By Rachel DeLetto
The same sense of duty that drove Richard Weir ’16 to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps has underscored his tireless dedication to human rights work at Berkeley Law. As the recipient of the 2016-2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Alan R. and Barbara D. Finberg Fellowship, Weir will soon begin his legal career at one of the most impactful human rights organizations in the world.
The Finberg Fellowship—HRW’s only position open to all U.S. law students—is known as the Supreme Court clerkship for human rights professionals. “It’s the golden ticket,” said Laurel Fletcher, clinical professor of law and director of Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic (IHRLC). “Being able to start your career at Human Rights Watch straight out of law school is a phenomenal opportunity.”
It’s easy to see why the nonprofit chose Weir, Fletcher said. “He is an exceptional candidate with a combination of first-hand experience and a passion and dedication to making sure that the world is a place where human rights are protected and defended.”
HRW fellows make an immediate and important contribution to the work of the organization, said Christopher Albin-Lackey, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. Like staff researchers, they lead and carry out work on compelling and badly-needed regional or thematic research projects. “Some of our most important reports in recent years have in fact been researched and written by fellows,” he said.
“We had 900 applicants this year, so it takes a lot for someone to truly stand out,” Albin-Lackey said, noting Weir’s sharp intellect, strong writing and passion for human rights work. But what resonated most with the search committee, he said, was the “unusual depth of perspective Weir has on real-world dynamics that drive so many of the issues we work on.”
Record of service
In 2006—two years into his undergraduate studies and at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom—Weir said he felt “duty-bound to do my part to help innocent people who were being hurt and killed.” After a tour in Iraq, he was deployed as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), which took him across the Pacific and Indian oceans and through the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The mission took Weir’s unit to nearly a dozen ports where the Marines conducted bilateral training exercises and counter-piracy operations.
After his overseas experience, Weir was struck by the people he’d encountered all over the world who were disenfranchised—and how that encouraged violent activities. “I felt like there’s a better way to get at these problems, and it’s not through the language of violence and force.” With GI Bill benefits available to him, he did some soul searching about the skills he needed to help people and make an impact. He finished his bachelor’s degree at UCLA and set his sights on law school.
He attended a presentation by Edward Tom, the law school’s dean of admissions, whom Weir described as a “powerful embodiment of the energy and passion for good” that permeates the school’s culture. He knew Berkeley was the right fit after learning about the many clinical programs that offer students the opportunity to work on real-world issues and after bonding with student veterans on admitted students day.
Starting on day one of his first term, Weir split his time between studying his foundational coursework and serving as a real-world advocate for clients through the International Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP). The student-led pro bono program helps at risk U.S. military interpreters obtain visas to come to America. One of the students’ most prominent cases involved Mohammad, an Afghani interpreter for the Marines who had served with the platoon of Adrian Kinsella ’15.
The visa process, as reported by John Oliver on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight—who also interviewed Weir for Got Your 6 Storytellers—is a complicated labyrinth of bureaucracy.
“These people fought for us, with us. They did the job we couldn’t do, which is help build the community relations,” Weir said. “It seems like a no brainer. We owe them. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple.”
Weir and his fellow IRAP students spent much of that year trying to prevent the application from being arbitrarily denied at one of the many government agency vetting stages. From calling Afghanistan to advise the client, helping navigate reams of complex paperwork, petitioning congress members for support, and finding people to write recommendations and help build a strong case, Weir learned the work of an advocate is difficult and often frustrating. But also incredibly rewarding.
“It was a pretty intense experience on top of all the things a 1L does, but it was very meaningful for me to be able to use my legal education to help someone who was in a really bad situation,” Weir said.
Ultimately, the media attention and advocacy helped secure Mohammad’s visa (read more about his safe arrival in the U.S. here). But, said Weir, there are a lot of people in the same situation that won’t be so lucky. No matter what he does in the future, Weir said he will continue working as an attorney on IRAP cases. “One of the things I am looking forward to is being able to take on these cases by myself and mentoring other students.”
Weir has also traveled to Jordan and Lebanon to work with IRAP and other NGOs assisting refugees and other vulnerable persons fleeing conflict and persecution. He assisted the law school’s Human Rights Center with research for its study of victims participating in International Criminal Court trials, and supported the Open Society Foundation’s work on drone policy through advocacy and writing. He will spend the start of the spring 2016 term working abroad with the IHRLC on a Human Rights Watch-sponsored report on the criminalization of peaceful expression.
“Richard doesn’t know the words ‘I can’t’ or ‘it’s impossible,’” Fletcher said. “He only sees opportunity and a job to be done, and then sets himself to do whatever is required. He’s going to go on and do tremendous things.”
Weir will relocate to New York after graduation to prepare for the bar exam and begin the year-long HRW fellowship in September. Although he is grateful and excited about the opportunity and challenges ahead, he said he will sorely miss the energy of the Berkeley Law community. “As somebody who wants to make a difference, wants to help change things, it’s amazing to be around people who feel the same. Not that there aren’t places in the world where there’s similar amounts of passion, but it’s just so highly concentrated at Berkeley Law.”