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May 26, 2015

Listening to the People of Myanmar: “Do You See What You Have Done?”

Posted by Courtney Svoboda, JD '16

This past January, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to a small rural community on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. While the Clinic had been there many times before, it was my first time to meet the survivors of a brutal military offensive in Eastern Myanmar. As children ran up and down the aisles of the makeshift meetinghouse, we spoke with the villagers about the document we had written—a document that was, in a sense, their own.

On the strength of more than 1,000 pages of their testimony, we had produced a legal memorandum that made a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also implicated current high-ranking military and government officials. Last November, when it was released, the findings sparked a discussion about accountability in a country that is, for the most part, considered to be on the path to reform.

When we finished telling the villagers all of this, I expected people to ask questions or to begin filtering down the dusty aisles towards the exits. Instead, after a few more minutes of silence, a man stood up and began telling us a story about his life. After he finished, another person rose to speak. Slowly, one by one, more came forward to talk to us.

As the crowd dwindled, one woman approached, her young son’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck, and started telling her story. A few years earlier, the Myanmar military had come into her village, shooting at people and burning homes as they moved through the streets. She took shelter in the jungle with her children, but without proper food or medicine, one of them died; then another; then a third.

I knew this story. I had read it back in Cambridge while working on the Clinic’s legal memorandum. But it was one thing to process her story from a distance. It was another to stand in front of her.

I have always believed in the power of storytelling to create empathy and human connection. But somewhere along the way in law school, I lost sight of it. I got distracted, poring over pages of documents, piecing together facts, checking grammar, debating sentence structure. It was easy to forget that at the heart of the Clinic’s work are people, wanting to be heard.

For those three weeks in January, our clinical team listened to people all over Myanmar. We heard about ongoing abuses in Shan State and Kachin State. We heard about police crackdowns at Letpadaung. The stories are everywhere.

Ironically enough, a story I heard back in Cambridge left one of the deepest impressions. It came from U Teikkha Nyana, a monk who participated in a panel discussion the Clinic organized on accountability in Myanmar.

Speaking in his crimson robes via Skype, U Teikkha Nyana took the audience of law students and professors back to a dark, brisk night in Letpadaung in northern Myanmar, where hundreds of monks were lined up in peaceful protest outside of a copper mine. First, he recalled how the police doused the men with water; then, how they shot canisters of white phosphorus, an acidic weapon that burns flesh.

“We kept our heads down, covered ourselves with robes and blankets, and took the brunt of it,” U Teikkha Nyana told us.

He waited for his words to be translated, then began again.

“My robes and blankets that were soaking wet suddenly caught on fire . . . . I was engulfed in flames.”

Another pause, as the audience absorbed those words.

“I raised my arms up and screamed at them, ‘Look what you have done. Do you see what you have done?’”

From the moment U Teikkha Nyana started speaking, I was captivated. It was more than just the words that he spoke. It was seeing him speak, hearing the inflection in his voice, seeing the look in eyes—the depth of compassion, pain, and ultimately hope. I already knew the facts about the crackdown in Letpadaung; I had read the statistics. But here was one man, in front of me, telling his story, a small window into the experiences of others like him who have also suffered.

It brought me back to that day in the village, when one person after another stepped forward—story after story, followed by a sea of handshakes and heartfelt thanks.

There is no one way to achieve accountability in Myanmar. That much is clear. Different communities and advocates will have different ideas, and it is not my place to define that path. But at the center of it all, surely, are stories—the stories of the many who have suffered, from the villagers at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to the monks whose burns are still healing. These stories should be heard. These stories need to be a part of the conversation.

U Teikkha Nyana and the villagers at the heart of the Clinic’s work: thank you for sharing your stories. I, for one, feel honored to have heard them.

