Alumni Interviews – Andrea Prasow
Andrea Prasow: Advocating for Human Rights in Washington DC
Interview by Diana Kuprel
A dual American and Canadian citizen, lawyer Andrea Prasow (BA 1999, Political Science and Women’s Studies) is Deputy Washington Director at Human Rights Watch, where she conducts advocacy before the US government on global human rights issues.
Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Prasow was a defense attorney with the Office of Military Commissions. She was previously an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP in New York, where, in addition to representing large corporations in complex civil litigation, she served as habeas counsel for 10 Saudi detainees at Guantanamo.
Arts & Science met with Prasow at the Human Rights Watch office in Washington DC in June 2017.
A&S: Tell us about Human Rights Watch and what it’s like to work there.
AP: We try to convince the US government to protect and promote human rights in its foreign policy. We are a non-partisan organization. We don’t take money from any government anywhere, which is really valuable. The US government and other governments around the world rely on our work. We have worked with both Republican and Democratic administrations over the years. But this administration (not the government) has been expressly vocal about not promoting human rights. So that has required a shift in how we work. That means we spend more time working with Congress and with other agencies rather than with the White House.
When I started at Human Rights Watch, I felt like I was the dumbest person in the room. I was surrounded by brilliant, passionate people who devote their lives to the cause and do so at such a high professional level. That is remarkable.
It’s also a very flat organization. Although I’m relatively senior, there are not that many levels. Regardless of whether someone is a fellow or just out of school or the director of a program, if the executive director has a question about something someone is working on he will ask that person.
A&S: You’ve had a really interesting career. Is there a moment that stands out as particularly meaningful to you?
AP: When I was in the military commissions, I represented Salim Hamdan, Bin Laden’s body guard and driver, one of the first people to be charged under the military commission system, and it still stands as the only completed contested military trial. He was convicted of one charge and acquitted of the more serious charge. That man went home to his family in part because of the work I did. That meant a lot.
I’m an advocate. My job is in Washington. I go to Congress and the State Department and I put on a suit and talk to people about policy, but I try to get out to the field when I can because it is so easy to forget that all these conversations are about people’s lives. When I get back to the places and meet the individuals who are suffering human rights abuses, but also the defenders, it’s really motivating. That’s when you stop and say, ‘that’s why I do this work’, because of people like that. That’s not a standalone moment. But it’s why I get up in the morning.
A&S: Did the Salim Hamdan trial make you change the direction of your career?
AP: Yes and no. I had been politically active in human rights since I was a teenager. When I went to law school, my intention was to practice some form of human rights. I thought at the time it would be reproductive rights. A dream job would have been to be a litigator for Planned Parenthood.
But I was in law school in 9/11. I had moved to DC one week before 9/11 and the career path I ultimately took didn’t exist when I started in law school. The post-9/11 Bush administration response created this new environment and a new way to work as a lawyer, but it also created new issues. I was really fortunate to do that work, but I also actively pursued it at the law firm; it didn’t fall into my lap. It gave me the opportunity to practice international law as well.
International and constitutional law are the law student’s dream. And I got to do both. I had not planned to stay in private practice for long; I practiced at a New York law firm for a while. I found the experience to be really valuable, educational and phenomenal training. I worked with great people. It put me on the path that led to where I am today.
A&S: Does your Canadian lens alter how you approach your work?
AP: I was born in the US. I’m a dual citizen. My parents are Canadian and we moved to Toronto when I was 11 years old. My parents were active liberal hippies and took us to peace marches when we were kids. So it wasn’t just being Canadian. Having an outsider lens for much of my life has been helpful and having lived in an environment where different things are possible is important, because a lot of Americans have a pretty narrow view that the way things happen here is the right way.
A&S: Do you find that making a case for human rights in the environment of heightened security and crisis is harder, or do you need to make different arguments?
AP: It depends on the issue. I spent so many years working on behalf of unpopular people. Human rights sounds great until you’re talking about terrorist suspects and what I hear a lot is, yes but… of course we believe, but what about… security, the protection of my family… which is obviously something I care about too. But since the presidential election, a lot of Americans have started to realize that the sense they had about their core rights being protected is not as firm or solid as they had perceived it to be. Surveillance is also an issue that this administration or the public doesn’t talk about very much. For some people now, the fact that this particular administration could screen your calls, or read your email—it’s made people more alert and hopefully more politically active.
A&S: How did your undergraduate studies prepare you for your career beyond law school?
AP: I did a specialist degree in political science and I also minored in women’s studies. I think that sort of education is really about the whole world (it’s a narrow field but it’s about the world) and that is very valuable. I took interesting classes such as political theory…these big picture classes make you think in a broader way and that’s what you need to do to have the kind of career that I’ve had.
I had planned to be a lawyer from the age of 10. I was very active in U of T: I was in a sorority, and president of my Tri Delta chapter at U of T; I wrote for the UC newspaper; I was involved in a student theater group; I volunteered at the sex education centre; and I was a peer tutor with Frontier College. That kind of extra-curricular involvement also really shaped me.
A&S: If you were to talk to students who were thinking about devoting themselves to human rights work, what advice would you give them?
AP: I have three primary pieces of advice. The first is to become an excellent writer. I think that good writing is underappreciated. We live in an environment of short, fast communication, but that requires a solid foundation. It does take a good writer to write a good tweet. It also takes a good writer to write a long form, 200-page report, and everything in between. We give writing tests for every single person in the organization. Otherwise stellar candidates with excellent skills, without strong writing and editing skills, they’re of no use to us because we have to constantly convey our message in a number of ways.
The other is to develop a niche. These days because writing takes so many forms, people can write a blog on anything. I don’t think people realize how overwhelmed someone can be, and if a candidate can present themselves as the expert, that is extremely valuable to me. So becoming an expert in something is important.
And finally, for human rights work, field work is important, and travel, familiarity with the rest of the world, and languages are always helpful.
A&S: What does it take to be successful in DC?
AP: Living in this town, inside the bubble, requires a thick skin, and a lot of self-promotion, but in a way that is not arrogant or offensive. Brilliant, passionate, educated, intelligent people come here and there are so many of them, so it is hard to find a way to stand out, which goes back to my point of finding a niche.
As in any political environment, it requires an understanding of the political scene.
A&S: You seem to be very passionate about your work.
AP: I feel really privileged to do the work that I do. I was talking to my sister recently, and she said, you’re the only person I know who loves their job. And I said, yes, I’m so lucky, I love my job, but for me this job is the perfect intersection of my skills and interests. And each person will have their own place where these things meet, but I think it’s a mistake to think you can’t find that. There is a lot of luck involved as well. But people sometimes don’t focus enough on their own strengths and finding a way to capitalize on those strengths. I always say I became a lawyer because I like to argue. But it’s important to know that about oneself and being an advocate requires the same set of skills.