Human Rights and Corruption:
Our Q&A with Law Professor Juliet Sorensen

Juliet Sorensen is a professor at Northwestern Law School’s Center for International Human Rights, and her specialties there include international criminal law, trial advocacy, global health, and human rights.

She also teaches at Kellogg, Northwestern’s business school. She serves on the Cook County Board of Ethics. She founded the Northwestern Access to Health Project, bringing university resources to people around the globe. She’s on a committee to help her U.S. Senator select federal judges. She’s on the American Bar Association’s Global Anti-Corruption Task Force. (Presumably, she also sleeps sometimes, but I’m not exactly sure.)

With this busy schedule, she still somehow found time to speak with me on the phone recently to tell me about some of the innovative and interdisciplinary work she’s been accomplishing.

*** Juliet-SorensenJuliet Sorensen


Date: April 19, 2016

Hometown: NYC

Current town: Chicago, IL

Occupation: Law Professor


Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I was intrigued when I saw that you were working on issues involving corruption and human rights. I tend to think of corruption as a purely financial crime, with only a tenuous connection to more specific harms, but you are drawing direct connections between corruption and human rights abuses. Can you tell me a little about this issue?

Sure. I think that the intersection between corruption and human rights occurs at both a macro and a grassroots level. On the community level, when we talk about local government officials, at home, or around the world, we sometimes forget that we are talking about public employees, like teachers and county health employees. These public employees and public servants are performing services at the local level…if they are demanding bribes in exchange for essential medicines or treatment, or if they’re demanding a payoff before a child can advance to the next level in school, then the fundamental building blocks of human rights, the right to education and the right to health care, are impeded.

At the national level, there’s also an intersection between corruption and human rights: participation in government is a fundamental right in the US, and in other democracies. If we believe someone in public office is corrupt, we can act by voting, and democracy can play the role that a court process might not, and we can vote that person out of office. But when the electoral process itself is compromised, that ultimate backstop is thwarted, and the public official remains in power and can begin developing a culture of impunity.

I’ve been told by some cynics that everything is corrupt. And while there’s probably no completely pure system anywhere (because we’re fallible and imperfect human beings), my understanding is that the level of corruption does vary considerably from place to place. The Scandinavian countries do a good job, the U.S. is somewhere in the middle the pack, and there’s a higher level of corruption in the developing world. Is that an accurate picture?

That is. There’s a lot of debate on how best to measure or capture corruption. No one self reports! Statistics like convictions, the existence of transparency laws, etc. don’t completely capture the level of corruption in different places. What’s emerged as the gold standard is the Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perceived level of corruption in different places. Northern Europe tends to have a low level of corruption. The U.S. is not so squeaky-clean. And Somalia, Liberia, and Afghanistan are among the worst.

Is there a good understanding of what causes these levels of corruption?

There are a few causes, and there are quite rigorous studies showing a connection between poverty and corruption level. What is also true is that corruption impedes economic growth and development. So it is hard to break out of it, especially if officials are lining their own pockets with public funds.

I worked for many years in NYC government and although I did occasionally see wrongdoing, generally, I thought my fellow civil servants were honest and did a good job. (I hope you don’t disabuse me of that notion!) I would image that levels of corruption vary within the US considerably, too. Does corruption line up with poverty within the US the way it does internationally?

That really depends on the definition you’re using. If we look at criminal conduct in the U.S., like bribery and embezzlement, we get one answer. If our metrics include conduct that is considered unethical but not criminal, like nepotism and patronage, we tend to get different results. Relationship-based governance takes hold more strongly in small communities, and at local levels (as opposed to national or state levels). In NYC and Chicago there are active U.S. Attorneys offices, so we see more indictments…and there’s also a larger population. If we were able to control for those factors, that would affect a state by state index.

What can we do to change this? Is corruption primarily a cultural problem? Is it something that we can address through legislation?

It’s really a multi-faceted approach. In the U.S. we have an empowered civil society and press, including investigative journalism, which can expose corruption and give it attention in ways the justice system cannot. We need strong institutions, including the rule of law generally, the courts, and members of the bar.

