Blog: Student Perspectives
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January 4, 2019
How Facebook is Reconfiguring Freedom of Speech in Situations of Mass Atrocity: Lessons from Myanmar and the Philippines
Posted by Jenny Domino LLM'18
Jenny Domino is a Satter Human Rights Fellow (funded through the Human Rights Program) working with ARTICLE 19 to counter hate speech. In an article for OpinioJuris, she argues that Facebook’s secrecy around its community standards and its intermediary status as a hosting “platform” detract from international law’s ability to hold the corporation accountable for its role encouraging harmful rhetoric that fuels mass atrocity. Find the full text of the article below and at OpinioJuris.org. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and not the views of ARTICLE 19.
Facebook has been described as a service to democracy. This perception arguably peaked during the Arab Spring uprisings, touted as Facebook’s crowning glory in its mission to connect people. The past two years have effectively undermined that rhetoric, as serious lapses in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Russian hacking in the 2016 US Presidential election have shown.
In Southeast Asia, we don’t need to look far to see how Facebook has been used to oppress. The OHCHR Fact-Finding Mission in Myanmar recently concluded that Facebook was instrumental in the dissemination of hate speech against the Rohingya. In the Philippines, disinformation on Facebook has enabled the triumph and reign of Duterte, whose war on drugs has reportedly claimed thousands of civilian lives. Notably, both situations are under preliminary examination at the International Criminal Court. If Facebook has failed in a mature democracy such as the United States, it has all the more failed in struggling democracies. Rather than bringing the world closer, Facebook has facilitated the spread of divisive rhetoric even within borders.
This year, Facebook finally published its Community Standards in an effort to be more transparent. It has also started to publish a report of their Community Standards enforcement. These were announced during the first Asia-Pacific Facebook Community Standards Forum held last month in Singapore, which I attended.
Conspicuously, relevant information on how these rules operate remain shrouded in secrecy. We have the applicable rules and the results of their implementation, but we are left in the dark as to what happens in between. Facebook did disclose the type of people they hire as content moderators (ranging from counter-terrorism experts to previous law enforcers), or the fact that they use human labor and algorithms to review content, but when pressed about the details on the process, they invoke their content reviewers’ safety in refusing to disclose any information on this aspect.
This seems odd. If Facebook has chosen to disclose the type of people they are hiring, why can’t they disclose their procedure on content moderation, which is arguably less likely to reveal the identity of their content reviewers and thus expose them to physical risk?
This is crucial in monitoring Facebook’s efforts to improve its operations in situations of mass atrocity. Information on procedure would help civil society monitor social media companies’ timely detection and moderation of hate speech posted on their platform, which could prevent further escalation of violence or abuse towards a victim group. This, in turn, could strengthen the normative force of the Genocide Convention’s preventive provisions, including the crime of direct and public incitement to commit genocide.
Information on procedure can also shed light on how a certain situation will be prioritized over others. During the forum, Facebook admitted that the company prioritizes certain content over others, but there is no information on how these priorities are decided. The situation in Myanmar is unique in that the UN itself made a finding on Facebook’s enabling role; what metric does Facebook plan to use moving forward? This will be crucial in the work of the ICC, whose recent statementson potential situation countries include references to incitement to violence, where the battle is increasingly being fought on Facebook.
The kind and depth of information that Facebook chooses to disclose regarding its Community Standards reflect the ease with which corporations can evade accountability through the use of the “platform” nomenclature. Tarleton Gillespie has written about how intermediaries manipulate the ambivalent, multi-layered meanings of the term “platform” to serve different constituencies – ordinary citizens, businesses, policymakers, and so forth. Though platforms seem to only “facilitate” expression, there is nothing neutral about the curating, filtering, and “orchestrating” of posted content that they take on. As mediators of content, platforms also crucially mediate relations among users, between users and the public, between users and sellers, and even between users and governments.
Facebook’s earlier reference to itself as a neutral platform could explain its previous indifference to the impact of its operations in Southeast Asia, but it also continues to frame corporate policy on public engagement. Because the term “platform” does not carry with it a clear, corresponding set of obligations for accountability on Community Standards enforcement, Facebook can conveniently choose what to disclose depending on what their interests dictate at a given point in time – whether improving public image, expanding operations, or fulfilling the demands of the UN.
