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August 21, 2014

Fernando Ribeiro Delgado Discusses Criminal Code Reform in Brazil

Posted by Cara Solomon

One of Brazil’s biggest daily newspapers quoted Clinical Instructor Fernando Ribeiro Delgado this past Sunday in an in-depth cover story on criminal code reform. The article in the Folha de São Paulo presents perspectives on a proposal gaining steam before congress that would harden criminal sentencing and close off several avenues for early release.

Delgado warns that Brazil is “following the path of failed crime policies,” drawing reference to U.S. “war on crime” laws that produced skyrocketing incarceration rates, a comparison he discusses further in a companion piece that ran in the Folha the same day.  Delgado points to one prison in particular, Aníbal Bruno, as “a symbol of the catastrophe of mass incarceration underway in Brazil.”  Though officially designed to detain some 1500 men, Aníbal Bruno Prison now commonly holds over 6000.

The Folha piece has an entire subsection based on a 2013 brief co-authored by the Clinic in the Aníbal Bruno Prison case, which is currently before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The Clinic has been working for the past four years with a civil society coalition in Brazil to push for widespread reform in Aníbal Bruno Prison and beyond.  This past May, the Inter-American Court issued its first legally binding resolution in the Aníbal Bruno case, ordering Brazil to take provisional measures to protect the life, personal integrity, and health of all persons at the prison. The order also mandates steps to reduce over-crowding and end the routine practice of strip searching family visitors at the notorious pre-trial detention center.  The coalition is currently focusing efforts on monitoring the implementation of the order.  A first set of periodic reports are due to the Court in the coming months, and a meeting between the parties and state agencies is scheduled for August 28 in Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil.

August 20, 2014

HRP Alumni in the News

Posted by Cara Solomon

We use all kinds of strategies here at the International Human Rights Clinic to push for change. Litigation. Treaty negotiation. Documentation and reporting.

As Communications Coordinator, I’ve always been partial to advocacy. Media advocacy, to be more precise. This summer, our alumni are putting it to great use in outlets all over the world.

On Monday, The Huffington Post ran a column by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, a Satter fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documenting the devastating toll the conflict in Gaza is taking on civilians. For the column, Nicolette spoke by phone with Gazans she met last year while researching civilian perspectives on involvement, status, and risk in armed conflict, including in Libya, Bosnia, and Somalia.

In “No Safe Place in Gaza,” she writes:

A young woman described the crippling fear she had experienced over the last four weeks: “The worst of all is the night time,” she said. “There is no power, no electricity, and there are tens of drones in the sky. Whenever you hear a rocket, you think it’s targeting your house. You are running from one room to another. I know this is silly — if your house is hit, it won’t matter which room you were in.”

Each night, her family of six gathered on mattresses that they had pulled together in the middle of the living room, “far away from the windows, so that they don’t break,” she said. This way, if their house was hit, the whole family would be killed together. “We don’t want one of the family to survive and then have to grieve for the rest of us,” she said.

At the end of the column, Nicolette lists several strategies the Israeli government and Hamas could use to limit civilian suffering.

Closer to home, as police in combat gear clashed last week with protesters in Ferguson, MO, Sara Zampierin, JD ’11, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was quoted in a New Yorker article, “The Economics of Police Militarization.” The article attributed some of the tension in Ferguson to the underlying problem of “criminal justice debt,” which can often pit law enforcement against residents.

Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees…What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.

From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free.

And earlier this summer, Clara Long, JD ’12, an immigration and border policy researcher with Human Rights Watch, waded into the heated debate over the surge of migration at the southeastern US border. In an Op-Ed she co-authored for The Guardian, Clara railed against the Obama administration’s plans to open more family detention centers. The headline read: “Obama pledged to limit the practice of detaining minors. What happened?”

It appears that the White House has come to view being “thoughtful and humane” as a political liability. The new move to ramp up family detention comes in response to criticism that the administration’s lax immigration enforcement “created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally”, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it last week.

Obama’s move is all the more disappointing because effective alternatives to detention exist and are used in countries facing similar migration surges. Countries like Italy and Malta, prime entrances for migrants to the EU, have open reception facilities where migrant and asylum-seeking families can come and go at will – and Malta pledged to end immigration detention of children altogether in 2014. Though neither country has a spotless record – Italy summarily returns to Greece some unaccompanied migrant children and Malta sometimes detains unaccompanied migrant kids while authorities try to figure out their ages – their examples show that detaining kids with families is a choice, not a necessity.

