Blog: Press Releases
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February 20, 2018
Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini
We’ve got thrilling news today: After more than 10 years of litigation, our case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, is finally headed to trial. This is an historic event. It’s the first time a former head of state will stand trial in the U.S. for human rights abuses.
In less than two weeks, on March 5, the former President and Minister of Defense of Bolivia will stand trial in Federal District Court in Florida for their roles in a 2003 civilian massacre in Bolivia. And our clients will be in the courtroom to see it, and to testify.
We would not be here without the work of our partners, listed below, and dozens of clinical students who have contributed over the years, from fact-finding to drafting briefs to thinking strategically about how to move the case forward. Foremost among those students is Thomas Becker, JD ’08. This case started as a seed of an idea in his mind, and he has been working tirelessly on it ever since.
Most importantly, we want to thank our clients, who have kept their wounds open so this case could move forward on behalf of those they lost, and the many other Bolivians whose lives were irrevocably damaged by the actions of these defendants. They inspire us every day with the extraordinary courage and dedication they have shown at every step of this journey.
Please see below for the press release in English and Spanish.
U.S. Judge Orders Case Against Former Bolivian President for Role in 2003 Massacre to Proceed to Trial
Marks First Time in U.S. History a Former Head of State Will Sit Before Accusers in a Civil Human Rights Trial
February 20, 2018, Miami, FL – A federal judge has ruled that the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense must face trial in the United States in a civil case alleging that the Bolivian military massacred more than 50 of its own citizens during a period of civil unrest in 2003. This is the first time that a former head of state will sit before his accusers in a civil human rights trial in a U.S. court. Last week, the judge rejected the defendants’ final effort to avoid trial (ruling English and Spanish), denying a motion filed by the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, both of whom live in the United States. The trial will begin in the federal court in Fort Lauderdale on March 5, 2018.
“The former president and his minister of defense must now listen as we testify about what happened,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a member of the indigenous Aymara community of Bolivia, which led the protests where the government security forces opened fire. “We look forward to this historic opportunity to have our day in court.”
In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, as detailed in the Court’s February 14 order, the families of eight Bolivians killed filed suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, alleging that they planned the extrajudicial killings. The lawsuit alleges that, months in advance of the violence, the two defendants devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians, and intentionally used deadly force against political protests in an effort to quash political opposition. In addition to the deaths, more than 400 unarmed civilians were shot and injured.
In 2016, a U.S. appeals court held that the plaintiffs could proceed with their claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which authorizes suits in U.S. federal court for extrajudicial killings. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín then sought and were denied a review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017. After a review of the evidence gathered by both sides, District Court Judge James Cohn ruled on February 14 that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
“The trial will offer indigenous Aymara people, who have historically been excluded from justice, a chance to testify about events that led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries,” said Beth Stephens, an attorney for the Plaintiffs (cooperating through the Center for Constitutional Rights).
The lawsuit alleges claims by nine plaintiffs including: Etelvina Ramos Mamani, whose eight-year-old daughter Marlene was killed in her mother’s bedroom when a single shot was fired through the window; Teofilo Baltazar Cerro, whose pregnant wife Teodosia was killed after a bullet was fired through the wall of a house; Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, whose 69-year-old father Raul was shot and killed along a roadside; and Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, whose father Arturo was shot and killed while tending his crops.
The family members are represented by a team of lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, and the law firms of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, and Akerman LLP. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys.
