UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Spring 2009
[activist]
Becoming the Solution
The IPJ’s Dustin Sharp is invested in shining a bright light on human rights
by Dirk Sutro

Wall Street came calling after Dustin Sharp earned his law degree from Harvard in 2002. When you’re $90,000 in debt for your education, an astronomical entry-level salary is tempting. But Sharp had already worked in Washington, D.C. and Paris for a financial firm the year before, and he knew what that paycheck would truly cost.

While living the “luxe” life was “a lovely experience,” it simply wasn’t his style. The bicycle he now rides to work rests against one wall of his small office at USD’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice; he joined the institute last September. Sharp wears a white shirt, comfortable chinos and black oxfords.

“I looked around and thought about who I wanted to look like in 20 or 30 years,” he says. The result of that reflection was to turn his back on what some would perceive as the good life.

So, instead of building a career around conspicuous consumption — during those Wall Street days, he enjoyed upscale restaurants, four-star hotels and fine wine — Sharp decided to use his law degree to stand up for victims of atrocities in regions around the world.

On the way to USD, he gained firsthand knowledge of international crimes and injustices: with the Peace Corps from 1996 to 1998, as a U.S. State Department official from 2003 to 2005, and as an investigator with Human Rights Watch from 2006 to 2008.

As one of dozens of State Department attorneys pushing for rigorous respect for the United States’ international legal obligations, Sharp was frustrated when these obligations were at times ignored by others within the administration. While he and his peers advocated for policy consistent with international human rights law, the Bush administration used “tricks of language and sleights of hand” to follow its own course. “They didn’t fool anyone, most of all us,” Sharp says. “It was a difficult time to be there.”

When he began working for Human Rights Watch in early 2006, Sharp left the formal government life and plunged straight into the bloody heart of violence. Investigating massacres, rapes, kidnappings, torture and other horrors, Sharp often placed himself at great personal risk.

Conducting interviews with victims in modest hotel rooms, he worked below the radar of government, military and local insurgents, and used these interviews to write reports about violence involving hundreds or thousands of citizens in places like Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. His reports recommended how such abuses can be prevented through government reform, vigilance and prosecution of perpetrators.

In 2007 in Guinea, government forces brutalized peaceful demonstrators, who were raped, assaulted, and murdered under the watch of President Lansana Conté’s corrupt administration. Meanwhile, presidential cronies accused of crimes such as embezzling from the Central Bank were released from prison.

Sharp’s 64-page report for Human Rights Watch detailed many abuses and recommended remedies. In 2007 the government created a new, independent panel to investigate these crimes and prosecute those responsible. The report also called on the United Nations for assistance, and the U.N. took preliminary steps to enforce human rights in Guinea.

In his new post at USD, he’ll remain active in human rights, but with less travel to work in dangerous locales. Sharp says his position allows him to split his time between teaching human rights to graduate students and developing and managing social justice programs in West Africa.

“The tricky thing in international relations is that jobs are few and far between on the West Coast,” Sharp says. “I was lucky to land at USD. I grew up in Colorado and Utah and have never lived in California. I’ve always been a big outdoors person, and I spend every weekend in back country areas like Mount Laguna on my mountain bike. I also hope to take up a water sport — probably sea kayaking.”

Once he gets out past the breakers, say exploring the caves near La Jolla Cove on a sunny, summer day, Sharp can drift in serene waters, for a brief time far removed from the turbulent regions where he’ll continue to push for peace and justice.