Javier Palummo Lantes

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Uruguay
Fellow since 2008
Observatorio del Sistema Judicial

Javier está construyendo un modelo innovador para la aplicación plena de los derechos humanos, contribuyendo al fortalecimiento del sistema de justicia y transformando la forma de pensar el Derecho para generar cambios sociales profundos. Creó el Observatorio, una clínica jurídica en articulación con Universidades. Forma a estudiantes avanzados y nuevos profesionales y contribuye con información a los agentes del poder judicial. Ha incorporado en la agenda pública el cumplimiento de los derechos de la infancia y adolescencia y se está ampliando hacia otros ámbitos del Derecho.

This description of Javier Palummo Lantes's work was prepared when Javier Palummo Lantes was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .

Introduction

Javier Palummo is working with lawyers, law schools and students, citizen organizations, and the media to prepare court systems in Uruguay to fairly address public interest issues and better protect individual rights.

The New Idea

Javier is building the field of public interest law in Uruguay. He systematically creates the mechanisms needed for the legal system to address public interest issues: Generating transparent public information about the judicial system; training law students and members of the legal community to address human rights issues; pushing citizen organizations (COs) to act as watchdog groups in bringing cases of abuse to court; and directly defending children and their families in key cases to establish precedence in the practice of the law. Javier has also coordinated with the Supreme Court, universities, and the media. Javier focused on child and teen rights (particularly cases of abuse) to begin reforming the Uruguayan justice system, and has succeeded in garnering broad public attention to the issue. Yet for Javier, this represents a starting point, for he sees the possibility of legal defense of human rights in all spheres as critical to democracy and civic participation. Once citizens learn they can turn to the legal system to prosecute abuses, they can hold their government accountable for protecting vulnerable populations in a completely new way.

The Problem

Access to justice in Uruguay is extremely unequal. Low-income communities have very little opportunity to demand public services like education or to defend their citizenship rights. In 2004, according to official statistics, 32 percent of Uruguay’s population was living below the poverty line, and the majority of this group was under the age of eighteen. Children and teenagers who run into problems with the law often do not have quality legal defense, and conditions at detention or rehabilitation centers can be abusive. The Uruguayan justice system neither has the will nor the mechanisms in place to address public interest issues in any meaningful way. In fact, the system has little actual power to defend human rights or support the public policies that protect vulnerable populations. Children’s rights, in particular, are threatened by the lack of implementation of laws and policies that protect them. Though Uruguay ratified the UN Convention of Children’s Rights in 1990 and enacted corresponding national laws in 2004, the legal system fails to protect the rights of children in a way that meets international standards. Today there are only four public defense specialist in the entire country, a clear indication of the imbalance and unfairness of the legal system. Part of the problem is that the Uruguayan judicial system is not practiced or trained in answering claims of human rights abuse. Law schools are oriented towards preparing attorneys to work in the private sector, and have few practical training opportunities for public interest issues. As a result, law students do not learn strategies for defending citizens’ rights or implementing public policy. Furthermore, Uruguayan civil society does not have a culture of demanding rights, so the citizen organizations that work with vulnerable groups do not think of, or know how to, take human rights abuses to the court system. Finally, the media fails to adequately cover human rights abuses: Coverage is often biased and sensationalized, and isolated cases of legal defense are not tied to the broader question of their implications for society wide public interest issues.

