Blog: Student Perspectives
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December 12, 2017
We’re so pleased to reprint below two student perspectives on the International Human Rights Clinic, published recently on the blog for the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs. First, Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18, reflects on her work on women’s rights in the Arab world. Next, Zeineb Bouraoui LL.M. ’18, describes her work on detention-related abuses in Yemen. Both students worked under the supervision of clinical instructor Salma Waheedi.
Great work, all!
My Time at the International Human Rights Clinic
by Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18
I believe in law as an instrument for social change, and I came to Harvard interested in focusing on that. A year is not much time, and as any LL.M. student can confirm, we all suffer from “fear of missing out”. I’m happy to say the International Human Rights Clinic, was perfect to curb this fear. In a short time I was able to do so much more than I expected. It was a unique opportunity for hands-on learning, while engaging in public service, and making a difference.
Women’s rights are something I particularly care about, and when I got into this clinic I was eager to learn more about how International Human Rights Law is relevant to feminism. Thankfully, I joined Salma Waheedi’s team for a project on this subject, and my expectations were exceeded. We worked in coordination with Musawah, an NGO advocating for equality of Muslim women. In this project, creative thinking was at the center; using comparative law, alternative interpretations of Islamic law, and human rights standards, we drafted thematic shadow reports on women’s rights for the Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I had the opportunity to travel to Geneva and participate in the 68th CEDAW Session at the United Nations, where the reports we drafted where presented. This trip was a rare chance to network and learn first-hand how international institutions, governments, and NGOs serve to advance (or sometimes set-back) feminist agendas.
The International Human Rights Clinic allowed me to strengthen fundamental lawyering skills. I especially enjoyed learning innovative advocacy strategies, and I have to say I was happily surprised by the people I met. Working alongside individuals with such passion and dedication to human rights was the highlight of this experience. I felt part of something meaningful from day one, there is a real sense of community, and the value of teamwork is constantly stressed. In a world where individuality is the rule, this was an exceptionally wonderful learning environment, and I’m so grateful to have been part of it.
“Advancing Human Rights in the Middle East”
by Zeineb Bouraoui LL.M. ’18
Following the escalation of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, I began working for the Syrian American Medical Society in Washington DC, assisting Syrian refugees in emigrating to the United States, mainly through public policy initiatives. This experience greatly influenced my desire to apply to law school. I was craving the opportunity to acquire effective tools that would allow me to fight back against the injustices that outraged me and to advance economic and social equality in my native region, the Middle East and North Africa.
At Sciences Po Law School, I focused my studies on international investment law and economic development, and graduated in 2016 with a masters’ degree in Economic Law and Global Business Law and Governance. I then started working at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, working on policy coordination efforts in order to help governments resist protectionist pressures and develop effective policies to respond to legal concerns raised by international investment.
It was especially important to me to pursue my commitment to advance human rights in the MENA region at Harvard Law School, leveraging the numerous tools that the university provides to its students, in order to conduct the most effective research, and hope to have the most effective impact on the region.
At the International Human Rights Clinic, I am working on the Yemen project. My team, led by Salma Waheedi, is contributing to a Human Rights Watch report on the growth of the missing file in Yemen. Since 2014, Yemen has become home to one of the most violent non-international armed conflicts in the world. Egregious human rights violations are being committed there on a daily basis. My team focuses mainly on investigating detention-related abuses currently being carried out by all sides to the conflict. We are in the process of mapping the network of secret prisons, and outlining the human rights abuses committed in them. We will then determine the international legal obligations of state and non-state actors involved in the conflict, and investigate enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.
The Clinic constituted an eye-opening experience to me, allowing me to understand firsthand the challenges that human rights lawyers and activists are routinely facing with funding, media outreach and advocacy, or even the simple act of gathering accurate and reliable information. It was particularly challenging to work on a non-international armed conflict, as raising awareness on a conflict happening on the other side of the world, with very little interest for the United States can be at times frustrating.
I particularly enjoyed conducting in-depth factual research and interacting with local Yemeni NGOs such as Mwatana, which are doing an incredible job in producing exhaustive accounts of the human rights violations committed throughout the course of the civil war, often at the peril of their lives.
