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Forrester Fellow tackles human rights protection in war and peacetime

December 14, 2015

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Ashika Singh (above right, second row), now a Tulane Law Forrester Fellow, provided legal assistance in 2014 to the U.S. State Department team that presented before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva. Below, she listens during a statement by David Bitkower, deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

State Department photos by Eric Bridiers 


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As a high schooler in Hong Kong, Ashika Singh tackled daunting contemporary issues during debate competitions against students in Beijing, Seoul and other Asian locations. At a Model United Nations, she and other teens solved international problems, such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

But her subsequent work as a lawyer at the U.S. State Department taught her a sober lesson: “It works well in high school; it gets difficult when you get in the real world,” she said.

Now a Forrester Fellow at Tulane Law School, Singh is delving as a scholar into the kinds of legal quandaries she saw in practice during four years as an attorney-adviser handling assignments involving the Benghazi attack, Guantanamo Bay detainees and other international law matters. She’s currently developing a framework for guiding choices to protect human rights during wartime. Her paper has been accepted for spring publication in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.

The work grew out of Singh’s involvement in the United States’ presentation before the United Nations Committee Against Torture on compliance with obligations to prevent torture and cruel treatment. 

“It was a really fascinating experience,” she said, and it provided insight into the difficulty of interpreting and applying the law in the face of morphing terrorism threats.

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Tulane Forrester Fellow Ashika Singh

During the presentation in Geneva in November 2014, the Obama administration’s delegation told the committee that it would take a slightly broader view than the Bush administration about the extraterritorial applications of the Convention Against Torture. This interpretation confirmed that certain treaty provisions may apply to Guantanamo Bay and other places outside the United States that the U.S. government controls as a governmental authority. 

A separate but related issue involved the interaction between the convention and the law governing the conduct of warfare and protection of war victims, known as the law of war or international humanitarian law. If the Convention Against Torture and the law of war both apply to a wartime situation, but they conflict in certain respects, which takes precedence? The Obama team took the position that the Convention Against Torture continues to apply during wartime but that the more-specialized laws of war would take precedence over the convention where the two conflict. Singh’s scholarship elaborates on that position by reviewing its historical roots and clarifying its theoretical framework.

The imperative of confronting the ongoing but changing nature of international terrorism “makes the flip side of the civil liberties/human rights component important as well,” she said.

“The U.S. is one of the leading figures in the development of human rights law,” while ISIS accepts slavery, torture and other brutal practices, she said. “If we have to defeat them by resorting to their tactics, who’s really won in the end? It’s a war of ideas as much as a war on the battlefield.”

Singh, who served under both Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, joined the department in hopes of focusing on international law but could have been assigned to any number of areas, from employment issues to building contracts. Instead, one of her first major tasks was advising the Accountability Review Board that conducted a comprehensive study of the 2012 attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

“For four months, we worked around the clock, interviewing everybody, reviewing video footage,” Singh said. The report made 29 recommendations, all of which the department accepted, for improving security at dangerous diplomatic posts.

Through the two-year Forrester Fellowship, Singh is teaching Tulane Law students legal research and writing while pursuing her scholarship, with the goal of eventually teaching international law. She has a breadth of global understanding developed through personal and professional experience. Born in San Francisco, she grew up in New York and spent a few years in Canada in addition to her time at an American high school in Hong Kong. 

A graduate of Harvard University, the University of Cambridge in England and New York University School of Law, Singh clerked for Judge Norman Stahl on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and worked at the UN International Law Commission in Geneva and the ICC International Court of Arbitration in Paris.

During several years at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton in New York, she handled federal commercial litigation. But she also did extensive pro bono work, including representing asylum-seeking immigrants and advising an international NGO in a case involving fisheries.

 
   


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