*****

Below is the video from the Clinic’s panel discussion featuring U Teikkha Nyana, who is suing the Home Affairs Minister, Major General Ko Ko, for his responsibility in the Letpadaung crackdown. Ko Ko is one of the high-ranking government officials implicated in the Clinic’s legal memorandum. The panel also included U Teikkha Nyana’s lawyer, U Aung Thein; Roger Normand, of Justice Trust; and Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights.

 

May 22, 2015

Clinical Director Susan Farbstein Promoted to Become Clinical Professor of Law

Posted by Martha Minow, Dean, Harvard Law School, and Tyler Giannini

Today, we have some great news: in recognition of her excellence as both a teacher and a human rights advocate, Clinical Director Susan Farbstein has been promoted to become a Clinical Professor of Law.

Susan Farbstein, pictured here on a panel honoring Nelson Mandela, was recently promoted to Clinical Professor of Law.

Susan Farbstein, pictured here on a panel honoring Nelson Mandela, was recently promoted to Clinical Professor of Law.

Since arriving at HLS, Susan has centered her work on three main areas of expertise: transitional justice, Alien Tort Statute litigation, and South Africa. Her accomplishments are numerous, and the Harvard Law School website highlights them in this article announcing Susan’s promotion from Assistant Clinical Professor.

Most recently, over the past three years, Farbstein and her clinical students have collaborated with Equal Education Law Centre in South Africa to advance the right to education enshrined in that country’s constitution. She has also continued to distinguish herself as a leading Alien Tort Statute litigator, serving as co-counsel on several major cases, including In Re South African Apartheid Litigation and Mamani v. Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain.

Please join us in congratulating Susan on this much-deserved honor.

May 12, 2015

From Bosnia to Somalia: Classifying “Involvement” in Armed Conflict

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

The laws governing armed conflict may seem simple on the surface. Soldiers can be targeted; civilians cannot. But the line between these groups is blurry and can have life-and-death implications.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians can be intentionally killed if they “directly participate in hostilities.” But what does direct participation mean? What if a civilian feeds combatants, drives members of an armed group, provides equipment or intelligence, or takes up arms to protect family members? Does it matter if involvement was voluntary or forced? Do such actions mean the civilian can be lawfully targeted?

CIVICCoverA new 84-page report, to which the International Human Rights Clinic contributed a case study, takes a fresh look at this contentious issue. The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict, released Tuesday by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documents the experiences of people in four former or current conflict zones: Bosnia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. It does not seek to come up with a conclusive definition of direct participation in hostilities. Instead, it aims to inform the debate among military commanders, lawyers, academics, and other experts by adding the voices of those who have lived through war.

The report finds that civilians become involved in conflict in a number of ways, ranging from fighting to providing logistical support to membership in civil defense forces or political parties. While sometimes voluntary, their involvement is often motivated by threats from armed groups or the need to survive. The people CIVIC interviewed had varied understandings of who is a civilian and who is a combatant and found it difficult to delineate the difference. They agreed, however, that the legal status that derives from involvement can not only determine whether civilians are targeted but also affect their lives long after a conflict ends.

On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.

On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.

In 2013, I led a four-person team, including Lara Berlin, JD ’14, Luca Urech, Fletcher ’13, and Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, on a field mission to Bosnia, where we documented people’s experiences during the war. Later, as a post-graduate fellow at CIVIC, Boehland conducted investigations in three other conflict zones and served as lead author of the final report.

Testimony from those who lived through the Bosnia war of 1992-1995 highlighted the challenge of classifying involvement in a conflict. Some Bosnians told the Clinic’s research team that everyone during the armed conflict was a soldier, while others contended they were all civilians. A 40-year-old gardener from Srebrenica said, “The line between soldiers and civilians in war is invisible. . . . There is almost no line, no distinction.”

Residents of Sarajevo, for example, frequently fought on the front lines on certain days, but took off their uniforms and returned to their families on others. A woman who had lived through the city’s siege captured the confusion about the nature of these people’s involvement: “Many killed [during the conflict] were actually civilians, but I don’t know how to distinguish them. If my uncle is on duty, he’s one thing, but when he’s in line for bread, what is he?”