November 7, 2017
Posted by Thaya Uthayophas, JD ’18
I came to Harvard Law School because I wanted to make a difference. As an international student from Thailand, however, I wasn’t originally sure how that would manifest. Should I make a lot of money in corporate law to help my family? Should I become part of legal academia, thinking of new philosophical frameworks that could change the way we think about the world? Or should I be an activist for my people back home in an effort to finally establish a permanent constitution and democratic Thailand?
These are all big dreams. And they are all valid in their own ways. As I’ve come to learn through working with Student Practice Organizations and the clinical programs, however, our dreams can be difficult to put into practice. But therein also lies the magic: that no one’s dream can stand alone. What ultimately inspires me to pursue the dream of becoming a human rights lawyer is not so much the size of my dream or the grandeur of my narrative, but the people, the events, and the projects — the fact that we’re all doing it together as part of something larger, fighting for a seemingly impossible and ever-changing set of ideals that is human rights. And I learned all this by being part of the Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights.
The day-to-day work of an individual Advocates member (and any lawyer, really) borders more or less on the mundane. While it was exciting to see my own project draw fruition with our letter to the UN special rapporteurs on a human rights violation connected to a gold mine in Thailand, I think focusing on the victories misses the point. In order to get the UN letter drafted, my individual team members had to first learn about UN systems, read up on the many violations connected with the mine, and research individual special rapporteurs and the best ways to approach them. Then we had to come together and compile all this information in an accessible form for our partner organization Fortify Rights. It was all very time-consuming, and, at times, it felt like we had to trust our client to know what best to do with the information we provided them. The fact of the matter, however, was that we did trust them — this non-governmental organization more than 8000 miles away. We trusted that their work would eventually help local villagers who suffered from cyanide poisoning and violent attacks because we trusted them as part of the human rights movement, fighting together for a better world.
For this Fall term, Advocates leaves the same kinds of trust to organizations fighting for land rights in Liberia, advocating for waste pickers in Latin America, documenting human rights violations of asylum-seeking children in Israel, empowering mining-affected communities in Guinea, countering violent extremism in Tanzania, and holding people accountable for war crimes in Iraq. Our project leaders and members similarly know that it’s not about each of us making individual difference but all of us making differences as a team, and beyond. And it’s not just the project people who are cognizant of this fact. Our events team, for instance, has created a Human Rights Training Series, knowing that many students lack understanding about the fundamental building blocks of a different facet of international human rights. Our directors of organizing and direct action constantly seek out opportunities with other organizations on campus to make an impact on the ground.
As for me, as co-President, I’m little more than a facilitator, making sure things go along and confidentiality forms are filled out. It’s a good job. At the very least, I get to write and talk about all the wonderful things Advocates is doing as part of something larger that is human rights.
November 6, 2017
Statement from more than 35 Harvard Law School student groups on racially charged incident last week
Posted by The International Human Rights Clinic
In a statement released today, more than 35 student groups at Harvard Law School responded to a racially charged incident on campus last week. In solidarity, we reprint their statement below about what appears to have been a coordinated campaign:
On the evening of October 31, stickers with the words, “IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE,” were posted around the entrance of WCC. Similar stickers appeared around Cambridge and other parts of the United States and Canada. According to an online forum, the stickers were intended to convey a “harmless” message that would leave “the media & leftists frothing at the mouth” and turn public opinion against them.
We condemn this attempt to divide us along the lines of race and politics. Instead, we have come together as law student groups representing individuals of many backgrounds and identities. We emphatically assert that we remain committed to maintaining a community where we respect and embrace our differences.
The stickers’ message may seem innocuous, but it ignores a national history replete with discrimination against underrepresented groups and implies that promoting equality threatens white people. Equality is not a zero-sum game.
Coming together today, the undersigned organizations affirm our belief that “it’s okay” to be whoever you are and to aspire to grow into whoever you want to become. We welcome people to our community irrespective of background or identity.