We need resources to enforce laws and conduct investigations. More generally, the question is how do we inspire better government. Meaningful ethics trainings for public employees, and a robust compliance program for government at all levels help. We all know people who have done those ethics trainings half asleep, but they do matter. The tone that is set dictates the culture: a culture that’s a meritocracy, or a culture of relationship-based governance.


Do open government laws have their desired affect? I was told when I worked on the NY State version of this (Freedom of Information Law, or FOIL), that sunshine was the best disinfectant. I’m not sure it necessarily works that way in practice, but I certainly hope so. (In practice, a lot of people used the law to harass government, or because they were interested in doing business with government and wanted information on existing concessions or construction contracts, or because they were trying to dig up information to use in a tort case…but sometimes people really were trying to make a difference.)

Yes, things like FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act), and the Open Meetings Act, and the versions that many states have provided for, do make a difference. To be sure, from the perspective of government employees, these laws can be a pain, and they can be abused. On the other hand, on net, they are a good thing. They hold local government accountable, and what they provide to the news media and to concerned citizens, that transparency, is guaranteed by law.

When I went to a training class on open government, the person conducting the lecture, the head of the New York State Committee on Open Government, told us that the best freedom of information law in the world was in Mexico.

That’s really interesting. I’ve had Mexican students recently who have sent me some excellent long form investigative journalism pieces from local newspapers on corruption in Mexico. The reporters had obtained the records that were the basis for the articles through their version of FOIA.


Is social media having an influence on corruption?

Yes, it is. I think that the digital age generally has been harnessed by non-profits and NGOs at the national, the international, and the community-based level. One of the best examples in this area is a website:, from India. It’s a forum for people who have been shaken down by police officers or local officials, to share the event, share details, and shine sunlight, and exposure, and give each other solidarity. It’s something that’s an open source, and can be referred to by prosecutors and law enforcement, and also other non-profits. That’s one example at a community level. It’s been copied in countries around the world.

I’m glad to hear about that. I don’t like the internet stories about mob rule so much.

There are upsides and downsides. Social media is great for education and awareness-raising.


You are also working in the area of global health, I understand. Does that tie in with your focus on human rights?

Very much so. I’m with the Center for International Human rights at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. I teach a course called Health and Human Rights, which is in part an interdisciplinary clinical project. The law part is the right to health care. We have students from the law school, Kellogg (Northwestern’s business school), and students getting their Masters in Public Health. We put them together to work in the developing world communities in groups solving problems. The students really enjoy it. It’s not a theoretical project. It’s hands on: the real world and real issues. And it’s very rewarding for them. They realize that each student on the team from a different discipline has training and experience that they add to the teamwork. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One of the nice experiences for me is that the students’ work is of high quality.

Last month, I was in Mali, then with six students to Lagos, Nigeria to do focus groups and interviews. Here’s a piece on the Northwestern Public Health Review Blog about our experience in Nigeria: Finding the First Step.

Every project is different…some have fieldwork and travel and some don’t. We’ve worked in Ethiopia, the Dominican Republic, Mali, the Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Kurdistan. So far.

That’s a lot of different languages, governments, and local conditions!

That’s what keeps it interesting. But I’m not on my own. We got a major gift last year, and now we have a clinical fellow, and I’ve got a counterpart at the medical school who’s terrific.

You teach in both the business and the law schools at Northwestern. I know that the work you do is interdisciplinary. Are the students resistant to this approach?

Not for long–maybe the first and second class. Humans are malleable, and in grad school we are all taught to speak a certain way and think a certain way. They do look at each other at first like they don’t speak the same language, or even like they are from different planets! But it doesn’t take long to discover the upside. And the joy of working with other people their age, drawn to the same work, but bringing a different perspective and depth of expertise is very rewarding.

When I worked in local government, I really liked working with people with knowledge of different fields. I would talk to engineers and have to translate their engineer-speak into plain English, and then I’d translate the plain English into legalese. It was actually fun to do.

If you can talk with people who have a specialized training and also make things clear to a layperson, you’re a really good communicator.

Well, that’s something lawyers should do. What kinds of things can ordinary people do to help with these issues, locally and/or globally?

