Blog: Student Perspectives
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.
October 27, 2015
Defenders of the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Environment: Comment on Recent Hearing At IACHR
Posted by Kiri Toki, LLM '16
Last week, a panel of Ecuadorian indigenous and mestiza women spoke at a Thematic Hearing in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) about their struggles protecting the Amazon Rainforest. They spoke about the longstanding and continuing extractive projects that have operated in the area, and the subsequent (and escalating) abuse they have faced at the hands of the Ecuadorian Government.
When speaking about the extractive projects, one woman, Gloria Ushigua, a Sapara woman, highlighted that there had been no consultation with the local people. “There has been no consultation” she said in an answer to one of the IACHR’s questions. “We don’t know how [the Ecuadorian land acquisition process] works.”
Other women also bravely recounted the criminalization and abuse that they have suffered in the wake of the recent Quito protests. Esperanza Martinez, who works with Acción Ecológica, explained that her emails had been hacked and that she has been stigmatized. Similarly, Margoth Escobar, a defender of the Amazon for over three decades, detailed how she had been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, and beaten while in police custody. She in fact left Ecuador illegally to attend the hearing. She felt compelled to tell the IACHR what has been taking place, even though she believed that prison awaited her upon her return to Ecuador.
Sadly, the women’s struggle to protect their environment from extractive mining practices is a familiar story for many indigenous peoples. For instance, my own people, the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, have recently protested against government proposals to allow deep-sea oil drilling to take place off New Zealand’s coasts. Like many indigenous peoples, Maori view deep-sea oil drilling to be too intrusive, and the associated environmental risks to be too great.
As it happens, the IACHR is currently preparing a report on extractive industries and indigenous peoples. During the hearing, the IACHR noted that it is seeing a pattern throughout the Americas of threats against indigenous defenders and was particularly interested in the events in Ecuador for this reason. After thanking the women for their time, the IACHR explained that it would continue to monitor the situation in Ecuador.
While we can only speculate on what that report will entail, the IACHR’s report will be of interest to indigenous peoples worldwide. We await the release of the IACHR’s report and acknowledge those who, like these women, come forward and speak to the injustices that they continue face.
This blog post was written by Kiri Toki, who is a young, indigenous woman, of Maori descent (Ngati Wai/Ngapuhi) from Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is currently an LLM student at Harvard Law School, where she is focusing on indigenous rights and international law
May 26, 2015
Posted by Courtney Svoboda, JD '16
This past January, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to a small rural community on the border of Thailand and Myanmar. While the Clinic had been there many times before, it was my first time to meet the survivors of a brutal military offensive in Eastern Myanmar. As children ran up and down the aisles of the makeshift meetinghouse, we spoke with the villagers about the document we had written—a document that was, in a sense, their own.
On the strength of more than 1,000 pages of their testimony, we had produced a legal memorandum that made a case for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It also implicated current high-ranking military and government officials. Last November, when it was released, the findings sparked a discussion about accountability in a country that is, for the most part, considered to be on the path to reform.
When we finished telling the villagers all of this, I expected people to ask questions or to begin filtering down the dusty aisles towards the exits. Instead, after a few more minutes of silence, a man stood up and began telling us a story about his life. After he finished, another person rose to speak. Slowly, one by one, more came forward to talk to us.
As the crowd dwindled, one woman approached, her young son’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck, and started telling her story. A few years earlier, the Myanmar military had come into her village, shooting at people and burning homes as they moved through the streets. She took shelter in the jungle with her children, but without proper food or medicine, one of them died; then another; then a third.
I knew this story. I had read it back in Cambridge while working on the Clinic’s legal memorandum. But it was one thing to process her story from a distance. It was another to stand in front of her.
I have always believed in the power of storytelling to create empathy and human connection. But somewhere along the way in law school, I lost sight of it. I got distracted, poring over pages of documents, piecing together facts, checking grammar, debating sentence structure. It was easy to forget that at the heart of the Clinic’s work are people, wanting to be heard.
