Cynthia Soohoo L’92 works to make human rights an American valueMarch 22, 2021
This feature originally appeared in the Penn Law Journal as part of a series about alumni who fight for Civil Rights in our communities.
The allure of fighting for social justice causes brought Cindy Soohoo L’92 to law school. She had little idea, though, that her career would become dedicated to human rights work in the United States. At the time, she said, the concept of “human rights violations” was largely viewed as an international issue instead of a domestic one.
Soohoo’s perception of human rights work changed after she was co-counsel in Doe v. Karadzic, the landmark Alien Tort Statute case against Radovan Karadzic for human rights abuses in Bosnia. The Alien Tort Statute enabled non-citizens to litigate against global human rights violators in U.S. courts. The case made clear the importance of holding actors accountable. She also became interested in human rights because of its focus on ensuring that people actually have access to those rights, she said.
Working for human rights is a broader endeavor than for civil rights. Human rights goes beyond whether or not actors are complying with the law and asks what governments are doing to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect.
“Often, human rights law is not directly enforceable in United States courts,” Soohoo said. “A lot of times, it’s really about organizing, education, and changing the way people look at issues to try to encourage legislative or other reform.”
Following her work at a law firm, Soohoo became the director of Columbia University’s Bringing Human Rights Home Project at the Human Rights Institute and a supervising attorney for Columbia Law’s human rights clinic. At Columbia, she developed a network of U.S. lawyers interested in integrating human rights law into their work. She joined the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) in 2007, where she led the U.S. legal program.
In addition to working to promote accountability for human rights violations in the United States, Soohoo has dedicated much of her career to working on reproductive rights and health issues. At CRR, Soohoo focused on access to abortion and contraceptives. Over time, she has shifted her work to be guided by the overarching concept of reproductive justice, a framework developed by Black women activists in the 1990s who believed that reproductive rights extend well beyond the politics of abortion.
“The reproductive justice framework recognizes the right to have a child or not have a child, and to have children in healthy, safe communities,” Soohoo said. “It goes beyond whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned — it’s about accessibility, locations of clinics, contraception access, and affordability. It is also about whether or not people have the resources they need to parent if they choose.”
Today, as a professor of law and co-director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Soohoo works with students, local agencies, and activists on issues related to human rights and reproductive justice.
The clinic works both within and outside of U.S. courts.
“Often, we file amicus briefs to encourage courts to take into account human rights law and encourage a broader understanding of constitutional standards,” she said.
The clinic also drafts reports detailing human rights abuses, files submissions to the United Nations (which has multiple bodies in place to hear grievances and urge countries to uphold their human rights obligations), and organizes community forums that bring human rights experts together with communities impacted by rights violations.
At CUNY, Soohoo’s work focuses on a range of reproductive justice issues including coerced sterilization in Latin America and the criminalization and detention of pregnant people. Some recent projects include a report to the U.N. on the treatment of pregnant people detained in immigration facilities and jails and prisons.
“When we talk about human rights and how pregnant people should be treated – access to nutritious foods, prenatal care, ability to breastfeed – these rights must apply to all pregnant and birthing people,” Soohoo said.
She also worked with groups on a submission to the U.N. looking at how countries can better safeguard the rights of women in times of crisis. The submission looked at how COVID-19 restrictions impacted people giving birth as well as community solutions to provide care.
In her work, Soohoo emphasizes the need to recognize economic and social rights as human rights. Effecting change, she said, is possible when people understand the relationship between economic and social rights and civil rights.
“The idea that people with no housing are worrying about what to eat, don’t have dignified work — they can’t enjoy other rights,” Soohoo said. “Historically, we haven’t recognized economic and social rights as human rights, and we need to.”