With love and support,
Advocates for Education
American Constitution Society
Asian Pacific American Law Students Association
Canadian Law Students Association
Food Law Society
Harvard African Law Association
Harvard Black Law Students Association
Harvard Immigration Project
Harvard International JD Students Society
Harvard Italian Law Association
Harvard National Lawyers Guild
Harvard Negotiation Law Review
Harvard Women’s Law Association
HLS Advocates for Human Rights
HLS China Law Association
HLS Homelessness Coalition
HLS Justice for Palestine
Human Rights and Business Law Student Association
In Vino Veritas
Jewish Law Students Association
Law and Behavioral Science Student Association
Law and International Development Society
Mexican Law Students Association
Middle East Law Students Association
National Security Law Association
Native American Law Students Association
Queer Trans People of Color
Reparatory Justice Initiative
South Asian Law Students Association
Student Mental Health Association
Tenant Advocacy Project
West Coast Law Students Association
September 12, 2017
Posted by Anna Crowe, Yee Htun, Salma Waheedi, Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
As human rights advocates, we support the student groups Lambda and QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) in their action today against Harvard Law School’s decision to allow JAG recruiting on campus, which is the school’s only exception to its anti-discrimination policy. We also support the students’ call for increased support and awareness for issues affecting the transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming community. We stand in solidarity with the students, staff and faculty seeking to build a more inclusive Harvard Law School.
Read the students’ statement here.
April 7, 2017
Because we believe that every month should include an International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating it again this month by sharing videos from last month’s official celebration at HLS. Either that, or we got caught up in other things around the Human Rights Program and neglected to post these videos in a timely manner.
If you visit our account on YouTube, you’ll find the following powerful testimonies offered by: Doris Rena-Landaveirde, union leader and member of the HLS custodial staff; our very own Susan Farbstein, Co-Director, International Human Rights Clinic; Aparna Gokhale, JD ’17; Radhika Chitkara, LLM ’17; . and Esme Caramello, Faculty Director, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Deborah Anker, Director, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, also spoke but unfortunately we’re missing that video.
Thanks to the powerhouse women below- Yee Htun, Clinical Advocacy Fellow; Anna Crowe, Clinical Instructor; and Emily Nagisa Keehn, Assistant Director of the Academic Program- for organizing this event that drew more than 100 students, staff and faculty to Belinda Hall on March 8. Thanks also to the women who stood in front of that community and inspired and energized us with their words. And thanks finally to all the women we know- and the billions we do not- who have pushed for change, in whatever way they can, so that we are stronger and more secure and ready to push for MORE.
March 10, 2017
Posted by Jared Small, JD '18
Tomorrow, my Harvard Law School colleagues and I will board an airplane for Kosovo. Our goal: track down remnants of a war that ended nearly two decades ago.
The Kosovo War ended in 1999 after a months-long NATO airstrike crippled Yugoslav and Serbian forces and paved the way for an internationally monitored Kosovan autonomy. Kosovo has since declared independence, and is moving forward towards what it hopes will become full membership in the European Union.
But there is an invisible part of this story that has largely escaped the public eye over the past decade and a half. Our team from the International Human Rights Clinic will travel to Kosovo to better understand potential environmental and human health impacts that linger from the war.
During the course of the NATO airstrikes, United States aircraft deployed at least 5,723 kg of Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunition at Serbian and Yugoslav targets. As an incredibly dense by-product of the process of enriching uranium, DU is often used by militaries in armor-piercing shells and bullets. American A-10 Thunderbolts fired DU at more than 100 ground targets during the campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was attempting to cleanse Kosovo of its nearly 90% ethnic Albanian population.
In addition to penetrating armored vehicles, DU rounds ended up in areas now returned to civilian use, including bucolic buildings and urban streets. Even 18 years after the end of the war many of these penetrators remain scattered around Kosovo.
For a minute or so after the war, the world took notice of the fact that Kosovo had been littered with DU. The media reacted to a Pentagon statement acknowledging the use of DU. The Post-Conflict Assessment Unit of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both made site visits to Kosovo shortly after.
But concern about DU faded from the public eye as the world moved on from the Balkan Wars and new events demanded resources and attention. The initial UNEP and WHO reports cited neither a “smoking penetrator” nor any cancerous abnormalities in the civilian population. Those same reports, however, warned of potential longer-term radioactivity issues stemming from ingestion of uranium in drinking water or inhalation of uranium dust suspended in the air.
DU’s chemical toxicity raises other concerns. When ingested, the greatest concentrations of DU may show up in the kidneys, liver tissue, and skeletal structure, potentially causing renal dysfunction and organ damage.
As we head to Kosovo, here’s what we know: calls by concerned stakeholders for longer-term water, soil, air, and livestock monitoring in Kosovo have not been heeded. And studies of heavily targeted DU sites elsewhere in the Balkans—such as the TRZ Hadžići Tank Repair Facility in Bosnia and Herzegovina—have uncovered health and psychosocial consequences among populations exposed to DU.