Chandra Hayslett, CCR, (212) 614-6458, firstname.lastname@example.org
Juez de los EE.UU. Ordena Que El Caso Contra el Ex-Presidente Boliviano Por Su Papel en la Masacre de 2003 Procederá a Juicio
Marca Primera Vez en La Historia de Estados Unidos Que Un Jefe De Estado Será Sometido a Un Juicio de Derechos Humanos Frente a Sus Acusadores
20 de febrero, Miami, Florida, Estados Unidos – Un juez federal de los Estados Unidos ha ordenado que el ex-presidente de Bolivia y su ministro de defensa serán sometidos a juicio en los EE.UU. en un caso civil alegando que el ejército Boliviano masacró a más de 50 de sus propios ciudadanos en un período de disturbios civiles en 2003. Será la primera vez que un ex-jefe de estado se sentará frente a sus acusadores en un juicio civil de derechos humanos en una corte en los Estados Unidos. La semana anterior, el juez rechazó el último esfuerzo de los acusados a evitar el juicio, negando una moción que presentaron Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, el ex-presidente de Bolivia, y su ex-ministro de defensa, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, los dos cuales viven en los EE.UU. El juicio comenzará en la corte federal en Fort Lauderdale, Florida el 5 de marzo de 2018.
“El ex-presidente y su ministro de defensa ahora tendrán que escuchar mientras testificamos sobre lo que pasó,” dijo Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, un miembro de la comunidad originaria Aymara, la cual dirigió las protestas donde las fuerzas de seguridad del gobierno abrieron fuego. “Esperamos esta oportunidad histórica para tener nuestro día en la corte.”
En el caso Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Berzaín, como se describe en la orden de la corte del 14 de febrero, las familias de ocho Bolivianos que fueron asesinados demandaron a Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Berzaín, alegando que planificaron las matanzas extrajudiciales. La demanda alega que, meses antes de la violencia, los dos acusados idearon un plan para matar a miles de civiles, e intencionalmente usaron fuerza letal en contra de las protestas políticas para reprimir la oposición política. Encima de las muertes, se disparó a más de 400 civiles desarmados que salieron heridos.
En 2016, una corte de apelación de los Estados Unidos sostuvo que los demandantes pudieron seguir con sus reclamaciones bajo el Acto de Protección para Las Víctimas de Tortura (TVPA por sus siglas en ingles), lo cual autoriza casos en el tribunal federal de Estados Unidos para matanzas extrajudiciales. Sánchez de Lozada y Sánchez Berzaín luego pidieron que la Corte Suprema de Estados Unidos tomara el caso, y fueron negados. Después de revisar la evidencia colectada de los dos lados, el Juez de la Corte del Distrito James Cohn ordenó el 14 de febrero que los demandantes habían presentado suficiente evidencia para seguir al juicio.
“Este juicio ofrecerá al pueblo Aymara, que históricamente ha sido excluida de la justicia, una oportunidad para testificar sobre los eventos que resultaron en docenas de muertes y cientos de heridas,” dijo Beth Stephens, una abogada para los demandantes, cooperando con el Centro de Derechos Constitucionales (Center for Constitutional Rights).
La demanda alega reclamaciones de nueve demandantes incluyendo: Etelvina Ramos Mamani, cuya hija de ocho años Marlene fue asesinada en el dormitorio de su madre cuando una sola bala fue disparado a través de la ventana; Teofilo Baltazar Cerro, cuya esposa embarazada Teodosia fue asesinada cuando se disparó una bala a través de la pared de una casa; Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, cuyo padre de 69 años fue asesinado a tiros al lado de una carretera; y Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, cuyo padre Arturo fue asesinado a tiros mientras cuidaba sus cultivos.
Los familiares son representados por un equipo de abogados del Centro de Derechos Constitucionales, La Clínica de Derechos Humanos Internacionales de la Facultad de Derecho de Harvard, y los bufetes de abogados Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, y Akerman LLP. Abogados de la organización Dejusticia son abogados cooperantes.
Chandra Hayslett, CCR, (212) 614-6458, email@example.com
November 20, 2017
Clinic and HRW Document Use of Incendiary Weapons by Coalition of Syrian Government and Russian Forces
(Geneva, November 20, 2017) – Countries should respond to reports of new use of incendiary weapons in Syria by working to strengthen the international law governing these exceptionally cruel weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 28-page report, “An Overdue Review: Addressing Incendiary Weapons in the Contemporary Context,” documents use of incendiary weapons by the coalition of Syrian government and Russian forces in 2017. It urges countries at a UN disarmament meeting, held in Geneva from November 22 to 24, 2017, to initiate a review of Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). This protocol, which regulates incendiary weapons, has failed to prevent their ongoing use, endangering civilians.
