By Sarah Galer
Photo courtesy of International Justice Mission

Gary was a terrific student and an interesting person... but what he’s done since he graduated has been not just impressive but truly inspiring.””
—David Strauss
Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law

When lawyers for International Justice Mission first encountered a Kenyan inmate named Peter in late 2009, he had been languishing in prison without bail for 12 months on charges of robbery with violence—an offense punishable by death.

His purported crime? Picking up a stolen coat that he found discarded on the side of the road. Peter, a mentally handicapped man, was thrown in prison even though the coat’s owner had made it clear to authorities that Peter was not one of the armed thieves who had stolen the coat the year before.

Cases such as this led Gary Haugen, JD’91, to found International Justice Mission in 1997. His goal is to help poor people caught in the often ineffective public justice systems of developing countries—a cause he passionately feels should become a new human rights mandate.

“Without effective public justice systems to deliver the protections of the law to the poor, the great legal reform efforts of the modern human rights movement rarely have any impact in the lives of those who need these systems the most,” Haugen said earlier this year at a lecture at the Law School. Haugen credits the Law School for allowing him to explore international human rights law and public service through courses, clinical work, summer internships, and collaborations with his colleagues.

Thanks to the efforts of Haugen’s group, Peter was acquitted of all charges on New Year’s Eve 2009. But the search for justice in such desperate cases has become Haugen’s lifelong pursuit.

Legal Roots of Reform

Haugen had worked in the 1980s on the National Initiative for Reconciliation in South Africa, and he examined human rights cases in the Philippines for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. He says the Law School shaped his legal career by instilling an interdisciplinary approach that helped him appreciate the far-reaching effects of the law.

In 1994, while working for the U.S. Department of Justice, Haugen served as the United Nations’ investigator-in-charge during the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, from which he gained a deeper understanding of how the poor could be victimized.

In founding International Justice Mission, Haugen says he has found purpose in his vocation in the law by helping people throughout the world claim their legal rights. “If your life in the law does not have a great purpose, it will not produce great joy,” Haugen told Law School graduates in 2009.

After more than a dozen years, Haugen’s group has grown to more than 300 professionals working in their native communities in 13 countries, including Rwanda, Bolivia, India, and Cambodia. In fact, it has come to the aid of nearly 14,000 people, including victims of slavery, sexual violence and trafficking, illegal land seizure, illegal detention, and citizenship rights violations.

For some perspective on the public justice hurdles in many developing countries, consider that in the United States, there is about one lawyer for every 768 people. However, in places like Cambodia, the ratio is closer to 1 in 22,000, and very few of those who do practice law offer to serve the poor. This lack of legal representation is just one of many hurdles for average people’s access to justice, along with the rampant corruption, cronyism, brutality, and theft within their public justice systems.

“Gary was a terrific student and an interesting person back then, but what he’s done since he graduated has been not just impressive but truly inspiring,” says David Strauss, the Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law, and one of Haugen’s favorite professors at the Law School.

Giving Back

Haugen’s reputation as someone with ambitious thoughts about the developing world led former dean Saul Levmore, the William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law, to invite Haugen to teach a class this past spring at the Law School.

“He does not simply tackle problems that come through his door, but instead he sees the struggle of the person he encounters as providing evidence about larger systems that need to be reformed or at least thought through,” Levmore says of Haugen. “In this way, he was capable of teaching our students not only about human rights but also about the lawyer’s craft and social role at the highest level.

“When I met Gary it became obvious that he was also a charismatic person who could inspire others to take what they learned here and do some serious good. He is the best ambassador for public interest law that I have ever met.”

Haugen jumped at the opportunity to teach the class, “Human Rights and Rule of Law in the Developing World.”

“This is a massive, unexplored area of intellectual inquiry that has life-or-death implications for hundreds of millions of people in the world,” says Haugen. “The Law School gave me a chance to explore it more deeply with brilliant students and innovative scholars.”

Originally published on October 4, 2010.