Clara wrote another column for The Guardian on border removals in April.

In response to this flurry of activity, we at HRP have just two things to say: Thank you. And well done.

August 11, 2014

Clinic Files Proposed Amended Complaint in the Apartheid Litigation

Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini

Last Friday, the International Human Rights Clinic filed a proposed amended complaint in the Apartheid Litigation against two defendants, Ford and IBM.

The amended complaint demonstrates how the claims “touch and concern” the United States as required by the Supreme Court’s Kiobel decision, as well as how the Defendants acted with the purpose to aid and abet the South African government’s violations of international law, as required by the Second Circuit’s Talisman decision. In particular, the complaint alleges that, through policies and decisions made in the United States, Defendant Ford directed and controlled the sale of specialized vehicles to the South African security forces to suppress the black population, while Defendant IBM created and maintained an identity card system to denationalize the black population.

July 31, 2014

Fellowship Announcements!

Posted by Mindy Roseman

The Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School is pleased to announce the establishment of the Global Justice Fellowship (GJF) with the generous support of the Planethood Foundation. The fellowship supports scholars, advocates, and practitioners with a demonstrated background in international justice and the rule of law. Of most interest are those whose work concerns ongoing human rights issues, especially those touching on egregious violations, including genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

Matthew Bugher, JD ‘09, is the inaugural Global Justice Fellow. Over the coming year, Matthew will work to combat state-sponsored violence and persecution in Myanmar and Zimbabwe. More specifically, he will contribute to the Clinic’s ongoing advocacy relating to military policy reform in Myanmar; work with partners on new initiatives to promote accountability for gross human rights violations; and support local activists in their efforts to document abuses.

Earlier in the summer, the Human Rights Program made several other fellowship awards. With the support of a Henigson Human Rights Fellowship, Maryum Jordan, J.D. ’14, will work in Peru with EarthRights International; Lindsay Henson, J.D. ’14, will work in South Africa with Lawyers Against Abuse; Sarah Wheaton, J.D. ’14, will work in Egypt with St. Andrew’s Resettlement Legal Aid Project; and Anjali Mohan, J.D. ’14, will work in Myanmar with Justice Base.

HRP also awarded two Satter Human Rights fellowships: to James Tager, J.D. ’13,  who will work with the International Commission of Jurists in Thailand, and to Jason Gelbort, J.D. ’13, who will work with Public International Law & Policy Group in Myanmar.

NOTE: HRP recently re-opened the application process for one more Satter Fellowship.

July 29, 2014

Susan Farbstein in the Harvard Human Rights Journal

In the latest volume of the Harvard Human Rights Journal, released last week, Clinic Director Susan Farbstein reflects on when, if ever, violence is justified in the struggles for social and political change. The article is adapted from her remarks this past spring at Harvard Law School’s memorial event for Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who died last December. Farbstein, whose work in South Africa currently focuses on the right to education, says in part:

“Ultimately, it is not enough to answer the question posed. We must ask ourselves an equally important follow-up question: If violence is sometimes justified- or resorted to–in struggles for social and political change, how might the damage inflicted on the emerging society be minimized? Mandela’s legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation offers the beginnings of an answer.”

Read Farbstein’s article in full in Volume 27 of the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

July 16, 2014

The Satter Human Rights Fellowship: A Call for Applications

Here’s some good news for recent grads committed to doing human rights work: we’re re-opening the application process for our Satter Fellowship!

The Satter Human Rights Fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocity or widespread and severe patterns of rights abuse.

Aminta Ossom, JD ’09, worked for Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa.

Aminta Ossom, JD ’09, worked for Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa.

Past fellows have worked with Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa; with Public International Law & Policy Group in Libya providing legal advice on issues related to constitution making, transitional justice and accountability, and access to justice; and with Fortify Rights International in Thailand on monitoring, advocacy, and training to protect and promote human rights in several different regions in Myanmar.

To apply for the Satter, you must have graduated from Harvard Law School within the last three years. Applications will be accepted until the fellowship is filled.

Learn more about the application process here.

July 02, 2014

Fourth Circuit’s Post-Kiobel Ruling Revives ATS Claims Against U.S. Corporation for Violations Committed Abroad

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

On Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the presumption against extraterritoriality in Alien Tort Statute (ATS) cases, established by the April 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, Co., does not bar claims against a U.S. contractor for torture and mistreatment of foreign nationals in Iraq.