“Countries should react to the threat posed by incendiary weapons by closing the loopholes in outdated international law,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, which co-published the report. “Stronger law would mean stronger protections for civilians.”
Docherty, who is also senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, presented the report’s findings at a side event at the United Nations in Geneva today.
Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. They can be designed for marking and signaling or to burn materiel, penetrate plate metal, or produce smokescreens. Incendiary weapons cause excruciating burns, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, and they start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.
For the first time in nearly four decades, countries that are parties to the 1980 treaty have devoted a specific session at their annual meeting to Protocol III. The meeting will also address fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.”
States parties should seize this opportunity to hold robust discussions about the harm caused by incendiary weapons and the adequacy of Protocol III, Human Rights Watch said. They should condemn recent use, support a formal review of the protocol, with an eye to strengthening it, and set aside more time for in-depth discussions in 2018.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented 22 attacks with incendiary weapons across five governorates of Syria by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies. From 2012 to 2016, Human Rights Watch documented at least 68 attacks by the same forces, as well as several cases of severe civilian harm. While Syria is not a party to Protocol III, Russia is.
As recently as November 12, photographs and video reportedly taken in Syria’s Idlib governorate as well as a report from Syria Civil Defense field workers indicate the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons, although Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm these specific attacks.
The continued use of incendiary weapons in Syria shows that countries, including Syria, need to join Protocol III and comply with its restrictions on use in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said. The use also demonstrates the need for stronger norms, which can increase the stigma against the weapons and influence even those not party to the protocol.
Protocol III has two major loopholes. First, its definition excludes multipurpose weapons, such as those with white phosphorus, which may be primarily designed to provide smokescreens or illumination, but can inflict the same horrific injuries as other incendiary weapons. White phosphorus, for example, can burn through human flesh to the bone and reignite days after treatment if exposed to oxygen.
In 2017, the US-led coalition used white phosphorus while fighting to retake Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq from the Islamic State. While Human Rights Watch has not confirmed casualties from these incidents, the New York Times reported that munitions containing white phosphorous hit an internet café, killing approximately 20 people.
Second, while the protocol prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, it allows the use of ground-delivered models in certain circumstances. All incendiary weapons cause the same effects, however, and this arbitrary distinction should be eliminated. A complete ban on incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian benefits.
In recent years, a growing number of countries have condemned the use of incendiary weapons and called for revisiting or strengthening Protocol III. At the meeting in Geneva, they should expand on their positions, and new countries should add their voices to the debate.
“Existing law on incendiary weapons is a legacy of the US war in Vietnam and a Cold War compromise,” said Docherty. “But the political and military landscape has changed, and it is time for the law to reflect current problems.”
The new report was researched and written by clinical students Allie Brudney, JD ’19, Sofia Falzoni, JD ’19, and Natalie McCauley, JD ’19, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty.
May 18, 2017
Clinic and partners call on ICC to investigate role of Chiquita executives in contributing to crimes against humanity
Human Rights Coalition Calls on ICC to Investigate Role of Chiquita Executives in Contributing to Crimes against Humanity
Communities in Colombia Seek Accountability after two decades of impunity
Bogota, Colombia, May 18, 2017 – Today, on behalf of affected Colombian communities, a coalition of human rights groups called on the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the complicity of executives at Chiquita Brands International in crimes against humanity. To date, no executive has been held to account despite the company’s admission that it funneled millions of dollars to Colombian paramilitaries that killed, raped, and disappeared civilians. If the ICC takes up the case, it would be the first time it moved against corporate executives for assisting such crimes.