The stories of Bosnians and others in this report illustrate the modes, motivations, and complexities of people’s involvement in armed conflict. Experts and policymakers would do well to heed these realities as they continue their deliberations about the meaning of direct participation in hostilities.

*****

NOTE: Boehland last week also released a report for Amnesty International, for which she now works, entitled “Death Everywhere”: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Aleppo, Syria. The report documents that Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups have bombarded homes and civilian areas, detained and tortured residents, and created appalling living conditions. Boehland’s recent publications on civilian protection exemplify the work the Clinic hopes its graduates will take on and represents the best of human rights advocacy.

May 11, 2015

Government Official, Suspected of War Crimes, Put in Charge of Human Rights Review for Myanmar

Posted by Matthew Thiman, JD '16, and Tyler Giannini

It only happens once every four years: a full UN review of Myanmar’s human rights record. With its rather generic name—the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”)—this UN process does not often get much attention. But it should. Especially when the head of Myanmar’s delegation is someone like Lieutenant General Ko Ko—the country’s Home Affairs Minister, a man who has been linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It was quite a moment when we at the International Human Rights Clinic realized that Ko Ko was in charge of Myanmar’s UPR process. We know Ko Ko well because we have been investigating his central role in a brutal Myanmar Army offensive for the last four years. We published our findings in a legal memorandum last November, implicating Ko Ko and two other military commanders in violent attacks on civilians.

Exactly a year after the release of our findings, the Myanmar delegation is scheduled to answer questions about its human rights record as part of the UPR process. If Ko Ko in fact ends up leading that delegation, it will say a lot about the status of reform in a country that says it is committed to human rights. With over 1000 pages of witness testimonies and expert declarations implicating him in international crimes, Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.

*****

NOTE: The International Human Rights Clinic made a submission to the UPR process in March, detailing the findings of the Clinic’s investigation. The submission notes Myanmar’s ongoing obligations to provide remedies for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and also highlights that high-ranking officials like Ko Ko have been promoted instead of investigated.

April 30, 2015

New Publication Examines Different Approaches to Assisting Victims of Armed Conflict and Armed Violence”

PRESS RELEASE

“New Publication Examines Different Approaches to Assisting Victims of Armed Conflict and Armed Violence”

Seeks to promote collaboration among leaders in field

 

(Cambridge, MA, April 30, 2015)- Mitigating the human costs of armed conflict and armed violence has become a moral and legal imperative over the past two decades. Within the international community, several strategies for helping civilian victims have emerged. A publication, released this week by Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), seeks to advance understanding and promote collaboration among leaders in the field.

AcknowledgeAmendAssist compressedcoverThe 28-page report, Acknowledge, Amend, Assist: Addressing Civilian Harm Caused by Armed Conflict and Armed Violence, examines a range of current approaches: casualty recording, civilian harm tracking, making amends, transitional justice, and victim assistance. In so doing, the report illuminates their commonalities and differences and analyzes the difficulties they face individually and collectively.

“These programs all provide valuable assistance to civilian victims, but they have yet to be viewed holistically,” said Bonnie Docherty, editor of the volume and lecturer on law in the Human Rights Program. “A comparative look at the approaches could help reduce overlapping efforts and identify gaps that should be closed.”

Acknowledge, Amend, Assist takes its name and much of its substance from a two-day global summit held at Harvard Law School in October 2013. The event brought experts from government, civil society, and academia together to explore the challenges of meeting victims’ needs and to learn about where their work might coincide and/or conflict. This publication seeks to build upon the momentum generated by the summit and present the issues that it raised to a wider audience.

As the essays demonstrate, the five approaches to addressing civilian harm share not only an ultimate goal but also many overarching principles. In general, they define “victim” broadly, envision a wide range of support, encourage victim participation in the process, and aim to address articulated needs. They recognize that even if one party bears primary responsibility for providing assistance, there may be multiple players involved.