For those three weeks in January, our clinical team listened to people all over Myanmar. We heard about ongoing abuses in Shan State and Kachin State. We heard about police crackdowns at Letpadaung. The stories are everywhere.
Ironically enough, a story I heard back in Cambridge left one of the deepest impressions. It came from U Teikkha Nyana, a monk who participated in a panel discussion the Clinic organized on accountability in Myanmar.
Speaking in his crimson robes via Skype, U Teikkha Nyana took the audience of law students and professors back to a dark, brisk night in Letpadaung in northern Myanmar, where hundreds of monks were lined up in peaceful protest outside of a copper mine. First, he recalled how the police doused the men with water; then, how they shot canisters of white phosphorus, an acidic weapon that burns flesh.
“We kept our heads down, covered ourselves with robes and blankets, and took the brunt of it,” U Teikkha Nyana told us.
He waited for his words to be translated, then began again.
“My robes and blankets that were soaking wet suddenly caught on fire . . . . I was engulfed in flames.”
Another pause, as the audience absorbed those words.
“I raised my arms up and screamed at them, ‘Look what you have done. Do you see what you have done?’”
From the moment U Teikkha Nyana started speaking, I was captivated. It was more than just the words that he spoke. It was seeing him speak, hearing the inflection in his voice, seeing the look in eyes—the depth of compassion, pain, and ultimately hope. I already knew the facts about the crackdown in Letpadaung; I had read the statistics. But here was one man, in front of me, telling his story, a small window into the experiences of others like him who have also suffered.
It brought me back to that day in the village, when one person after another stepped forward—story after story, followed by a sea of handshakes and heartfelt thanks.
There is no one way to achieve accountability in Myanmar. That much is clear. Different communities and advocates will have different ideas, and it is not my place to define that path. But at the center of it all, surely, are stories—the stories of the many who have suffered, from the villagers at the border of Thailand and Myanmar, to the monks whose burns are still healing. These stories should be heard. These stories need to be a part of the conversation.
U Teikkha Nyana and the villagers at the heart of the Clinic’s work: thank you for sharing your stories. I, for one, feel honored to have heard them.
Below is the video from the Clinic’s panel discussion featuring U Teikkha Nyana, who is suing the Home Affairs Minister, Major General Ko Ko, for his responsibility in the Letpadaung crackdown. Ko Ko is one of the high-ranking government officials implicated in the Clinic’s legal memorandum. The panel also included U Teikkha Nyana’s lawyer, U Aung Thein; Roger Normand, of Justice Trust; and Matt Smith, of Fortify Rights.
May 11, 2015
Posted by Matthew Thiman, JD '16, and Tyler Giannini
It only happens once every four years: a full UN review of Myanmar’s human rights record. With its rather generic name—the Universal Periodic Review (“UPR”)—this UN process does not often get much attention. But it should. Especially when the head of Myanmar’s delegation is someone like Lieutenant General Ko Ko—the country’s Home Affairs Minister, a man who has been linked to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It was quite a moment when we at the International Human Rights Clinic realized that Ko Ko was in charge of Myanmar’s UPR process. We know Ko Ko well because we have been investigating his central role in a brutal Myanmar Army offensive for the last four years. We published our findings in a legal memorandum last November, implicating Ko Ko and two other military commanders in violent attacks on civilians.
Exactly a year after the release of our findings, the Myanmar delegation is scheduled to answer questions about its human rights record as part of the UPR process. If Ko Ko in fact ends up leading that delegation, it will say a lot about the status of reform in a country that says it is committed to human rights. With over 1000 pages of witness testimonies and expert declarations implicating him in international crimes, Ko Ko should not be the face of human rights in the new Myanmar.
NOTE: The International Human Rights Clinic made a submission to the UPR process in March, detailing the findings of the Clinic’s investigation. The submission notes Myanmar’s ongoing obligations to provide remedies for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and also highlights that high-ranking officials like Ko Ko have been promoted instead of investigated.