In their submission to the court, the coalition of local and international human rights groups traces the executives’ involvement with payments made to the paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004. Even after outside counsel and the U.S. Department of Justice said such payments were illegal under U.S. law, the payments continued. The submission includes a confidential, sealed appendix that identifies by name fourteen senior executives, officers, and board members of Chiquita who the coalition argues should be the focus of the Prosecutor’s investigation.
The coalition, which consists of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR), relied on internal Chiquita documents and assistance from the National Security Archive at George Washington University to identify the Chiquita officials and show how they were involved with the crimes.
“The executives who oversaw the funding of paramilitaries should not be able to sit comfortably in their houses in the United States as if they did nothing wrong,” said a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartado, which submitted a letter to the ICC about how the paramilitary violence personally affected them. “Families across Colombia have been waiting for accountability for too long.”
Chiquita could have acted differently, or could have left the country years before it did, but instead decided to continue its lucrative business while paying paramilitaries for so-called ‘security’ in the banana-growing regions. By 2003, Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia was its most profitable banana operation in the world.
“At the time, Colombian paramilitaries were notorious for targeting civilians, among them banana workers and community leaders,” said CAJAR, “but Chiquita’s executives decided to continue giving money to paramilitaries anyway.”
The Chiquita corporation already pled guilty in a U.S. federal court in 2007 to illegally funding Colombian paramilitaries. But accountability for the executives who oversaw and authorized the payment scheme has been elusive: while civil litigation is pending in U.S. courts against Chiquita executives, no criminal prosecution is on the horizon. Colombia has not been able to get jurisdiction over them, and there is no indication that the United States would extradite the executives.
“We request that the ICC expands its current inquiry in Colombia to specifically include Chiquita’s executives and officials,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, the President of FIDH. “The weight of the evidence should lead the Office of the Prosecutor to act if Colombian authorities are not able to.”
If Colombian authorities do not move ahead with this case, the submission asks the Prosecutor to request formal authorization from its Pre-Trial Chamber to open an investigation into Chiquita’s corporate executives.
The communication comes at a critical time in Colombia, as the country begins to implement an historic peace agreement after nearly half a century of conflict. The coalition’s submission urges the Office of the Prosecutor to monitor local Colombian proceedings to ensure its meets ICC standards, particularly with regards to the private sector support for the paramilitaries and business’ accountability.
“In times of transition to peace, corporate actors too often escape accountability for their egregious behavior in the past,” said Professor Tyler Giannini, a Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. “The prosecution of Chiquita officials for their payments to the paramilitaries would send a powerful message that impunity is no longer business as usual.”
* * *
For media inquiries:
Tyler Giannini (English), Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School +1 617 669 2340
Dimitris Christopoulos (English, French Greek), FIDH President : + 33 6 75 76 69 32
Jimena Reyes (Spanish, French, English) – FIDH Americas Desk director : +32 493 61 72 64 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sebastián Escobar, CAJAR: +57 3143776026
December 9, 2016
Formalize ‘Killer Robots’ Talks; Aim for Ban
Fully Autonomous Weapons on Disarmament Conference Agenda
(Geneva, December 9, 2016) – Governments should agree at the upcoming multilateral disarmament meeting in Geneva to formalize their talks on fully autonomous weapons, with an eye toward negotiating a preemptive ban, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 49-page report, “Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban,” rebuts 16 key arguments against a ban on fully autonomous weapons.
Fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems and ‘killer robots,’ would be able to select and attack targets without meaningful human control. These weapons and others will be the subject of the five-year Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) from December 12-16, 2016.
“It’s time for countries to move beyond the talking shop phase and pursue a preemptive ban,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Governments should ensure that humans retain control over whom to target with their weapons and when to fire.”
The report is co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is also senior arms researcher. Continue Reading…
October 20, 2016
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Legal analysis shows ceasefire’s civilian protection commitments extend nationwide
(Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016)– Reported abuses of civilians in non-ceasefire areas by the Myanmar military and other signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) would, if verified, constitute violations of key civilian protection provisions established by the agreement, said Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (the Clinic) in a legal memorandum released today. The military and other signatories should act immediately to address such reports, including by engaging with the mechanisms and processes established by the NCA and investigating alleged abuses.