The Al Shimari v. CACI ruling is a major decision in the ongoing battle over the meaning and interpretation of Kiobel. Kiobel  held that there is a presumption against extraterritoriality in ATS cases unless the “claims touch and concern the territory of the United States with sufficient force,” in which case the presumption can be displaced. In Kiobel, the Supreme Court found the “mere corporate presence” of the defendant in the United States did not overcome the presumption.

The Fourth Circuit compared the factual circumstances in Kiobel with those in Al Shimari, and concluded that the corporate defendant had a much more significant connection to the United States than mere presence. In so ruling, it became the first appellate court to hold that the plaintiffs’ claims sufficiently “touch and concern” U.S. territory to displace the presumption.

In the wake of the Kiobel decision, lower courts across the country have wrestled with how to interpret the new “touch and concern” standard given the limited guidance provided by the Supreme Court. Some courts have avoided the complexities of the Kiobel presumption altogether. However, the Fourth Circuit embraced the challenge:

Although the “touch and concern” language in Kiobel may be explained in greater detail in future Supreme Court decisions, we conclude that this language provides current guidance to federal courts when ATS claims involve substantial ties to United States territory. We have such a case before us now, and we cannot decline to consider the Supreme Court’s guidance simply because it does not state a precise formula for our analysis. Read More

June 16, 2014

The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots

Posted by Cara Solomon

Last week, the UN Human Rights Council took a fresh look at fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Previous international debate had focused on the weapons’ ability to comply with laws of war; the Council, by contrast, examined the issue through the lens of international human rights law, which applies in times of peace as well as armed conflict. In this June 9 post originally published by JURIST, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty argued that killer robots threaten the most fundamental human rights.


Fully autonomous weapons, which could select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, have the potential to revolutionize the nature of warfare, bringing greater speed and reach to military operations. In the process, though, this emerging technology could endanger both civilians and soldiers.

Nations have been considering the multiple challenges these weapons would pose to the laws of war, also called international humanitarian law. But little attention has been given to the implications for human rights law. If these weapons were developed and used for policing, for example, they would threaten the most basic of these rights, including the right to life, the right to a remedy and the principle of human dignity.

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” do not yet exist, but research and technology in a number of countries are moving rapidly in that direction. Because these machines would have the power to determine when to kill, they raise a host of legal, ethical and scientific concerns. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are advocating for a pre-emptive prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 52 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call. Read More

June 04, 2014

Taking on “Killer Robots”

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

As readers of this blog will know, last month Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty traveled with students to Geneva for the first multilateral meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons devoted to fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Below is her re-cap of the week’s events, published originally on May 23, 2014 in the online forum Just Security.


“Taking on ‘Killer Robots’”


New weapons that could revolutionize killing are on the horizon. Lethal autonomous weapons systems, also called fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots,” would go beyond today’s armed drones. They would be able to select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention. In other words, they could determine themselves when to take a human life.

Representatives from 87 countries gathered at the United Nations in Geneva last week to discuss concerns about this technology and possible ways to respond. The conference was the first multilateral meeting dedicated to lethal autonomous weapons systems. It represented a crucial step in a process that should result in a ban on these problematic weapons before it grows too late to change course.

Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are calling for a pre-emptive prohibition on the development, production, and use of these weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 51 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call.

Overall, the talks in Geneva were productive and positive. The conference, under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), attracted hundreds of delegates from governments, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental groups, setting a record for a CCW meeting. Participants engaged in four days of substantive discussions about the technical, ethical, legal, and operational concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons.

This “informal meeting of experts” was also noteworthy for its timeliness, unusual for a CCW conference. This meeting took place just a year and a half after Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic issued a groundbreaking report on these weapons, Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, which the UN website credited with bringing the issue to “the international community’s attention.”

The meeting illuminated both areas of emerging agreement and ongoing points of contention. At their next meeting in November, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should show that they are serious about taking action to deal with fully autonomous weapons and adopt a mandate for even deeper discussions in 2015.

Areas of Emerging Agreement

Four promising themes emerged at the recent meeting. First, there was widespread support for continuing discussions. The countries made clear that they saw last week as merely an initial foray into the issue. Many delegates also explicitly recognized the importance of continuing to involve nongovernmental groups, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and its member organizations.

Second, a significant number of countries expressed particular concern about the ethical problems raised by fully autonomous weapons. The chair’s final report noted that these countries “stressed the fact that the possibility for a robotic system to acquire capacities of ‘moral reasoning’ and ‘judgment’ was highly questionable.” Furthermore, these machines could not understand and respect the value of life, yet they would be given the power to determine when to take it away. Fully autonomous weapons would thus threaten to undermine human dignity.