Even before setting foot in Kosovo, we have begun discussing the value of increased information sharing and heightened transparency around DU target areas. Our trip will allow us to examine the state of awareness that surrounds these issues, and ultimately to offer recommendations for a response that is in line with the needs of Kosovan individuals, communities, and civil society.
February 10, 2017
Posted by Katherine Gonzalez, JD '17
It may be difficult to believe that a simple piece of paper can carry so much weight. But for Syrian refugees living in host communities in Jordan, marriage certificates, birth certificates, and government-issued identity cards are essential to securing basic human rights.
Several months ago, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to interview dozens of Syrian refugee families about their experiences with obtaining these documents in Jordan. Like the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, these families lived outside of refugee camps, their legal status dependent on whether they had new government-issued identity cards, otherwise known as “MoI cards.” Without the cards, refugees lived in situations of legal uncertainty, without access to essential services, and at risk of arrest, detention, forced relocation to refugee camps, and possible refoulement.
The families we interviewed described a variety of experiences, but one theme was common throughout: lacking proper documentation can have cascading consequences for Syrians who already occupy a marginalized and vulnerable position.
For one Syrian mother, getting a new MoI card for her infant son, who was born in Jordan, seemed nearly impossible. In order to get the card, she needed proof of identity for her son, in the form of a birth certificate issued by Jordanian authorities. But she couldn’t get the birth certificate until she got a marriage certificate. And she couldn’t get the marriage certificate because the woman and her husband, who wed in Syria two years prior, could not provide sufficient proof that they had been married in Syria.
As is common practice in some parts of Syria, their marriage had been officiated outside the Shari’a court. Continue Reading…
February 9, 2017
Congratulations to Anna Khalfaoui, LLM ’17, who wrote the post below for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. It was published February 8, 2017.
Reflections on the Review Conference as a Newcomer to CCW
The Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was a great success for advocates of a ban on fully autonomous weapons. Held at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2016, the Conference was also an opportunity for me to discover and reflect on the processes and challenges of the CCW, to which I was a newcomer.
I became involved when I attended the Conference as part of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). I also contributed to a report that IHRC co-published with Human Rights Watch the week before the Review Conference. Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban rebuts the major arguments against a prohibition on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons. These weapons, also known as killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons systems, would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention.
The Review Conference was a key step toward a ban because states parties agreed to formalise talks on killer robots by establishing a Group of Government Experts (GGE), which will meet for 10 days in 2017. This GGE creates the expectation of an outcome as past GGEs have led to negotiation of new or stronger CCW protocols. It provides a forum for states and experts to discuss the parameters of a possible protocol which hopefully will take the form of a ban. The Review Conference also showed that support a ban is gaining traction around the world. Argentina, Panama, Peru and Venezuela joined the call for the first time at the Conference, bringing to 19 the number of states in favour of a ban.
The establishment of a GGE was the news I eagerly waited for the entire week. Continue Reading…
April 7, 2016
Posted by Keaton Allen-Gessesse, JD '16
Yesterday, it was my great honor to present Fernando Ribeiro Delgado, my former clinical instructor, with the Shatter the Ceiling Award for Excellence in Integrating Critical Race Theory into the Curriculum. The annual award, given by Students for Inclusion and the Shattered Ceiling Committee of the Harvard Women’s Law Association, is based on feedback from a student survey. Below are the comments I prepared for the ceremony, followed by the complete list of faculty honorees:
“The first time I thought ‘there may actually be a place for students like me here’ was during my 2L year in the International Human Rights Clinic. Deborah and Tyler’s human rights seminar was intellectually engaging in ways I had never experienced at HLS and I was sure none of my other classes could compare. But my developing clinical education with Fernando was not just comparable; it was the ultimate practical supplement.
Team meetings were my oasis amid an exorbitant education generally void of critical analysis. Our clinical project – using human rights law to advocate for a moratorium on private prison expansion in Brazil – facilitated an evolution of my social and legal imagination. As expected, we learned international case law and how to compose persuasive legal arguments. More importantly, Fernando encouraged us to embrace our curiosity and creativity as we investigated the laws’ capacity to maintain or dismantle oppressive regimes.
