Radhika Kapoor: ‘I want to be able to help develop transitional justice norms’

At HLS, an avid reader sharpens her skills for working with countries emerging from conflict

After consecutive internships at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court, Radhika Kapoor LL.M. ’19 came to HLS to take advantage of Harvard’s institutional expertise in international law, humanitarian law, and post-conflict stability. “I really wanted to equip myself with tools that would let me explore questions that had come up during my internships. For example, I think there are a lot of countries that have concerns about acceding to international instruments like the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. How could they be self-sufficient in addressing issues of transitional justice?” Kapoor asks.

As she wraps up her LL.M. studies, Kapoor can readily identify the ways in which her LL.M. coursework has sharpened her thinking. She took a course on the Nuremburg trials, with Professor of Practice Alex Whiting, which “asked the question of whether an international court is the best stage to process large-scale humanitarian or human rights violations. I came away from it thinking that courts are perhaps best seen as a complement to a system of transitional justice and not necessarily the only way forward.” Kapoor also especially enjoyed a class on “Geopolitics, Human Rights and Statecraft,” with Professor of Practice and former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power. “I learned that it’s possible to think about foreign policy in humanistic terms,” she recalls, adding with a laugh that “we got to see somebody we had only seen on TV, in class, cold-calling on us.”

She also immersed herself in clinical opportunities at HLS. Last fall, for HLS Advocates for Human Rights, one of the law school’s student practice organizations, she led a team monitoring the trial of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of the Côte d’Ivoire, for crimes against humanity. This spring, in the law school’s International Human Rights Clinic, she worked on two projects, both conflict-related and related to gender, but through very different lenses. One of the projects concerned accountability for sexual violence perpetrated against detained men and boys in conflict situations. The other was an arms and gender project that brought her, classmate Terence Flyte LL.M. ’19, and their clinical instructor, Anna Crowe LL.M. ’12, to Geneva, Switzerland, where they joined signatories and NGOs in working meetings to discuss ways forward for implementing the United Nations’ landmark Arms Trade Treaty. At the conference, Crowe presented “Interpreting the Arms Trade Treaty: International Human Rights Law and Gender-based Violence in Article 7 Risk Assessments,” a paper co-authored by Kapoor and three other HLS students enrolled in the International Human Rights Clinic. The clinic has been collaborating with ControlArms, an international NGO, in advocating for countries to restrict arms exports if there is a risk that the weapons will be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international human rights law, with a specific focus on gender-based violence.

Radhika Kapoor and Terry Flyte

Credit: International Human Rights Clinic Radhika Kapoor LL.M. ’19 and Terry Flyte LL.M. ’19 at the Working Group Meetings of the 5th Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Participating in these working sessions “really brought to the fore how important it is to really listen to different countries’ concerns and circumstances when it comes to helping them implement treaty provisions. We got to know concerns that we hadn’t known about before, like constraints that operate, and different shackles [on] political capacity even when there is political will. I went away with a much more comprehensive understanding of why states behave the way they do,” Kapoor observes. “Being in that conference room in Geneva, while states actively debated how to interpret the treaty, was a mind-blowing experience,” she adds. “The clinic gives you opportunities to do things that you would otherwise only engage in at an advanced stage of your career.”

This spring, in another partnership with ControlArms, Kapoor and the IHRC clinical team travelled to Latvia to deliver a training to Eastern and Central European weapons export officials on how to implement the gender-violence provisions of the Arms Trade Treaty.

These types of opportunities were not even on Kapoor’s radar when she started her studies. In fact, she first decided to study law because of her love of reading. As a child growing up in Lucknow in northern India, “I was really into Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton,” she recalls. Later, “I went on a crusade where I only read authors of color. These were the best two reading years that I had, because I came across so many new treasures of literature.” So when it came to university, “I knew I wanted to study something where I could read a lot, and law of course allows you to do that,” she explains. When she enrolled in the B.A./LL.B. program at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), “I wasn’t really sure what to expect, because nobody in my family was a lawyer. But it was love at first sight.”

While at NLSIU, “I started thinking about conflict, and how countries grapple with it. That’s what led me down the path that I’m on now,” Kapoor adds. Armed conflict is “rampant in Asia, where I’m from. What struck me was that often when these conflicts were over, there was hardly any thinking on how to move past it. These conflicts were often bloody; they involved extreme factionalism, or ethnic or religious hatred; it’s not as though these things are just buried. They’re going to flare up again. What happens after the conflict is over?”

After graduation, she expects to focus on this question, working on projects relating to Sudan and Myanmar. Recently named a Public Service Venture Fund Kaufman Fellow, Kapoor plans to work at Public International Law and Policy Group in Washington, D.C., a global pro bono law firm that works with clients to further their capacity to achieve transitional justice.

Outside of class, she has continued to read voluminously, turning more to nonfiction while at HLS. She also found time to feed her lifelong love of travel, joining friends on a spring break road trip to Charleston, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta and New Orleans over spring break. “It was so amazing, because I’ve read a lot of books about growing up in the American South. There was so much natural beauty there — and so much history.”

All of these experiences have been deeply meaningful for Kapoor. “I want to be able to carry forward the learning from this year, which has been immense, and establish a career in my home country, or my home region, in helping to develop transitional justice norms,” she explains. Looking back, “it really has been the best year of my life.”