The Clinic’s memorandum comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the signing of the NCA by the government and eight ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). While the agreement failed to include many of the EAOs that participated in the ceasefire talks, it was still heralded as a significant step in the country’s peace process. Over the past year, however, armed conflict has intensified in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere, with reports of widespread abuse of civilians by the Myanmar military in particular.
“Ongoing abuses in conflict zones cast doubt on the military’s commitment to the NCA and undermine the trust between Myanmar’s government and ethnic nationality populations,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Myanmar military officers can’t hide behind the fact the NCA was signed with only some ethnic armed organizations to abuse civilians in non-ceasefire areas.” Continue Reading…
October 12, 2016
For Immediate Release
South Africa: Protect Residents’ Rights from Effects of Mining
Government Response to Environmental and Health Threats Falls Short
(Cambridge, MA, October 12, 2016)—South Africa has failed to meet its human rights obligations to address the environmental and health effects of gold mining in and around Johannesburg, the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) said in a new report released today.
The 113-page report, The Cost of Gold, documents the threats posed by water, air, and soil pollution from mining in the West and Central Rand. Acid mine drainage has contaminated water bodies that residents use to irrigate crops, water livestock, wash clothes, and swim. Dust from mine waste dumps has blanketed communities. The government has allowed homes to be built near and sometimes on those toxic and radioactive dumps.
Examining the situation through a human rights lens, the report finds that South Africa has not fully complied with constitutional or international law. The government has not only inadequately mitigated the harm from abandoned and active mines, but it has also offered scant warnings of the risks, performed few scientific studies about the health effects, and rarely engaged with residents on mining matters.
“Gold mining has both endangered and disempowered the people of the West and Central Rand,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at IHRC and the report’s lead author. “Despite some signs of progress, the government’s response to the crisis has been insufficient and unacceptably slow.”
The report is based on three research trips to the region and more than 200 interviews with community members, government officials, industry representatives, civil society advocates, and scientific and legal experts. It provides an in-depth look at gold mining’s adverse impacts and examines the shortcomings of the government’s reaction.
For example, although acid mine drainage reached the surface of the West Rand in 2002, the government waited 10 years before establishing a plant that could stem its flow. In addition, the government has not ensured the implementation of dust control measures and has left industry to determine how to remove the waste dumps dominating the landscape.
The Cost of Gold calls on South Africa to develop a coordinated and comprehensive program that deals with the range of problems associated with gold mining in the region. While industry and communities have a significant role to play, the report focuses on the responsibility of the government, which is legally obliged to promote human rights.
The government has taken some positive steps to deal the situation in the West and Central Rand. This year, it pledged to improve levels of water treatment by 2020. In 2011, it relocated residents of the Tudor Shaft informal settlement living directly on top of a tailings dam. The government along with industry has also made efforts to increase engagement with communities.
Nevertheless, The Cost of Gold finds that the government’s delayed response and piecemeal approach falls short of South Africa’s duties under human rights law. As a result, the impacts of mining continue to infringe on residents’ rights to health, water, and a healthy environment, as well as rights to receive information and participate in decision making.
“The government should act immediately to address the ongoing threats from gold mining, and it should develop a more complete solution to prevent future harm,” Docherty said. “Only then will South Africa live up to the human rights commitments it made when apartheid ended.”
For more information, please contact:
In Cambridge MA, Bonnie Docherty: email@example.com
June 17, 2016
Human Rights Case Against Former Bolivian President for Role in 2003 Massacre Cleared to Move Forward
Court of Appeals Rejects Defendants’ Attempt to Have Case Dismissed
Miami, FL –More than 12 years after government-planned massacres in Bolivia killed 58 unarmed civilians, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday rejected an effort to scuttle a lawsuit against the former President of Bolivia and his Minister of Defense, both of whom are currently living in the United States. Instead, the appellate court sent the case back to the district court with a mandate to proceed to discovery.