At the same time, the approaches differ in focus and practice. Some concentrate on lawful harm, others on unlawful harm. They also call for various forms of recognition and aid. Distinctions among the approaches that have led to debate include who should bear responsibility for providing assistance and how law can most effectively contribute to the process.

“We hope members of the assistance community will draw lessons from each other’s strategies and consider how to increase collaboration,” Docherty said. “In the long run, more informed, complementary, and coordinated approaches would improve the lot of victims of armed conflict and armed violence.”

For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at bdocherty@law.harvard.edu.

April 15, 2015

Tomorrow, April 16: “Should There Be Liability If…”

 

April 16, 2015

“Should There Be Liability If…”

1:00 p.m.

Suffolk University Law School (Room 375)

120 Tremont Street, Boston

 

Join Tyler Giannini and Ariel Nelson of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School for a discussion about the live issues in Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation, including whether torturers and other human rights abusers can use U.S. soil to shield themselves from accountability. Giannini and Nelson will examine current trends in the courts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel in 2013. Since that time, the Clinic has authored numerous amicus briefs in major ATS cases around the country, and is co-counsel in two major ATS cases—one stemming from corporate complicity in Apartheid-era crimes and the other involving alleged extrajudicial killings that occurred in Bolivia in 2003.

April 10, 2015

Australian Radio Interviews Tyler Giannini on Mining Company Settlement with Rape Survivors

Posted by Cara Solomon

Earlier this week, Australian radio interviewed Tyler Giannini about a significant development in the world of business and human rights: one of the world’s largest mining companies, Barrick Gold, recently settled claims with a group of women in Papua New Guinea who were raped by the company’s security guards. The settlement, negotiated by EarthRights International, came as the women were preparing to file suit.

The International Human Rights Clinic has been investigating abuses around the Porgera mine for several years, along with NYU’s Global Justice Clinic and Columbia’s Human Rights Clinic. Reports of rape around the mine in the highlands of Papua New Guinea date back to at least 2006, but the company did not acknowledge them for years.

In 2012, the company set up a complaint mechanism, which Tyler describes in the interview as inadequate. Initially, the company was preparing to offer the women who stepped forward a compensation package of used clothing and chickens. At the urging of advocates, including the Clinic, the company later revised its offer, and more than 100 women accepted the settlement.

EarthRights represented a group that did not agree to settle through the company’s complaint mechanism. At least one woman described the original settlement offers as “offensive.”

“If you have settlements that aren’t really getting to justice, the discourse with the community is not really healed, and you don’t get real reconciliation,” Tyler said in the interview. “That’s not good for the company, that’s not good for the survivors, and I think that’s one of the lessons that needs to be taken away.”

Listen to the full 7 minute interview here

April 09, 2015

Clinic and HRW Release Report: “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots”

PRESS RELEASE

The “Killer Robots” Accountability Gap

Obstacles to Legal Responsibility Show Need for Ban

 

(Geneva, April 9, 2015) – Programmers, manufacturers, and military personnel could all escape liability for unlawful deaths and injuries caused by fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report was issued in advance of a multilateral meeting on the weapons at the United Nations in Geneva.

RobotCoverThe 38-page report, “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots,” details significant hurdles to assigning personal accountability for the actions of fully autonomous weapons under both criminal and civil law. It also elaborates on the consequences of failing to assign legal responsibility. The report is jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

“No accountability means no deterrence of future crimes, no retribution for victims, no social condemnation of the responsible party,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. “The many obstacles to justice for potential victims show why we urgently need to ban fully autonomous weapons.” Read More

April 07, 2015

Clinic Op-Ed Published in Myanmar Media: “How One Father’s Letters Got Him Convicted”

Posted by Cara Solomon

We’re pleased to report that The Irrawaddy, an online news magazine in Myanmar, has just published “How One Father’s Letters Got Him Convicted,” an Op-Ed by Matt Thiman, JD ’16, Courtney Svoboda, JD ’16, and Tyler Giannini. The piece tells the story of Brang Shawng, a grieving father whose request for an investigation into his daughter’s death led to charges from the Myanmar military. The Clinic was among several organizations in December to sign an open letter to the President of Mynamar, requesting that all charges be dropped.

