as learning experiences through trial monitoring are enriching and valuable.