In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzain, the families of eight Bolivians killed in the massacres filed suit against the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former Bolivian defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, charging they ordered extrajudicial killings. The lawsuit alleges that, months in advance of the violence, the two defendants devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians, and that they intentionally used deadly force against political protests in an effort to quash political opposition. In addition to the deaths, more than 400 civilians were injured when security forces fired on unarmed civilians.
In today’s unanimous decision, the appeals court held that a federal statute, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), permits plaintiffs to sue in U.S. court for extrajudicial killing after they have exhausted the remedies available in their home country. Continue Reading…
June 9, 2016
Today marks the grim five-year anniversary of the resumption of armed conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State. This conflict, between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Organizations at the local and international level have also documented severe human rights violations perpetrated by the Myanmar military, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence and forced labor.
The International Human Rights Clinic today joins 129 other organizations in calling for peace, justice and accountability in Kachin State.
“Joint Statement: Five Years of War- A Call for Peace, Justice and Accountability in Kachin State”
(June 9, 2016)— Although much of the world has expressed excitement over Myanmar’s political transition, communities throughout Kachin and northern Shan states have been living with severe human rights abuses and displacement for the last five years.
Since 2011, renewed armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has displaced more than 100,000 civilians. Continue Reading…
April 14, 2016
Myanmar: Investigate Use of Excessive Force Against Letpadan Protesters
Hold perpetrators accountable, amend peaceful assembly law
(Yangon, April 14, 2016)—While welcoming the Government of Myanmar’s recent release of political prisoners, Fortify Rights and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic urged authorities today to open a formal investigation into the violent police crackdown against protesters in March 2015 in Letpadan.
The Letpadan protesters were among nearly 200 political prisoners that the recently elected Government of Myanmar—led by the National League for Democracy (NLD)—either pardoned or dropped charges against on April 8. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced on her second day in office a plan to free political prisoners, activists, and students in the weeks surrounding the Buddhist New Year holiday. According to human rights groups, more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars.
“After spending more than a year in prison for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, the Letpadan protesters are finally free,” said Matthew Smith, Executive Director of Fortify Rights. “Their courage and tenacity is an example to human rights defenders across the world. We commend the government for prioritizing their release and urge the authorities to take swift action to hold perpetrators accountable.”
In October 2015, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School published an 81-page report documenting how Myanmar police officers punched, kicked, and beat unarmed protesters with batons on their heads, backs, and legs at Letpadan on March 10, 2015. Hundreds of photographs and dozens of videos from journalists and other witnesses show police officers beating unarmed protesters. Still, more than a year later, the authorities have failed to hold anyone responsible for the use of excessive force.
In January 2016, the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU), the Letpadan Justice Committee, and Justice Trust released a briefing paper detailing how Myanmar authorities repeatedly delayed the trials of students arrested at Letpadan and denied them access to adequate medical treatment while in prison.
In addition to investigating the abuses, Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School called for the government to hold police officers responsible for using excessive force against protesters. The government should investigate commanders and officials who gave orders to use excessive force or failed to take reasonable measures to prevent such conduct.
“Releasing these protesters and dropping the charges against them is a positive and historic step,” said Tyler Giannini, Director of the Clinic at Harvard Law School. “We look forward to the government upholding its promise to follow the rule of law by investigating and holding perpetrators to account.”
The October 2015 report makes clear that not all police officers at the scene in March 2015 participated in violence. Some police officers used riot shields or their own bodies to protect protesters from attack by other police officers, providing further evidence of the unjustified use of force by some officers. Fortify Rights and the Clinic urged the authorities to highlight commendable police action in any investigation.
The protests in Letpadan stemmed from the September 2014 passage of the National Education Law, which critics said failed to protect the right to form unions and failed to accommodate ethnic communities, among other alleged shortcomings. Protesters in Myanmar took to the streets in January 2015 and continued to march in various locations throughout the country over the next several months.