This is worrying. While our demand for transparency from our public officers is guaranteed by law, our expectation from Facebook is not. We can only know what Facebook lets us know despite the impact of their Community Standards enforcement to situations of mass atrocity. Continue Reading…
October 29, 2018
This month, the Musawah Movement for Equality in the Muslim Family submitted a thematic report to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee advocating for codification of family law provisions to protect the rights of Muslim women in Mauritius. International Human Rights Clinic students Samantha Lint JD’20 and Natalie McCauley JD’19 contributed to drafting the report and developing its legal recommendations, working in close collaboration with Mauritian attorney and family law expert, Narghis Bundhun.
As the report notes, a major cause of the lack of rights protection and inequality for Muslim women in Mauritius is the absence of a clear legal framework that protects rights in the context of religious marriages. The report highlights this legal ambiguity and key resulting inequalities that harm Muslim Mauritian women and in turn damage families, communities, and society as a whole. The report encourages the State of Mauritius to leverage its robust framework of diversity and inclusion to promote equality for Muslim women and take concrete steps to ensure all women in Mauritius enjoy full legal protection.
The report will be considered by the CEDAW Committee in its Constructive Dialogue with the Government of Mauritius. Today, Monday, October 29, the IHRC team has joined Musawah in Geneva, Switzerland, where the session and associated Committee briefings are now taking place. Tune in to the #CEDAW71 Constructive Dialogue starting tomorrow (10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. CET) and follow Musawah on Twitter for updates. Watch live at http://webtv.un.org/…/71st-session-committee-…/5723840293001.
June 12, 2018
The Human Rights Program is pleased to announce its cohort of post-graduate fellowships in human rights. This year, Conor Hartnett, JD’18, and Alejandra Elguero Altner, LLM’17, have been awarded the Henigson Human Rights Fellowship and Jenny B. Domino, LLM’18, and Anna Khalfaoui, LLM’17, have been awarded the Satter Human Rights Fellowship.
Conor Hartnett will be a Legal Fellow with Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he will focus on transitional justice within two different spheres: criminal justice accountability and education. As a fellow, he will provide technical assistance to criminal justice organizations attempting to hold war criminals and perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable for their activities. He will also help develop curricula on transitional justice and human rights for a host of different universities. With a sustained interest in human rights and international development, Conor made human rights the focus of his law school career: spending multiple semesters in the International Human Rights Clinic and contributing substantially to the leadership and growth of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. Prior to law school, he was a fellow in the Peace Corps where he developed a human rights education curriculum for students in the Republic of Georgia.
Alejandra Elguero Altner will be a Legal Fellow with Legal Action Worldwide (LAW) in Nairobi, Kenya, where she will work on projects that address sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) in South Sudan and Somalia. With both societies in long-term conflict, Alejandra will be helping to strengthen the ability of civil society organizations and attorneys to hold perpetrators of SGBV accountable. Having graduated with an LLM in 2017, Alejandra has spent the last year with the Organization of American States consulting on a number of related projects, including Mexico’s compliance with international legal obligations regarding violence towards women and their access to justice. Prior to her LLM, she worked to combat human trafficking and provide access to justice to SGBV survivors and held positions with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Ignacio Ellacuria Human Rights Institute.
Jenny B. Domino will work with ARTICLE 19 in Myanmar, strengthening the organization’s response to hate speech, specifically as it incites violence and provokes atrocities committed against the Rohingya community. Throughout her career, Jenny has dedicated herself to deepening the commitment to international human rights law in the ASEAN region. In her home country of the Philippines, she spearheaded the Commission on Human Rights’ investigation of the state leaders most responsible for the extrajudicial killings arising from President Duterte’s drug war. Her investigation helped prompt the International Criminal Court to open a preliminary examination into whether these killings constitute crimes against humanity.
Anna Khalfaoui will work with the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, supporting programs in North and South Kivu, where there are increasing attacks against civilians and high levels of sexual violence that are committed with impunity. She will support ABA-ROLI’s early warning and response system for preventing atrocities and provide legal assistance to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence to file cases with civilian and military authorities. Anna is a French lawyer who trained in the International Human Rights Clinic. She currently serves as a consultant for the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
May 1, 2018
Posted by Dana Walters
As part of its mission to merge theory with practice, the Human Rights Program continually offers students the opportunity to leave the law school environment to engage in scholarly inquiry and gain practical experience in the field. Winter Term is but one period that offers JD students a short yet intensive time to do research or internships abroad in human rights. This year, the Program provided Winter Term fellowship awards to four students to immerse themselves in different arenas of advocacy, human rights research, and documentation with courts and NGOs.
Elisa Quiroz, JD ’19, conducted research in Chile, examining the government’s legislative and policy responses to the country’s rapid rise in migration. Recently, Chile has sought to strengthen migrants’ access to socio-economic rights, including labor rights, the right to health, and the right to education. Quiroz examined how services are being delivered, and whether the government is meeting commitments in line with its international human rights obligations.
