Carmen Atkins and Roxanna Altholz
Everything about the April 21 luncheon that honored Carmen Atkins ’08 for winning this year’s Sax Prize made clear why she received it.
A packed audience came to pay tribute to her achievements. International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC) associate director Roxanna Altholz ’99 fought back tears while praising her legal acumen and unwavering dedication. And when Atkins concluded the event with her own moving speech, the crowd instantly rose for a prolonged standing ovation.
Altholz said Atkins “arrived at the clinic possessing the qualities that all of us desire in our students: intelligence, determination and a passion for social justice. Over the last four semesters, Carmen’s skills in promoting teamwork, remaining poised in the face of deadlines and demands and making good decisions earned the respect of everyone who worked with her. In fact, each of her teammates requested that I nominate her for the Sax Prize. I did not need to be convinced.”
The Sax Prize for Excellence in Clinical Advocacy was established in memory of lecturer Brian M. Sax ’69, and is awarded annually to a graduating student in a Berkeley Law clinic who has demonstrated excellence in advocacy, sound professional judgment, and reflection on the lawyer’s role. A faculty committee selected Atkins among a group of nominees from the law school’s various clinics.
Giving Victimized Families a Voice
At IHRLC, Atkins has played a vital role helping Fundación Myrna Mack, a human rights organization, try to hold Guatemala accountable for human rights violations that occurred during its internal armed conflict in the 1980s. She is part of a team representing family members of 28 victims who were forcibly “disappeared” by Guatemala’s military high command.
These families have filed suit against Guatemala in the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, with the case focused largely on a document known as the Death Squad Dossier. Written by Guatemalan military intelligence, it details the disappearances of 183 people by security forces.
Under Altholz’s supervision, Atkins excelled at a diverse set of difficult tasks: researching and drafting key legal pleadings, conducting the direct examination of an expert witness at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission in Washington D.C., and helping to depose more than 20 family members and witnesses in Guatemala.
“Carmen is an inspiration and an example of the kind of young person we need to help us bring truth and justice to Guatemala,” said Helen Mack, president of Fundación Myrna Mack. “Her work is a great credit to the clinic, the law school, and human rights lawyers everywhere.”
Although the dossier contained details implicating individuals who were high-ranking political and military officials—some of whom continue to wield power—no one has been held responsible. Atkins noted that many victims of the disappearances lost their lives advocating for social justice, and that their families have risked their own lives seeking answers.
“Nevertheless, in spite of these enormous risks, the families have not given up on their search for justice and continue to fight even 25 years after their relatives’ disappearances,” she said. “Contributing to their representation is undoubtedly an honor. Working with these families is also an immense responsibility. They have entrusted us with their lives’ struggle, and vindication of their rights depends on the quality of our work.”
Something more than a general wish to help the disenfranchised inspired Atkins to join IHRLC as a 2L—and to work there four consecutive semesters. Her own family fled Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1970s, and moved from Colombia to Ecuador in 1990 because of Colombia’s mounting terrorism. When an Ecuador-Peru border war broke out in 1995—and Atkins’ father was suspected of being a spy because he owned land near the border—they moved to Nicaragua. Her family returned after peace was signed, and now lives in northern Peru.
Atkins came to the United States in 1997 to attend Cornell, graduating in 2001. She opened a seafood export business with her husband in Ecuador and worked as a paralegal before coming to Berkeley Law in 2005. After her first year of law school, Atkins spent the summer in Ecuador helping street children routinely harassed by police. She brought a renewed passion for social equality to IHRLC, and hopes that justice in Guatemala will eventually be served by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has power to issue reparations.
“Carmen, I admire your humanity and humility,” Altholz said in her speech. “You demonstrated enormous empathy … and used these feelings not only as motivation during the hours upon hours you spent working in the clinic, but they informed and enriched your legal work.”
Atkins, who will join Davis Polk & Wardwell’s Menlo Park office as an associate this fall, called her time at IHRLC “the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had….In representing these families I have expanded my own family. As an immigrant from Latin America, one of the hardest things about coming to this country has been feeling like I sacrificed ties to my friends and family. However, my colleagues at the clinic and my supervisors have become a part of my new family in the United States.”
— By Andrew Cohen 4/24/08