Third, many countries emphasized that weapons systems should always fall under “meaningful human control.” While the parameters of this concept will require careful definition, obligating nations to maintain that control is vital to averting a watershed in the nature of warfare that could endanger civilians and soldiers alike.

Finally, countries frequently noted in their statements the relevance of international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law. Human rights law applies in peace and war, and it would govern the use of these weapons not only on the battlefield but also in law enforcement operations. In a new report released last week, Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic found that fully autonomous weapons could contravene the rights to life and a remedy as well as the principle of dignity.

Legal Debate

The most contentious part of the discussion surrounded the application of international humanitarian law to fully autonomous weapons. The debate echoed many of the points raised in a second paper that Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic released at the meeting. “Advancing the Debate on Killer Robots” responds directly to 12 critiques of a ban on the weapons.

The meeting revealed a divergence of views about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Critics of a ban argue that problematic use of these weapons would violate existing law and that supplementary law is unnecessary. A new treaty banning the weapons, however, would bring clarity, minimizing the need for case-by-case determinations of lawfulness and facilitating enforcement. It would also increase the stigma against the weapon, which can influence even states not party to a treaty to abide by a ban. In addition, a treaty dedicated to fully autonomous weapons could address proliferation, unlike traditional international humanitarian law, which focuses on use.

The debate about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons is reminiscent of arguments made in earlier Convention on Conventional Weapons meetings about cluster munitions. The adoption of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions by 107 states resolved that dispute. Prohibitions on five other weapons that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm—antipersonnel landmines, blinding lasers, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and poison gas— provide additional precedent for new law. While most states are reserving judgment on the best solution to deal with the problems posed by fully autonomous weapons, five countries called for a ban last week.

Participants in the last week’s meeting also disagreed about when action should be taken. Critics of a ban supported a wait-and-see approach, arguing that improvements in technology could address the obstacles to compliance with international humanitarian law. There are serious doubts, however, that robots could ever replicate certain complex human qualities, such as judgment, necessary to comply with principles of distinction and proportionality. Furthermore, grave ethical concerns, the likelihood of proliferation and a robotic arms race, an accountability gap, and the prospect of premature deployment all suggest a technological fix would not suffice to address the weapons’ problems.

Action should be taken now before countries invest more in the technology and become less willing to give it up. The pre-emptive ban on blinding lasers in Protocol IV to the Convention on Conventional Weapons can serve as a useful model.

Next Steps

Despite some points of disagreement, the meeting advanced efforts to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Nations need to keep up momentum, however, to avoid having such meetings become what some have called a “talk shop.” In the short term, individual countries should establish national moratoria on fully autonomous weapons.

In November, the parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should adopt a mandate to study the issue in greater depth in 2015. They should agree to hold three to four weeks of formal meetings, known as a Group of Governmental Experts. They should also be clear that the meetings would be a step toward negotiating a new protocol on fully autonomous weapons. Such intense discussions would move the debate forward. They would show that the treaty members are committed to addressing this issue and that the Convention on Conventional Weapons is re-emerging as an important source of international humanitarian law.

Read More

June 03, 2014

Thank You, Class of 2014 (Plus Pictures)!

Posted by HRP staff and faculty

Dear Graduates,


Secondly, if we missed each other during commencement, here is what we wanted to say: Thank you. Thank you for the many things you brought to us, in addition to your time and talent. You showed us kindness and humility and curiosity and commitment- qualities that made us proud to work alongside you. We hope you will bring those things with you wherever you go.

Finally, we wanted to send our sincere appreciation to the students who made public service a focus of their time here. A grand total of 16 Clinic graduates performed more than 1,000 hours of community service: Lara Berlin, Tess Borden, Madison Condon, Catherine Cooper, Nathaniel Counts, Alexandra Gliga, Elizabeth Hague, Alysa Harder, Lindsay Henson, Maryum Jordan, Andrew Mamo, Lynnette Miner, Jonathan Nomamiukur, Harin Song, Colette Van Der Ven, and Sarah Wheaton.

Unbelievably, one of our graduates, Jeanne Segil, logged more than 2,000 hours of community service. And three were given the Dean’s Award for Community Leadership: Maryum Jordan, Jeanne Segil, and Sarah Wheaton.

Terrific work, Class of 2014. We wish you all the good luck that life has to give.

And now, for the party pictures: