If there’s a word that describes international human rights lawyer Cassandre Theano, it’s tenacious. Her desire to make positive change in society is clear. Born in New York and raised in Haiti, Theano grew up witnessing the injustices being committed firsthand and seeing people not have the ability to fight back.
Pursuing a career in the legal field as a result was a natural path for her. As an international human rights lawyer, she is also an advocate who focuses on women’s rights and citizenship rights. Theano speaks to The Haitian Times on the work that’s shaped her into the person she is today.
What inspired you to focus on human rights within the legal field?
I don’t know when it exactly crystallized for me, but it was very early. I’d say probably between 14 and 16 years old, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and I knew I wanted to particularly practice human rights law. I was living in Haiti at the time and one of the things that always struck me was that no matter what kind of harm, in Haiti in particular, there was no remedy. You couldn’t necessarily turn to the police or go to court or anything of the sort. It was kind of like the “wild wild west” in terms of things that happened to you. For instance, if somebody decided your home is actually their home, very often, people would walk away from that because if you decided to pursue it, you’d literally be putting your life in danger. That always puzzled me and I kept thinking about how basic people’s human rights were not respected.
For me, the absence of the rule of law interestingly in my country made me want to practice something that had a very direct effect on how people’s rights are valued. When I moved to the United States, which happened when I was 17, I realized that the problems that I felt were so inherent to Haiti oftentimes weren’t. People here who are of a lower socioeconomic status also experience those same issues. So there was kind of a continuation in terms of abuses committed by particular persons to particular persons. For me, it was a bridge, it was something that I could practice in Haiti, I could practice it here in the U.S. and I could take it international; so I thought it was most relevant to the things that mattered to me.
What are you currently focusing on at the moment?
I am part of this organization called In Cultured Company that conducts trainings that brings together Haitians and Dominicans to heal the divide that is so pervasive within our communities. We have very difficult conversations in an intimate way so we’re really honest and confront the things that lead to the policies that [not only] affect Dominicans of Haitian descent, but black bodies in the Dominican Republic.
After representing stateless people before the regional courts in Latin America and Africa, I was inspired by the limitations of litigation to change the hearts and minds of people. The series of workshops and conversations In Cultured Company hosts, aims to build bridges here [while] others have created barriers.
This year, I will be branching out and teaching a course on international human rights law at Columbia Law School.