December 13, 2012

From “Glamorous” Activism to Global Movements: An Online HRJ Symposium

Posted by James Tager, JD '13, Online Editor, Harvard Human Rights Journal

Anniversaries are always a great time to reflect on the past and to examine opportunities for the future. This Monday marked the 64-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which is why we at the Harvard Human Rights Journal chose this Monday, December 10, to launch our new Online Symposium examining the concept of the ‘broad-based activist movement’ and what it means for human rights. Entitled “Avoiding the Trap,” the Symposium showcases the work of several notable human rights academics as they wrestle with three questions:

1. Is it possible to have a broad-based activist movement that is global in scope and sufficiently informed of the issues? If so, how do we build such a movement?

2. Is there a necessary trade-off between the nuance of a human rights situation and public support for its remedy? If so, where is that trade-off located and how should it be addressed?

3. How do we build a new ‘anti-atrocity constituency’ without falling into the trap of a Savage-Victim-Savior mentality?

Our contributors each provide their own take on these questions, with answers ranging from systematic prescriptions to deeply personal reflections, from a close examination of the recent Kony 2012 debate to insightful analysis of such expansive concepts as “global civil society” and the “glamour” of human rights. As someone who read and re-read these pieces prior to publication, I found myself connecting with them intellectually and at times even emotionally. Each piece challenges us to re-examine some of our own ideas on how to solve some of the Big Issues: atrocities, massive violence, core violations of international law.

The Harvard Human Rights Journal is proud to share these original pieces of human rights scholarship,  which we hope you will find insightful and thought-provoking. The Symposium can be found at the Harvard Human Rights Journal website.

Share By Email


December 5, 2012

Tomorrow, December 6: “City of God” Film Screening and Debate

Event Notice

HLS Brazilian Studies Association and the Human Rights Program Present:

215px-CidadedeDeus“City of God”

Film Screening and Debate

5:30- 8:15 pm

Wasserstein B010

Please join us for a debate on urban violence based on the award-winning movie “City of God.” Film starts at 5:30 pm, followed by a debate at 7:45 pm led by HLS Lecturer on Law Fernando Delgado.

Share By Email


December 5, 2012

A Question of Accountability: The Clinic’s Take on the Alien Tort Statute

Note: this article was written by Cara Solomon and originally published in Harvard Law Bulletin

A Question of Accountability

In a Supreme Court case, the International Human Rights Clinic argues that the Alien Tort Statute applies to corporations

It started off with an insult: A French adventurer, standing in the streets of Philadelphia, called the ambassador of France a nasty name. And perhaps if it had ended there, the Alien Tort Statute might never have come to be.

But language was not enough for the Chevalier de Longchamps, who was nursing a grudge. He lunged toward the ambassador. He hit the ambassador’s cane with his own. And in assaulting a foreign ambassador, Longchamps committed a violation of the law of nations.

It was 1784. The incident in Philadelphia drew international attention; then condemnation; then ridicule, as the Continental Congress lacked the power to take meaningful action in response.

Five years later, as part of the First Judiciary Act, the founders sent a strong message with what they called the Alien Tort Statute: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

It was an important gesture to the international community—a symbol of solidarity, historians would say: We will open up our new federal court system to victims of violations of the law of nations. The United States had arrived.

Part I

On the morning of Feb. 28, 2012, a team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic took their seats in the U.S. Supreme Court. Sitting directly behind petitioners’ counsel were Clinical Professor Tyler Giannini and Assistant Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04, nationally recognized leaders in Alien Tort Statute litigation, and co-directors of the clinic.

They had waited months to hear oral arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a case that would test the limits of the centuries-old ATS. It was the highest-profile human rights case to come before the Supreme Court in years.

Even before the Court granted certiorari, Kiobel had become an international flash point for the debate on corporate accountability, generating nearly 40 amicus briefs analyzing the ATS from every angle—foreign policy, the global economy, the international human rights movement. HLS staff, students and alumni were involved on both sides of the issue. For its part, the clinic filed a brief on behalf of legal historians, in support of petitioners.

Illustration by Justin Renteria, courtesy of Harvard Law Bulletin

Illustration by Justin Renteria, courtesy of Harvard Law Bulletin

“What’s at stake in Kiobel is the future of the ATS itself, and whether it will remain an example of how the United States takes its international legal obligations seriously,” said Farbstein.

Kiobel began like any other ATS case in recent memory—with allegations against a company or an individual for violations of international law. Esther Kiobel and 11 other members of the Ogoni people in Nigeria filed suit

against Shell in 2002, alleging crimes against humanity, including complicity in torture and extrajudicial executions. At issue: the company’s actions from 1992 to 1995, when the Ogoni were protesting oil development activities on their land.

Because Shell does much of its business in the United States, the courts agreed to hear the case. But on appeal, the 2nd Circuit turned its attention away from the case and toward the statute itself, dismissing Kiobel on the grounds that corporations could not be held liable under the ATS.

For observers of the ATS, this came as a surprise: For years, courts had allowed cases to proceed on the presumption that corporations were as liable as individuals for violations of international law.

