Last week I took a large step towards having more in common with my Lao colleagues. While I tried to speak their language, and eat their food, I still felt a gap between us. We have shared many cultural experiences, but our work has been a bit segregated. Fortunately, that changed for me last week when I attended a three-day training session on human rights law with two of the Lao women who work on CARE’s project.  Almost everyone in Laos who works for an NGO, a non-profit, or the government has been trained. The trainings typically are meant to disseminate information on a specific topic to a target audience, and are facilitated by the same groups. I have heard that some of the trainings are incredibly boring, complete with endless PowerPoint slides and a monotone facilitator. Other trainings are done in the BABSEA style, complete with energizers and numerous other opportunities to embarrass ones self, as well as ways to practically apply the lessons learned. Fortunately the training I attended resembled the later and not the former.

The training was sponsored by the Gender and Development Group, a Laos non-profit aimed at improving gender equality and women’s empowerment, along with reducing violence against women. The chairman of the Laos Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee facilitated the training, and several women from GDG helped, along with talks from a few guest speakers who do human rights work in Laos. The training conveyed information about laws and treaties specifically related to women, but also included discussion on the rights of the disabled and rights of children. While the audience was almost all Laos people who work for NGO’s, the training began at a very basic level of what human rights are. Being in a country where the idea of human rights is understood internally, but often not discussed outwardly, the training attendees all seemed quite excited to discuss the topic and learn more about how to use the law to affect change in Laos.

Beginning with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, we built our understanding of human rights law by using this seminal document. The UDH was a great document to begin with as it fairly simply lays out what rights humans should be afforded by governments. While it is a good document, like many UN declarations or conventions, the UDHR has no teeth. Signatory countries can violate the declaration without facing much more than criticism; not exactly much of a deterrent to potential violators. After reading some of the documents, we were given an opportunity to think about how the articles in the UDHR might be used to encourage governments that may be violating some of the most basic human rights. The training throughout did a great job of not only educating us on human rights law but also allowing us the opportunity to think about how to use the laws in Laos. The training progressed to discuss more specific, more binding documents like the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Again, we were given a chance to not only read the documents but also discuss how the articles might be used in the work we are doing.

The learners were really excited to be receiving the information that was taught and seemed eager to use their new knowledge in their work. Even though most of the training was done in Lao, I was made aware how little I have been taught about human rights through many years of schooling. While many countries in the west have championed human rights throughout the world, I realized that my understanding on the subject was pretty minuscule. It is so easy to take for granted the fact that not everyone around the world, or even in your own country, is afforded the same basic rights when we don’t actively see the violations. I also realized through the training how important it is for all of us as future attorneys to continue to push for more enforcement of human rights laws and for more implementation of international declarations in national law. I think regardless of what area of law you may practice in, you can always find ways to defend and encourage human dignity.

Although we did not hear from one lawyer at the training, each attendee was given a great lesson on human rights and the laws that have been born to protect those rights. I was surprised at how much I learned and was really encouraged at the enthusiasm the young Lao people had for furthering human rights.