The First Step
By Jenny Whalen
Wrought in the terror and despair of a nation, Security Prison 21 stands solemn and silent today in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A torture, interrogation, and execution center under the Khmer Rouge regime, S-21 is, to the world, a haunting reminder of the gross injustice man can inflict on his fellows. For Benjamin Klein, '10, it is a sensory memory of the moment when career ambition became life purpose.
A 2010 recipient of the Clara Belfield & Henry Bates Overseas Fellowship, which began more than 30 years ago, Klein received crucial financial support for his travel to Cambodia, where he interned in the Office of the International Co-Prosecutor of the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials. He sought experience on an international court, but found a passion for human rights no resumé can fully illustrate.
"My experience reaffirmed my interest in doing prosecution work and doing it on an international level where crimes tend to be extraordinarily grave," Klein says. "You are bringing justice to a lot of people. You are helping establish precedent in the international courts that will hopefully help deter such acts by showing there is accountability."
He remembers his arrival in the Cambodian capital vividly.
"My first day in the city, I tried to get something to eat on the street and was bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers," Klein says, recalling the swarm of rickshaws. Unable to communicate with the vendors, he was rescued by one of the drivers, who then gave Klein a tour of the city.
S-21 and the infamous Killing Fields of Choeung Ek were among the first stops. With these sites barred to tuk-tuk drivers, Klein insisted his guide enter with him not as a driver, but as a friend.
"Within a few minutes of entering the complex he started to open up," Klein remembers. "He started to tell me stories of the Khmer Rouge years. They were horrifying and made my jaw drop. It made me realize that everyone in the country over age 40 probably had similar stories of friends taken away and never seen again. It made me realize I was in a very different place."
Now an associate at Morgan Lewis in Washington, D.C., Klein credits his ability to pursue pro bono work in international criminal law to the Bates Fellowship.
"The Bates allowed me to go to Cambodia. Without it, I would not have been able to afford it and would not have had the experience needed to jump onto other cases. It was really the Bates that propelled me to where I am," says Klein, who recently served as assistant independent counsel in two cases before the Special Court of Sierra Leone.
With the support of the fellowship, Michigan Law students and alumni have trekked the globe by the hundreds, serving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Malawi, conducting field research in Cuba, interning with Human Rights Watch in Brazil, and holding clerkships with international courts from Israel to South Africa.
Established through an endowment from Helen Bates Van Tyne, the fellowship offers financial assistance to recent Michigan Law graduates or students with two or more years of legal study to travel abroad for academic or work experience that will contribute to their professional development.
"The hardest step in being an internationalist is sometimes that first step into the field. By making the Bates Fellowship available to support my trip to Iraq in 1991, the Law School helped me take that first step—leap, really—into international activism," says Marcella David, '89, associate dean and professor of law and international studies at the University of Iowa College of Law. Her Bates Fellowship allowed her to work for the Commission on Civilian Casualties in Iraq, which documented the impact of the 1991 Iraq war and accompanying sanctions on the civilian population.
It's that kind of experience that the Bates aims to promote—the launching of careers in international law, as well as in other fields where exposure to foreign and international legal regimes and institutions can be transformative, says Virginia Gordan, the recently retired assistant dean for international affairs, who oversaw the creation and administration of the Fellowship. "I think of it as a mini-Fulbright competition, just for Michigan students," says Gordan. "For many of the recipients, the Bates helped launch their career."
That was the case for Amy Radon, '05, whose fellowship allowed her to travel to Guatemala to work on property and water law with Rights Action, a human rights organization, and to remain in the country when her original focus shifted.
"I went to Guatemala to assist indigenous communities that had been displaced from their land, but Rights Action had a more immediate need to help build a domestic violence program in a rural mining community," says Radon, who now is a staff attorney with Public Justice. "I worked with an interesting coalition of the mining union, local police, and nuns to bring awareness to the issue, create a shelter, and establish police protocols for responding to domestic violence calls."
Radon says her work in Guatemala would have been financially impossible without the Bates Fellowship.
"I wouldn't have the job I have now without my Guatemala experience," she adds. "It made me stand out and showed my dedication to public-interest work. The Bates Fellowship made it possible."