“No one had really questioned it,” said Jenny Martinez ’97, a professor at Stanford Law School and one of the amici represented by the clinic. “It did seem rather obvious.”

After the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, other appellate courts went in the opposite direction, finding corporate liability perm

issible under the ATS—in cases against Exxon Mobil Corp. for violence in Indonesia, the Rio Tinto mining group for violence in Papua New Guinea, and Firestone tire company for child labor in West Africa.

“It was clear from the split in the lower courts that the question in Kiobel—whether a corporation could be held liable—was a central and fundamental threshold question that had to be clarified,” said Giannini.

Sooner or later, he said, the issue was headed to the Supreme Court.

Continue Reading…

Share By Email


December 3, 2012

First Step for Summer Internships: Meet with a Student Advisor!

Posted by Cara Solomon

Welcome to the application season for summer fellowships! As you may already know, the Human Rights Program provides funding to students interested in doing public interest work abroad. And the deadline is fast approaching: the HRP application is due on February 4, 2013. Also note that you must apply for SPIF (summer public interest funding) by December 21.

The first step in the process is to meet with one of of our student advisers; their focus areas, office hours and contact info are listed below. Unless otherwise noted, office hours will be held in the HRP lounge. If you can’t make office hours, please feel free to contact the student advisors separately to set up a time.

Nicolette Boehland has regional experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan and topical experience in civilian protection in conflict, international humanitarian law, and prison monitoring. Her office hours are on Wednesday from 3- 5 p.m. She can be reached at

Tess Borden has regional experience in sub-Saharan Africa and The Hague, Netherlands and topical experience in international justice, regional human rights systems, and UN mechanisms. Her office hours are Monday from 2- 4 p.m.  She can be reached at

James Tager spent his 1L summer working with a civil-society body on the Thai-Burmese border, and spent his 2L summer working with Open Society Justice Initiative in New York. He is particularly interested in rights-based social movements, preventing or addressing core violations of international law, and corporate accountability. His office hours are Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. He can be reached at

Frances Dales has regional experience in Central and South America and topical experience in minority group rights, land rights, and transitional justice. Her office hours are on Thursday from 12- 2 pm. She can be reached at

Lillian Langford has regional experience in East Africa, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and topical experience in international criminal justice, refugee issues, and foreign legal aid projects. Her office hours are Friday from 11- 1 pm. She can be reached at

Share By Email


November 29, 2012

HRP Open House: Tonight!

Posted by Cara Solomon

Please join the faculty, staff and students of the Human Rights Program (and its International Human Rights Clinic) for… an OPEN HOUSE!

It’s happening tonight from 5-7 pm in the HRP lounge, on the third floor of the clinical wing. All students are welcome to come learn more about the seminars, clinical work and academic offerings by HRP.

If that’s not incentive enough, there’s this: light refreshments will be served!

Hope to see you soon!


Share By Email


November 27, 2012

Important Victory for the Right to Education in South Africa

Posted by Susan Farbstein

In the not-so-distant past, denial of basic education to non-white citizens was a pillar of South Africa’s apartheid state.  The goal of “Bantu education” was to isolate and subjugate the black population, prevent the spread of “subversive” ideas, and prepare black students to provide labor for a white-run economy and society.  Recognizing that this system had to be eradicated if South Africa was to truly transform itself, the right to education was enshrined in the country’s new constitution during the transition to majority rule.  Basic education for all South Africans would be an immediately realizable right, essential to overcome decades of legalized discrimination and to ensure meaningful participation in a democratic society.

But absent clear standards and specific guidance about what a quality education means, the country has struggled to provide such education to most of its citizens.

A school in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Photo courtesy of Equal Education

According to the Department of Basic Education, as of 2011, of the 24,793 public schools in South Africa: 14% have no electricity; 10% have no water supply; 46% use pit-latrine toilets; 90% have no computer centers; 93% have no libraries; and 95% have no science laboratories.  We’re learning about these challenges through our partnership with Equal Education Law Centre (EELC), a law clinic set up to address what it describes as the ailing education system in South Africa.  Part of the problem is that while the South African Schools Act of 1996 empowered the Minister of Basic Education to set minimum norms and standards for all schools, such norms and standards were never established.

But last week, our partner in South Africa made measurable progress.  EELC and its sister organization, Equal Education (EE), along with the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), secured a major victory on the path to education reform in South Africa.  In an out-of-court settlement, the Minister of Basic Education agreed to promulgate binding minimum norms and standards for infrastructure of the country’s public schools. Continue Reading…

Share By Email


November 21, 2012

Op-Ed: The Trouble with Killer Robots

Posted by Cara Solomon

Since its release on Monday, the Clinic’s joint report with Human Rights Watch on “killer robots” has been attracting quite a bit of attention. Check out articles in The Guardian and AFP, as well as segments on Democracy Now and the BBC.

Bonnie also wrote an excellent Op-Ed about the issue for Foreign Policy magazine, which is reprinted in full below.