Without working under the umbrella of an organization, Quiroz undertook this research initiative largely independently. Assistant Clinical Professor Sabi Ardalan of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic served as her adviser, as the project had grown out of an International Labor Migration reading group Ardalan had taught with Lecturer on Law Jennifer Rosenbaum. Spending time in Chile doing desk research and speaking with academics and civil society experts allowed Quiroz to further contextualize the historical conditions of this recent migration and the legal responses to it. In one instance, she notes, migrants’ equal access to housing is compromised by the insufficient attention the government gives to housing rights in general. Quiroz hopes to analyze this rights gap, as well as the innovative responses by the government and civil society to the influx of new peoples, in a longer academic paper.
In addition to Quiroz, other Winter Term grantees included Molly Ma, JD’18, Ellen Zheng, JD’18, and Mila Owen, JD’18. Ma traveled to The Hague to work with Judge Chung Chang-ho of the International Criminal Court, where she researched the operations of the Court and potential reforms. As a returning intern at Justice Base in Myanmar, Zheng studied ethnic violence and discrimination in the Rakhine state. Likewise, Mila Owen, JD’18, also continued her work for the second year in a row at Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights in Harare, where she focused on disability rights, among other projects. You can read more about her experience in Zimbabwe on the OCP blog here.
This summer, the Human Rights Program has funded six fellows to intern abroad at various human rights organizations. Among these are: Ginger Cline, JD’20, who will travel to Kenya to work for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; D Dangarang, JD’20, for Lawyers for Human Rights in South Africa; Krista Oehlke, JD’20, for EarthRights, International in Peru; Sara Oh, JD’19, for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey; Delphine Rodrik, JD’20, for Human Rights Watch in Lebanon; and Eun Sung Yang, JD’20, for Justice Base, in Myanmar.
April 13, 2018
Spotlight Feature: Clinic team help hold Bolivian ex-leaders responsible for killings in historic case
Posted by Cara Solomon
This post originally ran on the Harvard Law Today homepage under the title, “After a decade of tireless fighting, a measure of justice.”
When the verdict came down, most of the litigation team was in the second row of the courtroom, leaning forward, tense with the waiting, trembling at times. But Thomas Becker ’08, was in the front row beside the plaintiffs, his arm around the shoulders of Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, whose father was shot dead in the street all those years ago.
There was no other place for him to be. He had spent the past decade on and off in Bolivia, working in partnership with the plaintiffs–attending victims’ association meetings, tracking down witnesses, investigating leads. They were not only his inspiration. They were also his friends.
When Mamani, et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín reached Federal District Court last month, it had already made history: the first time a living former head of state faced his accusers in a human rights case in U.S. court. Now, as the judge read the verdict form, Becker found the words hard to believe.
Had the jury really just found two of the most powerful men in Bolivian history liable for the extrajudicial killings of eight indigenous people–and awarded the plaintiffs $10 million in damages?
With more than 25 witnesses and hundreds of pages of evidence, the case against Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Sánchez Berzaín seemed clear—how they had deployed massive military force to quash protests, leading to scores of civilian deaths. Still, Becker turned around for reassurance from Susan Farbstein ’04 and Tyler Giannini, co-directors of the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), which was co-counsel in the litigation from the start.
“Susan was smiling with tears running down her face, and Tyler was nodding in his Zen-like way,” said Becker. “And I knew that after a decade of tireless fighting, the plaintiffs had gotten some form of justice.”
In the summer of 2006, Becker was a rising 2L, living in Bolivia, and immersed in the social justice movement around “Black October,” the military violence that killed more than 50 and injured more than 400 in the fall of 2003.
The fight for accountability was already well underway, and would later lead to the Trial of Responsibilities, which found five members of the Military High Command guilty for their role in the killings. But the men who had unleashed the military on civilians—Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín—had fled to the United States in the aftermath of the violence, and lived there ever since.
At some point, Becker remembered something he’d learned about in his 1L year. It was called the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), and it allowed people to sue in U.S. courts for human rights violations. What if lawyers in the United States could use it to help the victims’ associations here get some justice for their loved ones?
He reached out to experts in ATS litigation—Paul Hoffman, Judith Chomsky, and Giannini—to see what was feasible.
For Giannini, it felt reminiscent of another long-shot ATS case: Doe v. Unocal, brought by Burmese villagers against the company for human rights abuses related to a gas pipeline project. Back in 1995, when the organization he co-founded, EarthRights International, decided to sue a corporation for human rights violations, the reception was less than enthusiastic.