Fernando takes a similar approach to his teaching in the classroom, as illustrated by the following quote from a current student:
‘The central premise of critical race theory in the legal context is how the law is used as a tool in maintaining white supremacy and how we can transform the relationship between the law and racial power. In our institution, we see a curriculum that fails to view the law through this lens with almost no emphasis on critical race theory. But its central premise is taken up by Fernando in his Human Rights and Criminal Justice class. Fernando examines how the prison industrial complex, from Brazil to Baltimore, is used as a tool to oppress communities of color and encourages his students to think critically about how the law is used to disenfranchise minority communities. His students appreciate his carefully curated readings, which aside from breaking with Harvard Law tradition in being short, collect voices which are typically not heard within our school, including works by Angela Davis on prisons, Michelle Alexander on mass incarceration as the new Jim Crow, and Makau Matua on how our system of international human rights preserves an international legal order of white colonialism.
Fernando is a living example and inspiration of how we can use our power as human rights advocates to elevate the voices of marginalized causes and groups and to never forget that this is not about us but about liberation. For so many of us disillusioned by humanity, Fernando’s class is a sanctuary in which we as imperfect advocates can fight for racial justice in a system where we don’t even know what that means or looks like.’
I thought Fernando was one of the best-kept secrets at HLS, but this award demonstrates that it was foolish to think that I alone recognized his magic. If anything, I am now discovering the significant community of students he has inspired and transformed throughout the years.
Fernando, I am so very honored to present you with this award. Without that formative semester in the Clinic and in your seminar, I would never have been able to envision a better legal system, nor a better Harvard Law School. So I thank you deeply – more than I can adequately articulate – for modeling the type of human rights advocate that I, and so many others in this room, aspire to be. ”
November 8, 2015
Posted by Roni Druks, JD '17, and Sharon Yuen, LLM '16
Today, Myanmar held its first contested general election in 25 years — one that will have major implications for human rights. As vote counting starts, everyone is waiting to see whether the current ruling party, the military-backed United Solidarity and Development Party, or the National League for Democracy (NLD), headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, will win control of the parliament. There is a long history between military-backed parties and the NLD, dating to 1990, when the NLD won a landslide victory that was never recognized. In 2010, after decades of military rule, the country held elections again, leading to a USDP victory in parliament and the appointment of former general Thein Sein as president. But the NLD boycotted the 2010 vote, which was largely considered illegitimate.
Today, as the USDP, NLD, and other parties face off, seats in both the upper and lower houses of the national legislature, as well as at the state and division levels, are at stake. Despite concerns about whether the election will be free and fair, the key question is whether the NLD or USDP will win a victory and be able to control parliament—either alone or in a coalition. The winning party should control the selection of the next president, who will have a major influence over the course of human rights in the country over the next few years.
The outcome of the election will prove especially crucial since the president and newly elected parliament will bear responsibility of advancing a challenging peace process. Although the Myanmar government signed a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with eight ethnic armed organizations on October 15, 2015, the agreement remains neither nationwide nor a ceasefire. (For more on that, see the recent piece by our fellow clinic student, Roi Bachmutsky, JD ’17). Fighting has continued in several ethnic areas, raising concerns about the displacement of ethnic communities and other human rights violations.
Beyond the elections, Myanmar’s human rights record was under scrutiny this past Friday through the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which is evaluating Myanmar’s progress on human rights since 2011. Regrettably, Myanmar appointed Lt. Gen. Ko Ko to head the committee responsible for Myanmar’s UPR process. Ko Ko has a long track record of alleged involvement in human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity as the International Human Rights Clinic previously documented in a four-year investigation.
The Clinic made a UPR submission in March highlighting that the Myanmar government has not taken any steps to investigate the allegations against Lt. Gen. Ko Ko. In a major development, more than 500 groups from Myanmar (who must remain anonymous for fear of retaliation) have signed a petition calling for international action to hold Lt. Gen. Ko Ko accountable due to inaction at the national level. In response, the Clinic, along with eight other organizations, released a statement echoing the need for an end to impunity.
Whether on the election front, in its peace process, or on issues of accountability, it is a pivotal time in Myanmar. Along with the world, the people of Myanmar wait to see whether a new chapter for human rights is on the horizon or whether it will be more of the same.
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