Many of the Letpadan protesters faced charges under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, which requires prior authorization or consent for assemblies and provides penalties of fines and imprisonment for failure to comply, infringing on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Fortify Rights and the Clinic at Harvard Law School encourage the NLD Government to repeal or amend the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law to bring it in line with international standards and to prevent it from being used to target human rights defenders.
For more information, please contact:
Tyler Giannini, Director, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic: +1-617-496-7368,
firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @HmnRghtsProgram
November 10, 2015
Ramp Up Action to Ban Killer Robots
Blinding Lasers Prohibition Offers Precedent
(Geneva, November 9, 2015) – Governments should agree to expand and formalize their international deliberations on fully autonomous weapons, with the ultimate aim of preemptively banning them, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a joint report released today. These weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots, would be able to select and attack targets without further human intervention.
The 18-page report, “Precedent for Preemption,” details why countries agreed to preemptively ban blinding laser weapons in 1995 and says that the process could be a model for current efforts to prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Countries participating in the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will decide by consensus on November 13, 2015, whether to continue their deliberations on lethal autonomous weapons systems next year.
“Concerns over fully autonomous weapons have pushed them to the top of the international disarmament agenda, but countries need to pick up the pace of discussions,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School, and senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch, which is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Governments can take direct action now with commitments to ban weapons with no meaningful human control over whom to target and when to attack.”
The report calls on countries to initiate a more robust process through creation of a group of governmental experts on fully autonomous weapons under the CCW.
Artificial intelligence experts, roboticists, and other scientists predict that fully autonomous weapons could be developed within years, not decades. The preemptive ban on blinding lasers, which is in a protocol attached to the conventional weapons treaty, shows that a prohibition on future weapons is possible.
“The prospect of fully autonomous weapons raises many of the same concerns as blinding lasers did two decades ago,” said Docherty, lead author of the new report exploring the history of the prohibition on lasers that would permanently blind their victims. “Countries should adopt the same solution by banning fully autonomous weapons before they reach the battlefield.”
The report shows that threats to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, as well as notions of abhorrence and social unacceptability, helped drive countries to ban blinding lasers. Fully autonomous weapons present similar dangers.
Countries were further motivated by the risk of widespread proliferation of blinding lasers to parties that have little regard for international law, a risk echoed in discussions of fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School clinic said. As with blinding lasers 20 years ago, a ban on fully autonomous weapons could clarify and strengthen existing law without limiting the development of related legitimate technology.
The groups acknowledged notable differences in the specific legal problems and technological character of the two weapons but found that those differences make banning fully autonomous weapons even more critical.
In other publications, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch have elaborated on the challenges that fully autonomous weapons would face in complying with international humanitarian law and international human rights law and analyzed the lack of accountability that would exist for the unlawful harm caused by such weapons.
Several of the 121 countries that have joined the CCW – including the United States, United Kingdom, China, Israel, Russia, and South Korea – are developing weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality. The countries party to the treaty held nine days of informal talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems in 2014 and 2015, but they should now ramp up their deliberations, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Docherty and Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, will present the report at a side event briefing at 2 p.m. on November 9 in Conference Room XI at the United Nations in Geneva. At the end of the week, Goose will assess the meeting’s decision on fully autonomous weapons, joined by other Campaign to Stop Killer Robots representatives, at a side event briefing at 1 p.m. on November 13 in Conference Room XI.
“Precedent for Preemption: The Ban on Blinding Lasers as a Model for a Killer Robots Prohibition” is available at:
NOTE: Mana Azarmi, JD ’16, Federica du Pasquier, MA ’16, and Marium Khawaja, LLM ’16, contributed research to this report.
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on fully autonomous weapons, please visit:
For more information on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, please visit:
For more information, please contact:
In Geneva, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or email@example.com
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