Law Grad Finds Meaningful Work and Adventure in Africa
From America To Africa: UND Law Grad Finds Meaningful Work & Adventure in Africa
By Kylie Blanchard
Amanda Grafstrom, Class of 2007, entered the University of North Dakota Law School with vague plans of someday working in public interest or human rights. Following her graduation in 2007, her interest in this line of work was piqued by an internship in Sierra Leone. This experience eventually led to her work today as an Associate Legal Officer at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania; a job, although challenging at times, she finds both meaningful and rewarding.
“After graduation and taking the bar exam I did an internship with the Office of the Prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid tribunal set up to try those with the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the decade long Sierra Leone civil war,” says Grafstrom. “I spent an amazing three months in Freetown and met and worked with a lot of wonderful people.”
Following her internship, Grafstrom, a Roseau, Minnesota, native, returned to her home state and worked in the Minnesota state court system. “While I appreciated the knowledge I gained and the people I met, I slowly recognized I was missing the professional fulfillment that came from working in such a unique and rapidly developing part of law.”
An opportunity arose to return to Africa to again work in the field of human rights and Grafstrom jumped at the chance. “I am one member of the drafting team in the Karemera et al. case, which is also known as the Government I case and is one of the longest-running and most complex cases in the history of the ITCR,” says Grafstrom. “The bench is comprised of three judges, and while I work with all of them, I do most of my work with a Danish judge.”
Grafstrom says the team she works with also includes two legal officers and four associate legal officers as well as interns throughout the year. “My job duties are to advise the Judges, in conjunction with the entire team, on legal issues that are raised in the course of the trial and to draft decisions on motions filed by the parties,” she notes. “We are also simultaneously preparing for the judgment drafting that will begin in earnest after closing arguments are heard.”
Synthesizing tens of thousands of pages of trial evidence is also a major portion of Grafstrom’s duties. She says this responsibility is in preparation of the deliberations that need to occur so factual and legal findings that become judgments are comprehensive.
The Tribunal hours are 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays but, like many in her profession, her hours are often extended. “I rarely work those hours,” Grafstrom says. “The entire legal team is typically in the office more.” She says she occasionally spends time in the courtroom, but for the most part stays very busy in her office.
One of the greatest rewards of her job is participating in Tribunals that will become an important part of history. “This is a very unique time in the development of international criminal law and it’s thrilling to be even a small part of it,” she explains. “These Tribunals were the first to be set up since the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II and have gone a long way in establishing modes of liability for criminal responsibility as well as developing the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.”
It is her hope the Tribunals will also help prevent these types of crimes in the futures. “There is the very real sense when we are watching various Judgments being delivered in our courtrooms we are actually watching history being made,” notes Grafstrom. “All of this work is creating a record of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 and is hopefully preventing future genocides by showing the perpetrators they will be held accountable.”
She says playing a role in the development of this type of law does have its challenges. “Because it is such a new era in terms of individual criminal responsibility for the most heinous crimes imaginable, there are a lot of areas which remain unlitigated,” explains Grafstrom. “I am constantly being challenged to justify the position I think is correct without the benefit of vast amounts of jurisprudence to back up my position.”
But the challenges equate into some of the greatest rewards of her job, she notes. “I am lucky to work with incredibly bright and talented people every day, and to be challenged with every task I am assigned. I love the feeling of being vindicated if the logic I propose is adopted by the Judges in a Decision or when the Appeals Chamber agrees with my interpretation of the current case law. If my reasoning is found to be flawed or overruled on appeal, it just challenges me to get it right the next time.”
The materials she references even include those from her days at UND Law School. “I was able to take Professor Gordon’s International Human Rights law course and that taught me so much of what I am applying every day. I have my outline from that class in my office now and consult it all these years later.”
Grafstrom says one of the largest adjustments to living in Africa has been being away from her loved ones in the United States. “It’s been really tough not seeing my family and friends on a regular basis and not being able to call them when the fancy strikes. It’s an 8 to 9 hours time difference so you really have to think about what time it is.”
However, there have been many opportunities to meet new people and take part in new experiences she may not have had in America. “I really enjoy the people I’ve met here, there are so many fascinating people from all over the world,” says Grafstrom. “I also thoroughly enjoy the travel opportunities and the ability to go on safari or to the Indian Ocean on a weekend.”
Opportunities for travel include safari adventures to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater or climbing Mount Meru and Mount Kilmanjaro. There are also flights available to Zanzibar, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. “Typically weekends are spent exploring some part of Tanzania or lying by a pool or beach and soaking up the African sunshine.”
Grafstrom has taken part in three safaris and a white-water rafting adventure, and has had the opportunity to swim with whale sharks off Mafia Island and see gorillas in the mountains of Rwanda. She has also taken trips to Ethiopia, Kigaali and other parts of Rwanda to see the places she works with every day. She isn’t placing a deadline on the time she plans to spend in Africa. “Since we are just beginning the Judgement deliberation and drafting phase of the trial, I would like to stay through Judgement delivery which is slated through December,” she notes. “But that will depend on a lot of factors, so I’m not committing to that end date just yet.”