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Human Rights @ Harvard Law

Areas Of Focus

Counterterrorism & Human Rights

Government efforts to fight terrorism are often rife with human rights abuse. At times of heightened public fear, it is often easier for states to frame human rights obligations as luxuries that are at odds with security. And yet, those obligations exist precisely to protect us during times when governments are most tempted to cast them aside.

HRP Poster-GuantanamoThe United States government’s post-9/11 counterterrorism laws and practices, including the various wars waged under the banner of fighting terror, have been widely condemned for their serious and numerous violations of human rights. Arbitrary detention, torture, unlawful killing, invasive surveillance, suppression of dissent, and devastation of economic and health infrastructure are some of the many documented effects of the counterterrorism effort. Meanwhile, U.S. political branches and courts have foreclosed many traditional mechanisms for domestic accountability.

Through academic and clinical engagement, the Human Rights Program (HRP) works with partner organizations, clients, and independently to address harms committed in this context. We have developed particular expertise on the pivotal role played by U.S. military and intelligence health professionals in the torture of people held in national security detention centers, with both the Academic Program and the International Human Rights Clinic pushing for accountability through a multi-faceted approach to advocacy. The Clinic has organized supporters, educated the public, and shaped strategy at multiple levels, including by drafting and supporting professional misconduct complaints before state licensing boards; legally challenging boards’ failures to adequately investigate and adjudicate complaints; and proposing reforms of professional accountability mechanisms. The Academic Program has convened a series of interdisciplinary workshops that resulted in the publication of an edited volume.

HRP works on other dimensions of human rights and counterterrorism advocacy as well. Clinical teams have Ryancontributed research and strategic support to efforts led by partner organizations advocating in foreign (non-U.S.) jurisdictions to hold U.S. officials accountable for extraordinary rendition, arbitrary detention, and torture. More recently, we have expanded our subject areas to address a wider range of human rights issues arising from the post-9/11 U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through working in a coalition that includes U.S. veterans, Iraqi civil society groups, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Clinic has contributed through research, litigation, advocacy, and organizing to highlighting the devastating mental and physical health effects of these conflicts on Iraqis, Afghans, and U.S. service members and veterans.

Point person for Counterterrorism & Human Rights: Deborah Popowski

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