One Take on Oral History and (International Human Rights) Litigation

by Phil Sandick, OHMA Alumnus


I recently published an article—available here —in which I argued that the International Criminal Court (ICC) should create a public interviewing guide. The ICC should do so because it has a well-recognized statutory duty to protect those who put themselves at risk on account of the ICC’s work, and ICC interviewers put themselves at risk. My ability to read and understand the legal duty came from my legal education and my work at the ICC in 2012.  My ability to understand most of the rest of the equation—the importance and effect of interviewing styles, the effect of trauma on narrative, the moral imperative that attaches to de- and re-narrativizing—came from my OHMA experience.

One of the ingenious aspects of OHMA is its flexibility.  It may come as a surprise to learn that OHMA was not, at least primarily, an oral history degree for me.  Rather, by learning oral history as I chose to learn it during my two semesters, I sought out a deeper understanding of the relationships between people, how those relationships are negotiated, how groups negotiate the public sphere, and how trauma affects those and other aspects of our individual and collective experiences.  I knew I was going in to learn about the first three, but I had no idea I would become so interested in the last one.

As a future litigator, it turns out that understanding trauma—at least better than I did before—might end up being the most beneficial.  People will come to me either when they want to sue someone or when they are being sued.  Both of those are traumatic experiences.  The human rights litigation process broadens the spectrum of trauma to include victims, perpetrators, first responders, activists, investigators, and, among many others, us lawyers.  OHMA did not offer up solutions to human rights litigation trauma—that’s therapy’s job.  But it did help me notice where and why issues might arise.  And because cases often rise or fall based on narratives strung together using witness testimony, understanding trauma in the courtroom has already immeasurably enhanced my ability to advocate for my clients and to protect those at risk on account of my work.