The piece begins:

Shortly after his daughter’s death, Brang Shawng sat down to write the first of two letters that would eventually get him convicted. He wrote to the president of Myanmar first, and then to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wanting to know what had happened to his daughter, whom he believed had been shot by the Myanmar military.

“A submission is made with great respect,” he wrote to the president, “to find out the truth in connection with the killing, without a reason, of an innocent student, my daughter Ma Ja Seng Ing, who wore a white and green school uniform.”

In the letter, he recalled the day in his village clearly. It was Sept. 13, 2012, in an area of conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military in the north of the country. A column of Myanmar Army soldiers had been in the village since before dawn. Late that afternoon, as the column was preparing to leave, there was a loud bomb blast. Then suddenly, soldiers shooting, and the sound of shouting and crying as villagers tried to take cover.

“It was just like the end of the world,” Brang Shawng wrote.

He hid with his wife and two children in their home. But one of their children was not with them: his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing.

Read the full article in The Irrawaddy, an online outlet covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia

April 04, 2015

Monday, April 6: “Globalizing Ferguson: Racialized Policing and International Resistance”

Ferguson_Poster2_Final_3.27.15Monday, April 6, 2015

“Globalizing Ferguson: Racialized Policing and Internationalized Resistance”

12:00- 1:30 p.m.
Ames Courtroom, Austin Hall
Harvard Law School

 

Please join us for a forum that brings together community organizers, attorneys, and academics to discuss the international dimension of racialized policing, violence and structural injustice. What elements of these problems are transnational? Is there a role for transnational solidarity in fighting oppression? Can international human rights bodies provide vehicles of resistance? What are the possibilities and limitations of law and how can lawyers be good allies? Panelists will draw on their recent experiences in taking these struggles to the UN and the inter-American system, and on their involvement in solidarity delegations to Palestine and Brazil.

Panelists are Patrisse Marie Cullors, organizer, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, member of #DDPalestine delegation #BlackLivesMatter; Fernando Ribeiro Delgado, Clinical instructor, International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School; Justin Hansford – law professor, member of the Ferguson to Geneva Delegation; Meena Jagannath, Community Justice Project; Balakrishnan Rajagopal, MIT Program on Human Rights & Justice; Asha Ransby-Sporn, We Charge Genocide; Sherika Shaw, organizer at Dream Defenders, member of #DDPalestine, Brazil delegations. Julia Dehm, of Institute for Law and Global Policy, and Deborah Popowski, of the Human Rights Program, will moderate.

The forum will be live streamed; the link will be available on this page 24 hours before the event. Facebook event listing here.

After the discussion, there will be a limited enrollment workshop from 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. The workshop will provide a space for experienced activists to engage us in discussions on strategy and opportunities for future advocacy and activism in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. What kind of concrete projects and tasks can law students and other members of our community work on to help advance the objectives of this movement? Together we will explore the possibilities and potential limitations of legal advocacy in this struggle for social change.

Note: The workshop is currently full, but if you’d like to be put on the wait list in the event of cancellations, please register here.

This event is being co-sponsored by La Alianza, Institute for Global Law & Policy, Dean of Students, Black Law Students Association, National Lawyers Guild – HLS Chapter, Law and International Development Society, South Asian Law Students Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Law Students Association, Advocates for Education, Advocates for Human Rights, African Law Association, Asia Law Society, Law and Social Change, Lambda Legal, Prison Legal Assistance Project, Criminal Justice Institute, UNBOUND, Students for Inclusion, Harvard Ferguson Action Committee. This event is sponsored in part by the Milbank Student Conference.