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Fellowship Furthers Interest in Public Policy Work in Latin America

As a Patton Boggs Foundation Fellow, Emily Button Aguilar ’14 spent the summer of 2012 in Peru, doing research for the Andean Commission of Jurists (CAJ) on legal protections for indigenous peoples. The country was one she already knew a good deal about.

While an undergraduate at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts, she studied in Peru and volunteered with ProWorld Peru, an international service organization. After receiving her B.A. in creative writing, Aguilar returned to the country and took a staff position with ProWorld.

As a supervisor of volunteer programs that included internships at local orphanages and shelters for abused mothers, Aguilar worked primarily in the Andean region of Cusco. She often interacted with indigenous peoples and came to love their simple way of life and their kindness. She also came to realize “how marginalized a population they are.” The government is virtually non existent in these rural areas, and the population has very limited access to schools, clinics, and clean water. “This is particularly heart breaking,” said Aguilar, “because indigenous people make up quite a large portion of the Peruvian population – the country has one of the largest numbers of indigenous peoples in Latin America.” Seeing these inequalities made Aguilar want to dedicate her life to human rights law.

Emily Aguilar
Emily Aguilar’s Patton Boggs Foundation Fellowship took her to Peru to work for the Andean Commission of Jurists.

“Peru is what led me to go to law school,” added Aguilar. “I wanted to go back to apply the knowledge I had gained in law school to the issues I became passionate about when I was living in Peru.”

The decision to get a J.D. was the right one and Aguilar has found much to love about her Rutgers School of Law–Newark experience, including a new appreciation for how rewarding hard work and dedication can be. She especially enjoys being able to take the critical analytical skills learned during her 1L year and apply them to issues she is passionate about, such as indigenous rights, economic inequality, and environmental justice. “It is an extremely empowering feeling, and makes me feel like I have the ability to really make some positive change in the world.”

Aguilar, the school’s first Patton Boggs Foundation Fellow, is a staff member of the Rutgers Law Review, a member of the Jessup International Law Moot Court Team, a Dean’s Merit Scholar, and vice chair of the Human Rights Law Forum. When announcing the addition of Rutgers–Newark to the Fellowship Program, Patton Boggs Foundation president and firm partner John Oberdorfer said: “Rutgers’ exceptional dedication to public policy and the public interest make the University a natural partner of the Foundation in addition to a special one. The addition of Rutgers will benefit the Law School, its students, and the public interest organizations that receive the students’ energy, time and efforts.”

In her application for the Patton Boggs Foundation grant, Aguilar showed the Rutgers Law School commitment to using the law to effect positive change, writing: “The policy issues that arise when a nation has to balance the economic benefits of foreign investments with the human rights of indigenous groups are extremely pressing issues, and I intend to contribute to ensuring they are resolved in a peaceful and sustainable way through my work with CAJ.”

The Andean Commission of Jurists conducts research on local and international law and shares the information at workshops and conferences intended to educate Andean governments, organizations and scholars about indigenous issues. Aguilar’s assignments last summer included studying both international and domestic law and identifying gaps in the legal structure.

Initially, she researched international treaties, national Peruvian law, and regional and municipal Peruvian law for presentations to government officials about their obligations to provide services such as health and education to indigenous peoples, and to do so in a way that is sensitive to their cultural differences. Her other main project was focused on indigenous political participation, including ways to encourage political participation in indigenous communities. When CAJ presented its recommendations to a political party, it had a less-than-enthusiastic reception. What the response indicated, Aguilar recalled, was “the need to conduct further research on the tension between Peruvians and indigenous peoples and to address the racism towards indigenous peoples that pervades Peruvian culture.” 

I’d like to do further policy work in Latin America and work with an organization that helps strengthen democratic institutions in the region.

According to Aguilar, probably the most challenging aspect of her work with CAJ was understanding the difficulties the country faces in implementing its laws. “Peru is a party to many international human rights treaties and has even codified some of the laws in their domestic law,” she explained. “However, they do not enforce the laws.” Corruption in the Peruvian government system, from the police to the judges to government officials, plays a significant role in the lack of enforcement, Aguilar added.

The most rewarding aspect of her Patton Boggs Foundation Fellow experience was “working with an organization that is dedicated to representing the human rights of Peruvians and to ensuring the government complies with its obligations.” Given the racism against indigenous peoples, lack of enforcement of indigenous protections is particularly rampant, she reported. “However, racism can be challenged through first understanding where it comes from, and then educating government officials and law enforcement officers of their legal obligations and educating them about indigenous culture. This is exactly the type of work CAJ does. Peru has a lot of potential; it just needs to strengthen its institutions more.”

For a law student looking forward to a career in international human rights and public policy, Aguilar’s 1L summer was all she hoped it would be, including solid support from both her supervisor in Peru and the Patton Boggs Foundation itself. In particular, she learned first-hand how problems with corruption and law enforcement can leave citizens feeling isolated and doubtful of their government. The experience reinforced her belief that strengthening democracy is essential to ensuring that citizens believe in their government and that the government runs effectively. “I’d like to do further policy work in Latin America,” she offered, “and work with an organization that helps strengthen democratic institutions in the region.”