April 15, 2015
April 16, 2015
“Should There Be Liability If…”
Join Tyler Giannini and Ariel Nelson of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School for a discussion about the live issues in Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation, including whether torturers and other human rights abusers can use U.S. soil to shield themselves from accountability. Giannini and Nelson will examine current trends in the courts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel in 2013. Since that time, the Clinic has authored numerous amicus briefs in major ATS cases around the country, and is co-counsel in two major ATS cases—one stemming from corporate complicity in Apartheid-era crimes and the other involving alleged extrajudicial killings that occurred in Bolivia in 2003.
April 7, 2015
Posted by Cara Solomon
We’re pleased to report that The Irrawaddy, an online news magazine in Myanmar, has just published “How One Father’s Letters Got Him Convicted,” an Op-Ed by Matt Thiman, JD ’16, Courtney Svoboda, JD ’16, and Tyler Giannini. The piece tells the story of Brang Shawng, a grieving father whose request for an investigation into his daughter’s death led to charges from the Myanmar military. The Clinic was among several organizations in December to sign an open letter to the President of Mynamar, requesting that all charges be dropped.
The piece begins:
Shortly after his daughter’s death, Brang Shawng sat down to write the first of two letters that would eventually get him convicted. He wrote to the president of Myanmar first, and then to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, wanting to know what had happened to his daughter, whom he believed had been shot by the Myanmar military.
“A submission is made with great respect,” he wrote to the president, “to find out the truth in connection with the killing, without a reason, of an innocent student, my daughter Ma Ja Seng Ing, who wore a white and green school uniform.”
In the letter, he recalled the day in his village clearly. It was Sept. 13, 2012, in an area of conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military in the north of the country. A column of Myanmar Army soldiers had been in the village since before dawn. Late that afternoon, as the column was preparing to leave, there was a loud bomb blast. Then suddenly, soldiers shooting, and the sound of shouting and crying as villagers tried to take cover.
“It was just like the end of the world,” Brang Shawng wrote.
He hid with his wife and two children in their home. But one of their children was not with them: his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing.
March 31, 2015
Posted by David Victorson, JD '16
A few weeks ago the Harvard Human Rights Program tweeted about the fact that many students in rural South Africa have to walk more than 20km each day to get to and from school. They cross rugged mountains and flooded rivers. They navigate dangerous highways and treacherous weather. They face physical injury and emotional harm.
Surprisingly, shortly after we posted our tweet, a small number of Twitter users pushed back. One accused us of ignoring how lucky these students are to even be at school, implying that the difficulties of getting there are inconsequential. Another responded that if “it doesn’t kill you it makes you strong.” But as those paying attention to news reports over the past month know, a poor learner transport system has, in fact, already led to the death and injury of multiple children this year. And on our recent trip to Nqutu, KwaZulu-Natal, it didn’t take long to find students who have personal experience with the risks of robbery, rape, kidnapping, and even the death of friends – all created by the long journey to school.
How can this be inconsequential? How does this make anybody stronger?
Faced with such a difficult journey to school, many affected students drop out before completing Grade 12. During our trip, we heard from those who have continued attending school that they arrive exhausted, hungry, and have difficulty focusing in class. When they get home late at night, they may have responsibilities such as caring for livestock, fetching water, and helping to bathe siblings, nieces, and nephews before they can study. Some students go to bed at 11:00 pm, only to rise at 4:00 am and start their journey again.
Because of the many hours lost traveling to and from school, these students are forced to fit a full 24-hour day into something much less. Many struggle to do so by sacrificing homework and sleep, which has long-term consequences on their ability to stay healthy, to concentrate and to learn, and ultimately, to reach their full potential as adults.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s unemployment rate currently hovers around 25%. Among the youth labor force, this numbers jumps to over 33%. Nearly one-third of those aged 15 to 24 are not in employment, education, or training. They are detached from the labor force with seemingly no way to better their situation.
The consequences for South African society stretch far beyond these unemployed individuals. Continue Reading…