Education for Change: Meet UWCHR’s Student FOIA Research Team


I think there’s one that’s like a letter
or a cable between the ambassador and the defense minister with just some
parts that are redacted that could be important. In the spring I took a class
called LSJ 380 and my professor had said that he had FOIA’d himself and I
didn’t really know what that meant. I didn’t really know a whole lot about
about FOIA, like the Freedom of Information Act and getting documents under it…
like I knew you could do it, I guess I had like kind of a vague
idea of what it was. I didn’t know how to write them
and I wasn’t aware that like anybody could do it, even like people outside of the country. [ talking quietly ] [ music plays ] The Freedom of Information Act, also known as the FOIA, is a law that was passed by the US Congress in 1966 that gives anyone the right to request information from the US government. The FOIA is a really
important tool for human rights because often these declassified US government
documents provide evidence of human rights violations and these documents
can be used as evidence in human rights trials both nationally and
internationally. [ music plays ] There’s a case in El Salvador
that’s going to court that is prosecuting people in the Salvadoran
High Command for events that took place during the Salvadoran Civil
War. The lawyers who are working on that case have asked the UW Center for
Human Rights to compile the universe of U.S. documents that exists on that issue
they’re investigating. And so I’m just conducting a bunch of research on it from previously declassified documents, news publications, finding witnesses
to the war crime, and then writing new FOIAs to try to get more information. The first FOIA that I had submitted
was regarding somebody’s family member like that felt really really important,
being able to… we weren’t able to find any documents but it felt important that we at least tried. In addition to pressuring
governments and like protesting you need to have people who are doing like the grunt, work like the nerdy work actually like put evidence together
to prove these things happened. I’ve learned about some
of these events or like the conflict in El Salvador
in a lot of my classes and it makes it feel like it’s history like it’s past but through the internship and working with the teams in El Salvador it really makes
it more current and you realize that it could have an impact for families that
are in El Salvador right now I’m also waiting to hear back from
from our partners at the ACLU… I’ve also transitioned from working with
like the federal FOIA to the state FOIA. It’s an important tool to have to
know like what your city government is doing in regards to a specific cause
that you care about. When you’re doing research like you’re not
like oh this is so annoying you have to look through all these documents you’re
like actively trying to like find something that’s very important and it’s
not tedious at all… It’s just, I don’t know, I think it’s just really exciting! [laughs] This is the first time I’m actually engaging in a human rights struggle. It sounds kind of cheesy but it it’s the first time that I’m actually engaging
with an issue that I feel strongly about. Even as an intern your work is really
important to the overall progress that the center is making so it definitely it
doesn’t feel like busywork ever or like menial or anything it all feels like everybody’s part is really an important piece of the puzzle. The work might seem small but it’s just all adding to the final hopefully the final
product which is holding people accountable.

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