The Strategy

Javier has founded two organizations, the Observation Center for the Support of the Justice System and the Clinic for Human Rights, to work with members of the legal community, law students, and citizen organizations in building the field of public interest law in Uruguay. Javier launched the watchdog group, Observation Center for the Support of the Justice System, in 2004. Through the Center, Javier provides members of the legal community—including lawyers, law students, and judges—with trustworthy information necessary for the creation of judicial norms and policies, and incorporates the human rights perspective into the judicial debate all the way to the level of the Supreme Court. The Observation Center gathers data concerning the practices and shortfalls of judicial power, and follows up on cases by studying judicial files. To gather information, the Center interviews members of the legal community and carries out surveys—for example with teenagers being held in detention centers. Javier has designed indicators to evaluate the justice system’s respect for human rights; the indicators both hold the system accountable and also set standards for its operation. For example, the indicators would reveal whether teenagers are being given their right to choose their own defense attorneys, and whether judges comply with requirements to visit teenage detention centers. In 2007, Javier created the Justice Clinic for Human Rights of Children and Teenagers, the first of its kind in Uruguay. Javier uses the legal mechanisms up until now reserved for the business sector and applies them to public interest issues—concentrating on child and teenage abuse. He plans to later expand his efforts to include broader human rights abuse. The Clinic prosecutes emblematic cases to create precedence in the application of the human rights law. In 2007 alone, the Clinic worked directly with children, their families, and citizen groups to resolve 41 court cases, affecting hundreds of individuals.Javier partners with citizen coalitions that work to protect children’s rights to act as watchdog groups in documenting cases of abuse and bringing them to court through the Justice Clinic. In this way, Javier spreads the culture of demanding protection for human rights among citizens. He also helps citizen groups work with the judicial system and the police. For example, he worked with one organization to push public debate about detention conditions for juvenile delinquents. Javier organized a seminar to bring together many different actors in the judicial system and give them information—statistically proven—about rights violations faced by these teenagers (including being locked in cages for 23 hours, heavily medicated, badly treated, and denied their right to access a defense attorney). Javier also informed the media and international human rights organizations, who publicly supported his actions. As a result, the government recognized the problem and is presently establishing measures to improve conditions in detention centers. The Justice Clinic also serves as a place for law students and other members of the legal community to learn, through practical experience, how to deal with public interest issues in a court of law. Javier creates partnerships with law schools to send their students to the Clinic for hands-on practical internships. Lawyers can also volunteer at the Clinic. This helps lawyers and law students develop the professional skills they need to prosecute, litigate, and defend human rights abuse. Javier has succeeded in getting his Clinic officially recognized by the Supreme Court and the universities as an institution for training; the first group of students graduated from the Clinic in 2007. Javier has so far trained 300 members of the legal community (judges, district attorneys, defense lawyers, and technicians) in courses and workshops. He is currently mapping out a strategy to get law schools to adopt the model of the Justice Clinic as a public interest practice that teaches law practices for academic credit. Javier has contacted with universities throughout the region (University of Buenos Aires-CELS, and University Diego Portales) and with professional organizations such as Conectas and Sur Foundation. His Justice Clinic also provides pro bono consulting on public interest issues for several important and recognized law firms.Javier has targeted the media as a key partner in generating awareness of the need for legal redress of human rights abuses and generating momentum for his cause. He recently collaborated in the founding of a newspaper specifically to inform the public of rights abuses. By spreading awareness and garnering media support, Javier is able to rally institutions to comply with human rights practices. Javier also uses media communication about strategically chosen cases to make the judicial process more transparent and prevent corruption. For example, in 2003 he addressed the illegal detaining of children by taking a case to court and promoting a big media campaign. The companies apologized publicly and the judges ruled in favor of the children. Today, Javier is creating a new institution for the defense of all human rights (beyond those of children and teenagers).

The Person

The son of Italian immigrants, Javier grew up in a working class neighborhood. His family taught him to work and study hard, and always persevere and be committed. Javier attended public school during the time when Uruguay was under military rule. State repression was common practice, and the institutional injustices and violation of rights left a strong mark on him. He was driven by the need to defend human rights, and as a teenager, he had already made up his mind to study law. From an early age, Javier was a leader in citizen activities, committed to neighborhood associations and student movements, and he became the president of his university student body. In 2003, the renowned lawyer and teacher Mabel Rivero introduced Javier to the opportunities for transformation and change that were possible in the legal world. She helped him answer his ethical concerns regarding the practice of law. He learned it was possible to practice law collectively, in the public interest, and in an environment of tolerance. That same year, at the Uruguay School of Law, Javier carried out the first successful legal action to defend a group of teenagers and children who had been illegally detained. Javier is recognized for his work on human rights issues and is known for creating the first law firm to work on public interest issues. He is a reference point in his field and is consulted by academia, judges, as well as international human rights organizations. Javier is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Movement Gustavo Volpe, which works for the defense and protection of vulnerable children. He is a member of the Bar Association, and its national and international representative for the defense of child and teen rights. He coordinates the Follow-up Committee of the Convention of Children’s Rights in Uruguay. Every five years, he prepares and presents the government report for the Committee of Children’s Rights of the United Nations.