I think that the most important thing is to stay informed. I tell my law students that a good lawyer is more than just a technician. A good lawyer has a more nuanced understanding of the subject matter. With public corruption and global health, staying informed is number one. Curate your twitter feed, subscribe to publications to get news digests, and stay informed with what is happening all over the world. And making thoughtful choices as a citizen in the local community, and as a global citizen, matters. We’re in an era of globalization, in a shrinking world.


If I remember correctly, your father was in public service, having worked in the Kennedy administration. Has his work influenced your career in government and law?

Yes, it has. Your memory is correct. He [Ted Sorensen] was the Special Counsel to JFK. He was a great dad. His ideals have influenced me hugely, and I try to live up to them and convey them to my students.

Maybe your kids will end up in public service too, someday.



So I understand you are working on a book now?

Yes, I’m working on a book on public corruption and the law, with my co-author David Hoffman at the University of Chicago. We both worked in the U.S. Attorneys Office and then worked together on corruption cases when he was the Inspector General for the City of Chicago. Our book is coming out later this year, published by West Academic. I think it will have appeal to lawyers, both practitioners, and academics, and policy makers, investigative journalists, political scientists, and economists.

What’s the title?

Public Corruption and the Law.

I will look forward to it. Will it make the connections that you’ve been telling me about between corruption and these specific harms to health and rights?

Yes. It is organized by subject matter, and also geographically, from local to global. It has information about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and international treaties on corruption, as well as a range of US federal laws, including criminal laws and campaign finance law (a lack of regulation has been said to have a corrupting influence on government). We also look at methods to retain power, such as patronage and redistricting

So it’s very broad.

It’s a good read, all 900 pages of it!




On to another topic, do you have a book recommendation for us? What should everyone read? (Besides your book, when it comes out!)

I’ll give you two. The first is an outstanding read and excellent writing, and it vividly demonstrates corruption: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. It’s about daily life in a slum in Mumbai. Truly a page-turner, and it’s all about the effect of corruption on daily life.

Another book I’d recommend, truth being more sinister than fiction, is Red Notice. It’s about an investor in post-Soviet Russia who made a fortune, and then lost the fortune when his tax attorney was arrested, tortured, and killed after uncovering a corruption and fraud scheme by Russian law enforcement. William Browder went from being a hedge fund investor to a human rights activist after his lawyer’s death.

His actions and the law he managed to get passed in the U.S. angered the Russian government so much, that they instituted a U.S. adoption ban in retaliation.

I remember the adoption ban being in the news recently, and that it was a reaction to the Russians being unhappy with some U.S. policy, but I didn’t know this backstory…sounds fascinating, and horrible.


Do you have a favorite movie?

It’s hard because there are so many good ones. I highly recommend Timbuktu. The story is fictional but very realistic- it takes place during the Islamist occupation of Mali in 2012 and the imposition of an extreme version of religion on an incredibly tolerant and pluralistic people.

I haven’t seen that movie but I remember reading about people in Mali hiding books and religious texts (and getting help from people around the world) because they were afraid their history would be destroyed. Fortunately, they had some success.

Ironic because the books are so important to the history of Islam. Timbuktu was a major religious, cultural, and trading center centuries ago. And the extremists didn’t care and would have destroyed what was their own religious heritage.


If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?

I can think of so many things. I feel like I started thinking about what to do differently the second I graduated from college! I guess, well, okay…generally, I would have done several things differently, but I don’t regret any of them in the long term, because I’d like to think I’ve learned from those mistakes and benefited from them each and every time.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The best advice has two parts. Don’t sweat the small stuff. And, it’s all small stuff.

That’s odd coming from a human rights lawyer!

Well, human rights is not small stuff! But most of what we worry about is.


What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I speak fluent Arabic and I love the ballet.


What’s your strangest phobia or superstition?

Someone told me when I was five that if I wasn’t wearing green when I went by the cemetery, the spirits would jump down my throat. To this day, I check, and if I’m not wearing green, I hold my breath.


Last, but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?

My book! If you’re interested in any aspect of corruption, as I’ve described it in this conversation, I encourage people to get a deeper perspective on it, in our upcoming book.


Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at


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Lead-In Image (Rusted Lock) Courtesy of Bennian /

All Other Images Courtesy of Juliet Sorensen