“People thought we were nuts,” he said.
But Giannini served as co-counsel on that case for a decade, right up until it settled. So when Becker called with the idea of suing the president of Bolivia, he had a receptive audience: this was not a litigator put off by long odds.
April 3, 2018
In Clinic Case, Jury Finds Former Bolivian President Responsible for Extrajudicial Killings of Indigenous People; Awards $10 Million in Damages
In a landmark decision today, a federal jury found the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense responsible for extrajudicial killings carried out by the Bolivian military in September and October 2003. The decision comes after a ten-year legal battle spearheaded by family members of eight people killed in what is known in Bolivia as the “Gas War.” It marked the first time in U.S. history a former head of state has sat before his accusers in a U.S. human rights trial. The jury awarded a total of $10 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiffs.
Both the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, have lived in the United States since they fled Bolivia following the massacre known as “Black October.” During that period, more than 50 people were killed and hundreds were injured. In Bolivia, in 2011, former military commanders and government officials who acted under Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín’s authority were convicted for their roles in the killings. Both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the same case, but could not be tried in abstentia under Bolivian law.
The lawsuit originated from a collaborative effort between the International Human Rights Clinic and Bolivian lawyers, advocates, and community members seeking justice for the 2003 violence. Dozens of students have worked on the case since 2006.
“After many years of fighting for justice for our family members and the people of Bolivia, we celebrate this historic victory,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff and member of the indigenous Aymara community of Bolivia, who were victims of the defendants’ decision to use massive military force against the population. “Fifteen years after they fled justice, we have finally held Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín to account for the massacre they unleashed against our people.”
In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, the families of eight Bolivians who were killed filed suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín in 2007. Today’s verdict affirms the plaintiffs’ claims that the two defendants were legally responsible for the extrajudicial killings and made decisions to deploy military forces in civilian communities in order to violently quash opposition to their policies.
“To me, it was the biggest honor of my life to work with the plaintiffs and learn from them in their struggle for justice,” said Thomas Becker ’08, who brought the idea for the lawsuit to IHRC after spending time in Bolivia and learning about the massacre there. “It’s an extraordinary privilege to witness this and be a small part of this.”
The three-week trial included the testimony of 29 witnesses from across Bolivia who recounted their experiences of the 2003 killings. Twenty-three appeared in person. Eight plaintiffs testified about the deaths of their family members, including: Etelvina Ramos Mamani and Eloy Rojas Mamani, whose eight-year-old daughter Marlene was killed in front of her mother when a single shot was fired through the window; Teófilo 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.
One witness, a former soldier in the Bolivian military, testified about being ordered to shoot at “anything that moves” in a civilian community, while another recounted witnessing a military officer kill a soldier for refusing to follow orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Witnesses recounted how tanks rolled through in the streets and soldiers shot for hours on end. Others testified about how the president and minister of defense committed to a military option instead of pursuing dialogue with community leaders to reach a peaceful resolution.
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 for monetary damages 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, and the case moved forward in U.S. District Court. After a review of the evidence gathered by both sides, District Court Judge James I. Cohn ruled on February 14 that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.
“There are just no words for what the plaintiffs have done over the past ten years to seek justice for their lost loved ones as well as many others who were killed in Bolivia,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Today the jury gave the plaintiffs a huge victory, and showed that the former president and his defense minister are not above the law.”
“When I heard the verdict, I almost couldn’t believe it,” added Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “The only thing I could think of was: We didn’t let down the plaintiffs, we didn’t disappoint them, we did our jobs.”
As co-counsel, the International Human Rights Clinic has been involved in all phases of the litigation from the outset, including researching and drafting for the complaint and various motions and briefs, assisting with oral arguments, and undertaking more than a dozen investigative missions to Bolivia since 2007. Over the past year, during the discovery phase, students traveled to Bolivia numerous times, and assisted with document review, interrogatories, and the depositions of plaintiffs, witnesses and experts; more than a half dozen students worked on every facet of the case during the three weeks of trial.
“It was fascinating to work under the legal team and have complete faith in their talent and ability to manage such a complex case,” said Amy Volz ’18, who traveled to Bolivia on four fact-finding trips. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
After the jury announced its verdict, the defendants made a motion asking the judge to overturn the jury’s finding of liability against both defendants. Both parties will submit briefing on this issue in the coming weeks.
“We’re not one to leave halfway through the fight,” said Baltazar Cerro. “We will struggle until the last moment.”
In addition to the Clinic, a team of lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, and Akerman LLP are representing the family members. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys.
