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The United Nations is deploying a team of top human rights experts to South Florida this fall on an important mission. But they won’t be investigating human rights abuses in South Florida. Instead, they’ll be teaching a new graduate program in intercultural human rights at the St. Thomas University law school, which St. Thomas is touting as the first of its kind in the country. About 15 lawyers from across the U.S. are enrolled for the fall semester. Enrollment remains open. The university has arranged to have three U.N. officials teach the program to a select group of practicing attorneys enrolled in the special human rights program, leading to a master of laws or a master of arts degree. St. Thomas officials say only two other schools, American University in Washington and Notre Dame University, have similar programs offering a master of laws degree with a focus on human rights. “I don’t believe you’ll find a program like this anywhere,” says Siegfried Wiessner, a St. Thomas law professor who helped develop the program with the law school’s administration, “and our faculty members are top U.N. people. They are decision-makers.” The fall faculty, which totals 18 internationally acclaimed scholars, judges and practitioners, will include Antoanella Iulia Motoc, president of the U.N. Subcommission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and a professor of law at the University of Bucharest, Romania; Erica Irene Daes, chairwoman of the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations and a professor of law at the University of Athens; W. Michael Reisman, former president of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights; and Myres S. McDougal, a professor of law at Yale Law School. The instructor will take turns teaching the one-year program in one-week rotations. Motoc also chaired the U.N.’s five-member working group on indigenous populations. As the U.N. official with the greatest amount of influence on human rights issues, she has recently worked with her associates on reviewing human rights abuses in Cuba and China. A former chair of the working group on indigenous populations, Daes has helped direct the drafting of many human rights declarations. Most notably, she aided in the human rights negotiations in Mexico recently between the indigenous people of Chiapas and the Mexican government. Mexican President Vicente Fox accepted 26 of the 36 human rights proposals Daes helped to craft. Reisman has written 20 books and more than 200 articles on human rights issues. He hails not from the U.N. but from the Organization of American States, a multinational organization that encourages freedom of speech, free trade and open government throughout the Americas. Last year, Reisman helped indigenous people in Peru and Chile file complaints against the governments of those countries. One of the students enrolled for the program is 47-year-old Cheryl Moralez, who received her law degree from DePaul University in Chicago in May. She’d heard about the program while attending a human rights summer program at Oxford University. She put off job hunting in order to take part in St. Thomas’ program and hopes one day to work with an NGO (nongovernmental organization) helping indigenous people in poor countries. She said what attracted her to the program most was that she will get to interact with human rights experts whom she would never otherwise be able to meet. “Normally, you would have to buy a dozen plane tickets to countries around the world to meet and hear these amazing people speak,” she said. “Now I get to sit in a classroom and have them brought to me.” The program, which begins Aug. 22, will address the “protection of human dignity across social, economic and cultural lines,” according to Wiessner. It offers courses on the various civil, political, social and economic elements of the International Bill of Rights. This will involve the rights of refugees, women, children, indigenous people, issues of religion, international criminal law and international trade, as well as human rights complaint procedures. Wiessner got to know the various members of his human rights faculty through his own human rights activities and work with the U.N. Most recently, he was one of 20 scholars throughout the world chosen to teach a course on human rights for the U.N.’s International Law Fellowship Program at the Hague. There, he met with top students from Communist, former Communist and other nondemocratic countries to school them on the ways of human rights and how a democratic society operates. The students were flown in from places such as the Kazakhstan, Iran and Central Asia and schooled in the details of the U.N.’s International Bill of Rights. It was because of Wiessner’s extensive human rights work and work with the U.N. that he was able to persuade the visiting faculty to take part in his program. “They are my friends,” he said. “This would not have come together as wonderfully as it had, had I not known them personally.” Wiessner also serves as the academic director of the St. Thomas University Human Rights Institute. Formed in 1991, it has helped local governments with immigration and human rights issues. Early on, the institute conducted a study for Miami-Dade County, Fla., officials that looked at the potential impact on local infrastructures such as the local school and judicial systems and government services by incoming Cuban and Haitian refugees. Last year, members of the institute provided refugees (largely Cuban and Haitian) with help in preparing their asylum requests so that they could cut their ties with their former countries and enter the U.S. legally. “It’s all about providing help to immigrants who have had to flee their home countries,” Wiessner said. “We come to the table with humanistic concepts.” For the program’s second year, Wiessner wants to offer the course over the Internet to lawyers around the world. “Why shouldn’t lawyers in Belize or Botswana not be able to get an education on how to protect human rights?” Wiessner asks. “There is no better mission than promoting social justice.”

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