A human rights advocate who happens to be a lawyer
In Conversation with Sienna Merope-Synge (BA/LLB, 2011)
For Sienna Merope-Synge, Co-Director of the Caribbean Climate Justice Initiative at the New York University School of Law, the law is a tool in the service of human rights advocacy.
“I think of myself as a human rights advocate who happens to be a lawyer, not as a lawyer who happens to practice human rights law,” says Ms Merope-Synge.
The concept of human rights, or being a human rights lawyer, often conjures up images of glamorous work across borders and within the hallowed halls of international institutions. However, as Ms Merope-Synge points out, this kind of work is a very small subset of the field.
“I think human rights is two things, right? Human rights is a set of legal institutions and forums that exists primarily at the international level.”
“Human rights is also a set of grassroots demands to be treated in a certain way, with dignity, that you can then use a number of tools and types of law and types of advocacy forums and community organising to advance.”
“There’s this fake bifurcation between international human rights law and domestic public interest law. To me, human rights law is as useful as you can leverage it to be.”
For Ms-Merope Synge, self-reflexivity and interrogating the ethical commitments you bring to the work is an important and ongoing process for both students interested in a career in human rights, and professionals in the field.
“I think a question that anyone who wants to get into human rights needs to ask themselves is ‘why are you doing this’?
“Are you doing it to be a lawyer who's interested in this certain set of laws? Are you doing it because you want to be in solidarity with communities and you believe in a certain vision of the world?”
“Our faculty chair at the Global Justice Clinic at NYU, Meg Satterthwaite, has called it Moral Jurisdiction. What is my role in this as a citizen of a rich, predominantly white, imperialist country?”
Ms Merope-Synge grappled with these questions after graduating from Melbourne Law School in 2011 with Bachelors of Arts and Law and a Diploma in Asian Studies.
She was a member of the Melbourne Journal of International Law’s Editorial Board, the winning Jessup International Law Moot team, and worked as a research assistant for a number of professors, including Professor Michelle Foster, with whom she continued to work after graduation.
“I ended up having quite an intimate faculty experience of really getting to know folks and having them be quite committed to what I wanted to do,” Ms Merope-Synge says.
“Law school is a challenging journey, but I feel like it was a really supportive home for me as I figured out what to do with my life.”
After completing her Master in Laws at New York University, specialising in International Legal Studies, Ms Merope-Synge applied for work around the world.
“I think often getting your first job in human rights is the hardest part, then it gets a little easier from there. It was a real hustle. I tapped every network I possibly had. I ran my [U.S. student] visa down to its last days. Eventually I got a fellowship that took me to Haiti.”
Ms Merope-Synge commenced her role as a legal fellow with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in September 2015, eventually becoming the Legal Advocacy Director there.
Not long after, she was part of a team taking the United Nations to court to hold them accountable for the 2010 cholera epidemic sparked by negligent waste management by peacekeepers in Haiti.
“We felt, and I continue to think, that our legal arguments were the correct ones,” Ms Merope-Synge says.
“But I also think that [the litigation] was about making [the] claims legible in a certain type of way. When the cholera outbreak started, it was read as another humanitarian crisis in a place that was having so many humanitarian crises after the  earthquake, rather than as a question of rights, justice, accountability, and responsibility.”
The litigation formed part of a broader movement for cholera justice that was four years in the making when Ms Merope-Synge joined.
She describes her work at IJDH as “a radical thing to try to do, to sue the United Nations on behalf of tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands of people.”
“It's very easy to dismiss that as kind of a left-wing fringe thing, so I think having a very strong legal case, that's backed by very respected international law scholars, with arguments that can’t be easily dismissed, is a huge tool in making it a serious case that has to be engaged with. It's no longer a thing that can just be ignored and swept under the rug.”
However, Ms Merope-Synge also acknowledges that “litigation, particularly when you’re not at all confident you'll win in court, is often only as good as the kind of noise and pressure it generates.”
Therefore, Ms Merope-Synge stresses the importance of media publication of public interest litigation — “Having The New York Times write about a case immediately gets it a different kind of attention and legitimacy.” She also describes the importance of protest movements in Port au Prince by those affected by cholera:
“They’re mutually reinforcing; the litigation makes the movement building stronger, the movement building makes the litigation stronger.”
While the litigation was ultimately dismissed in the United States Federal Court, the movement building and advocacy remained strong.
“I think this battle [over the legal immunity of international organisations when they cause harm] will have to be fought again, because it’s ridiculous that organisations that function effectively as governments for millions of people are completely above the law. That’s a great example of neo-colonialism in action. But I think because there was a movement around cholera justice, when the courts didn’t deliver justice, it didn’t mean the issue [went] away, it meant pressure on the UN to do something out of court.”
Ms Merope-Synge is currently the Co-Director of the Caribbean Climate Justice Initiative in the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law. Initially joining the Clinic as an adjunct to support projects on anti-extractive issues, she now works with communities in Haiti, one of the top five most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world, the neighbouring Dominican Republic and Guyana to build climate change knowledge and resilience, protect land and environmental rights and prevent human rights abuses against communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
“I think the thing that’s so interesting about the climate crisis, from a global south perspective, is that the responsibility for it doesn’t really lie even nationally”, Ms Merope-Synge says. “I think the thing that’s really challenging that I’m still thinking through is what is the proactive agenda that actually takes the fight to where it needs to be? I’m excited to see litigation on this play out.”
Significantly, Ms Merope-Synge highlights the importance of democratising knowledge that she and others similarly positioned have access to, the capacity of academic institutions to act in solidarity with grassroots calls for justice, and the need for advocates to hold Global North governments and institutions with structural power to account.
“Being at an institution like NYU, and I think it’s true of Melbourne Law School as well, there’s a very different kind of power in your public facing advocacy work than if you’re at a small five person NGO.”
“I think that's one of the useful things that these powerful academic institutions can do; be a platform for bringing people together and really use that “brand” in service of demands that would otherwise be easier to marginalise.”
“The work that I'm most interested in, that I think human rights can be a tool in service of, is how can you use the law to confront economic injustice and what I would call modern permutations of colonialism, like the way the aid industry operates above the law, the way that foreign policy decisions get made in Washington DC without people in the country affected having the chance to do anything about it.”
“In many ways, the climate crisis is the predictable and inevitable result of legacies of colonialism.”
Working with communities she is not a part of, Ms Merope-Synge knows that Haitian, Dominican, and Guyanese perspectives should always come first, and that relationships built on honesty and trust are crucial to the success of the work.
Her advice for current students interested in a career in human rights emphasises the need for authenticity when working with impacted communities.
“There’s no magic world where you can be in solidarity with people without any conflict, particularly when you're not from that community. You’re going to get stuff wrong, you have different perspectives. You can only show up as yourself and try to be honest and bring your strengths and weaknesses to a relationship, and try to get to know [people] as genuinely as you can.”
She encourages students to take risks and forge their own paths where possible.
“When I think about law school, I kind of think of a conveyor belt that was taking me in a certain direction. At a certain point, I had to jump off the conveyor belt.”
“There’s no such thing as a risk-free career in human rights, but there's a lot of interesting work out there, and a lot of people who, if you go about it in the right way, will value and benefit from your support.”
Prepared by: Edie McAsey
JD Student MLS