March 21, 2018
Earlier this week, Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP), and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, sat down to discuss HRP’s upcoming conference, “Human Rights in a Time of Populism,” with Natalie McCauley, JD ‘19.
The conference, which is free and open to the public, takes place this Friday afternoon and Saturday all day on Harvard Law School’s campus.
So Professor, to start us out: What is this conference about?
Thank you for asking. We plan to discuss the current rise in populism: What are its causes? What are its effects? What implications does it have for the international human rights system? And how should the international human rights system respond?
We don’t expect the answers to these questions to be the same for every country, and that’s one of the things we’re going to be discussing.
We’ll have more than a dozen leading experts coming from as far away as The Philippines and as near as our own university. There will be specific discussion on the United States, Poland, Southeast Asia, Turkey, and Latin America, as well as cross-cutting themes.
I should clarify what I mean by populism. Political scientists offer different formulations for the notion of populism, as we’ll be discussing. The phenomenon of concern here is a kind of politics that employs an exclusionary notion of the people- the “real people,” as opposed to disfavored groups that are unworthy. Populist leaders then claim to rule on behalf of the “real people,” whose will should not be constrained.
And does this populism affect internationally protected human rights?
We plan to discuss examples of how that happens. But the easy answer is: Yes, it does. Certainly within the country, and it in cases it has implications for other countries as well. If we look internally, often populism then leads to targeting the excluded groups. But it also poses a danger to the majority. Populists deny the legitimacy of the political opposition. They often try to entrench themselves in power and undermine checks. Populism can tip over into authoritarianism.
We’re talking about examples in Poland, Duterte in the Philippines, and of course, President Trump here. Continue Reading…
February 16, 2018
Posted by Mayuri Anupindi and Ha Ryong Jung
Despite almost 70 years since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world is facing overwhelming challenges in upholding the rights that all humans deserve, especially for minority and marginalized communities. However, these challenges are not insurmountable.
On Saturday, January 27, a group of Harvard graduate students held the inaugural Human Rights Symposium, entitled Human Rights: Adapting to the Challenges of our Times. The Symposium set the stage for activists, scholars, and students to come together and discuss the common challenges facing human rights movements across the globe, while confirming the potential for new coalitions and reaffirming our commitment for shared action.
We were inspired by Douglas Johnson, former director of the Carr Center for Human Rights, who memorably reminded us through his welcome address that despite the adversities, the key role of an activist is to “breathe in hope, and exhale it to others.” Professor Rajesh Sampath of Brandeis University then gave a rich, wide-ranging keynote address delving into the philosophical premise of human rights and the notion of freedom, while stressing the value of life and harmonious balance.
Our subsequent panels shed light on the narratives and implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights; the rights and dignities of refugees and migrants in light of nationalist backlash; the shared struggles of minorities across the globe; and the potential for new coalitions and solidarities for shared action on human rights issues. Professor Gerald Neuman, director of the Human Rights Program, and Yee Mon Htun and Salma Waheedi, clinical instructors of the International Human Rights Clinic, were among the diverse group of speakers that shared their valuable insights and analyses on multiple spectrums.
Some of the most memorable moments were from those with personal stories, from a moving presentation on the suffering wrought by the war in Yemen, to the reflections of a writer on the impact of international economic policy on her own life in Kenya, to the historical strife of Native American peoples. Other speakers gave insight into tactical issues, such as the potential of local initiatives to counter trends of nationalist backlash, the ineffectiveness of law alone, and the neglect of policy and indicators.
It was a gift to see such dynamic and diverse activists share the same stage. But the discussions did not end at simply identifying the problems. In order to encourage individuals to take concerted action, our final panel consisted of a dialogue between activists working to address the Roma issues in Europe, Dalit rights in India, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights in the US, and Indigenous rights in Australia. Karlene Griffiths Sekou of Black Lives Matter Boston reminded us that solidarity should not come from an impulse to help an “other”, but instead to reaffirm one’s own humanity.
Charles Prouse, an Indigenous Australian advocate, pointed out the complexity of human rights struggles that not only can encompass multiple issues, but can also recognize a victim and perpetrator simultaneously within the same person. In concluding the day, Dena Elkhatib, an Arab American Muslim lawyer, gave a powerful closing speech focusing on the plight of Syrian refugees.
The panelists noted that new tactics and coalitions can only be formulated if spaces are made for the exchange of knowledge. In this regard, we thank all speakers and attendees for making this open and welcoming space possible. The Symposium was well attended from start to finish by individuals from within our community and beyond. We hope you will join us in continuing this annual event and the important discussions next year.
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.
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