Stanford Law School’s 
International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic kicks off each quarter with a two-week boot camp on the how-tos of human rights legal advocacy. Along with preparing students for projects in far-flung parts of the world, the seminar is heavy on writing instruction—the well-
researched report being a key tool for this kind of legal work. And then there’s role-playing—often with former students and experts from the field taking parts. Students learn everything from effective interviewing through translators to navigating 
media to working in different cultures. Their guides are James Cavallaro, professor of law and director of the International 
Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic, and Stephan Sonnenberg, clinical 
lecturer. The two came to Stanford Law last year from 
Harvard, where Cavallaro directed its human rights clinic for eight years. Together, they have some 30 years of experience in the field. They facilitate an immersion into an area of law that most students will probably not have experienced. While the boot camp is a chance for students to bond, it’s unlikely anything could completely prepare them for the “drones” project, looking at the effects of unpiloted aerial vehicles that are increasingly used by the U.S. military in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

IN DECEMBER 2011, REPRIEVE, A U.K.-BASED NONPROFIT THAT FOCUSES ON THE RULE OF LAW around the world and advocates for the right to a fair trial, contacted the clinic with a request for legal services. Reprieve asked Cavallaro and his students to undertake an investigation on their behalf of drone use by U.S. and NATO forces in northwestern Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), looking at the effects of drone surveillance and bombings on the civilian population. 
Cavallaro and the clinic students began their representation by mounting a complex and extensive independent fact-finding project that would take them halfway around the world for interviews and investigation. The Stanford Law team was joined last spring by the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law. After two trips to Pakistan and nine months of researching, writing, and editing, the group’s report, 
Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan, was published in September.

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Illustration of drones story
Illustration by Gérard Dubois

THE CLINIC TEAM BEGAN THE PROJECT BY FIRST EXPLORING THE HISTORY and growing use of this new military surveillance tool and weapon. Little research on the effects of drones on 
civilians was available, probably because their use is still new, though, Cavallaro says, it is increasing. He cites data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that says the United States has conducted 344 drone strikes in Pakistan: 52 between June 2004 and January 2009 and 292 between January 2009 and September 2012.The clinic team journeyed to Pakistan for interviews, spending several weeks there during the winter quarter and again in the spring quarter. Once on the ground, they interviewed government officials, journalists, lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists, and residents of FATA villages. Clinic students could not go to FATA themselves because the area is virtually closed to outside visitors by military checkpoints, visa restrictions, poor road conditions, and mountainous terrain. So FATA residents had to make an uncertain journey to reach the clinic team, which had set up its operation primarily in Islamabad. Many did.“Islamabad is only a few hundred kilometers away from FATA, a journey that shouldn’t take more than several hours. But with checkpoints and random curfews that are sometimes declared, it can take days,” says Omar Shakir, JD ’13 (BA ’07), who took the winter quarter clinic and stayed on for the spring quarter as an advanced student. “A number of those we had hoped to speak with were unable to participate due to the 
difficulties of travel.”Concerns about cultural differences hindering the interview process never materialized. “We dressed conservatively and made sure that the interviewing teams were balanced and had at least one male participant,” says Adelina Acuña, JD ’12 (BA ’06), now in the honors program in the California Attorney General’s Office. “And the interviews went well—people opened up to us.”During the course of two quarters, the clinic team conducted 130 interviews—about half with FATA residents, those directly impacted by drone surveillance and missile strikes.“People wanted to tell their stories—they wanted the world to know what they’re living with,” says Shakir. “And we had an obligation on behalf of our client to share these stories with the world, to document what is happening.”

The stories were compelling.

“The men are not accustomed to openly sharing their emotions,” says Shakir. “Even though many had lost family members—wives, brothers, sons, daughters, parents—they often spoke about the events in a very matter-of-fact manner. And some had to stop because reflecting on their loss was too hard.”

The team also heard from local psychiatrists about FATA residents who had no apparent physical injuries but were suffering from symptoms typical of post-traumatic stress disorder—severe anxiety, jumpy and nervous behavior, unexplained rashes and tics. “Drones are overhead 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and those living under them can hear their constant buzz,” says Cavallaro. Adding to residents’ anxiety is the knowledge that drones are not just for surveillance but also for attack. FATA residents know firsthand that the missiles kill and maim people and destroy property.

“Hardest to hear were stories of their dreams before the attacks—about the lives they might have had before their injuries,” say Shakir. “Many of the interviewees were younger than I, and they shared their aspirations for education and life, hopes that are now shattered. Simple things like working and playing soccer were for many of them no longer possible.”

“This was like nothing I had ever done before,” says Acuña, who took the Youth and Education Law Project clinic in her 2L year. “The sensitivity of the subject was a challenge, though I loved the fact finding and the interviewing and then working on the report and seeing it all come together.”

While interviews were conducted through translators, the students empathized all the same. “Cultural and language differences disappeared when we were talking about the trauma,” say Acuña. “It cut right through the divide.” SL

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