The Trouble with Killer Robots

Why we need to ban fully autonomous weapons systems, before it’s too late

by Bonnie Docherty

Imagine a mother who sees her children playing with toy guns as a military force approaches their village. Terrified, she sprints toward the scene, yelling at them to hurry home. A human soldier would recognize her fear and realize that her actions are harmless. A robot, unable to understand human intentions, would observe only figures, guns, and rapid movement. While the human soldier would probably hold fire, the robot might shoot the woman and her children.

Despite such obvious risks to civilians, militaries are already planning for a day when sentry robots stand guard at borders, ready to identify intruders and to kill them, without an order from a human soldier. Unmanned aircraft, controlled only by pre-programmed algorithms, might carry up to 4,500 pounds of bombs that they could drop without real time authorization from commanders. Continue Reading…

Share By Email


November 19, 2012

“The Case Against Killer Robots”: An International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch Report


Ban Killer Robots Before It’s Too Late

Fully Autonomous Weapons Would Increase Danger to Civilians

November 19, Washington, DC – Governments should pre-emptively ban fully autonomous weapons because of the danger they pose to civilians in armed conflict, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a report released today. These future weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would be able to choose and fire on targets without human intervention.

The 50-page report, “Losing Humanity: The Case Against Killer Robots,” outlines concerns about these fully autonomous weapons, which would inherently lack human qualities that provide legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians. In addition, the obstacles to holding anyone accountable for harm caused by the weapons would weaken the law’s power to deter future violations.

“Giving machines the power to decide who lives and dies on the battlefield would take technology too far,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. “Human control of robotic warfare is essential to minimizing civilian deaths and injuries.”

“Losing Humanity is the first major publication about fully autonomous weapons by a nongovernmental organization and is based on extensive research into the law, technology, and ethics of these proposed weapons. It is jointly published by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic.

Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic called for an international treaty that would absolutely prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. They also called on individual nations to pass laws and adopt policies as important measures to prevent development, production, and use of such weapons at the domestic level.

“It’s critical to take action now,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic and senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The technology is alluring, and the more nations invest in it, the harder it will be to convince them to give it up.” Continue Reading…

Share By Email


November 14, 2012

Tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 15: The Rule of Law at Home and Abroad

Event Notice

November 15, 2012

“Rule of Law at Home and Abroad – A Critical Perspective”

A Panel Discussion

12 – 2 pm

Wasserstein 3019

Promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels is at the heart of the United Nations’ mission. It is also a principle that is embedded throughout the Charter of the United Nations and most constitutions of national states. But there is much friction among Member States as to the definition of the rule of law, with assertions of hidden agendas.  In addition, there is mounting skepticism among donors and international organizations regarding rule of law promotion.

Please join us for an inter-active discussion on these issues with panelists: Gerald L. Neuman, J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard; Ivan Šimonovi?, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; and Robert O. Varenik, Director of Programs, Open Society Justice Initiative.

The moderator will be David Marshall, LL.M ‘02, Visiting Fellow, Harvard Human Rights Program, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Share By Email


November 13, 2012

Today: The Guatemala STD Inoculation Studies; Human Rights and the Supreme Court of India

Event Notice

November 13, 2012

“The Guatemala STD Inoculation Studies: What Should We Do Now?”

12:30-2 pm

Wasserstein 3019

Lunch will be served

In the late 1940s, US and Guatemalan researchers conducted a host of experiments on vulnerable Guatemalan subjects, purposefully exposing them to and infecting them with a number of STDs without their consent.  The experiments were kept hidden for more than half a century, until they were discovered and exposed only recently by historian Susan Reverby.  The US government has since apologized for what happened, but a class action suit brought on behalf of the Guatemalan subjects was dismissed in June and efforts to directly compensate the victims have not been forthcoming.   Please join Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center and Human Rights Program for a panel discussion of the study and possible legal and political responses that may be available now, both domestically and from an international human rights perspective.

Panelists will include:  Susan Reverby, Marion Butler McLean Professor in the History of Ideas, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies, Wellesley College; I. Glenn Cohen, Assistant Professor of Law, Faculty Co-Director, Petrie-Flom Center, Harvard Law School; Holly Fernandez Lynch, Executive Director, Petrie-Flom Center, Lecturer on Law, Harvard Law School; Wendy Parmet,  George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law, Northeastern University School of Law; Fernando Ribeiro Delgado, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School.

And later today:

“The Supreme Court of India

and the Implementation of Human Rights”

A Panel of Distinguished Guests

5- 7 pm

Wasserstein 1010

This panel discussion, moderated by Professor Mark Tushnet of Harvard Law School, will feature: Chief Justice Altamas Kabir of the Supreme Court of India; Justice Swatanter Kumar of the Supreme Court of India; Justice Arijit Pasayat, of the Supreme Court of India; Shri Salman Khurshid, Honourable Minister for Law and Justice; G.E.Vahanvati, Attorney General of India; T.K. Viswanathan, Secretary General of the Indian Parliament; Rakesh Munjal, Senior Advocate; and Professor S. V. Sivakumar, Director of the Indian Law Institute.

This event is being co-sponsored by International Legal Studies and the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research.