Blog: Student Perspectives

November 7, 2017

Student Perspective: Fighting for Human Rights with HLS Advocates

Posted by Thaya Uthayophas, JD ’18


This piece first appeared on the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs blog

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?

Group photo of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, including co-president Thaya Uthayophas JD ’18, fourth from the left in the front row.

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 Seriesknowing 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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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:

Dear Community,

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 Defenders
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
HLS Urbanists
Human Rights and Business Law Student Association
In Vino Veritas
Jewish Law Students Association
La Alianza
Lambda
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

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September 12, 2017

Statement in Solidarity with Lambda and QTPOC on JAG Recruiting

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.

Student action outside the classrooms where JAG was recruiting today.

April 7, 2017

VIDEO: Testimonies from International Women’s Day at HLS


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.

YeeAnnaEmily

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March 10, 2017

Tracking a remnant of war in Kosovo

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.

Damage from depleted uranium penetrators in Gjakova/Đakovica. Credit: Naomi Toyoda /  ICBUW

Damage from depleted uranium penetrators in Gjakova/Đakovica. Credit: Naomi Toyoda / ICBUW

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.

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February 10, 2017

Student Perspective: Documentation dilemmas for Syrian refugees living in Jordan

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.

Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi

Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi

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…

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February 9, 2017

Student perspective: Reflections of a newcomer to the CCW Review Conference


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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 12.25.30 PMI 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…

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April 7, 2016

Fernando Ribeiro Delgado recognized by students for integrating critical race theory into classroom

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.

Fernando hugs Keaton as she presents him with the award.

Fernando hugs Keaton as she presents him with the award. Photo credit: Anna Joseph, JD ’16

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. ”

Continue Reading…

November 8, 2015

Pivotal Elections in Myanmar

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.

A university student showing off his ink-stained little finger with pride and joy after casting his vote in the election- a symbol of how much this historic election means for the people of Myanmar

A university student showing off his ink-stained little finger with pride and joy after casting his vote in the election- a symbol of how much this historic election means for the people of Myanmar.

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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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

This piece was originally posted on the blog for EarthRights International

 

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.”

The Ecuadorian delegation (from left to right) Ivonne Ramos, Esperanza Martinez, Paty Gualinga, Gloria Ushigua, Alicia Huetica and Margoth Escobar with IACHR Chair Rose-Marie Belle Antoine

The Ecuadorian delegation (from left to right) Ivonne Ramos, Esperanza Martinez, Paty Gualinga, Gloria Ushigua, Alicia Huetica and Margoth Escobar with IACHR Chair Rose-Marie Belle Antoine

 

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.

Gloria Ushigua tells her story at an Amazon Watch/CIEL lunch event. Next to her are Waorani leaders from Brazil- one of the most dangerous places for defenders.

Gloria Ushigua tells her story at an Amazon Watch/CIEL lunch event. Next to her are Waorani leaders from Brazil- one of the most dangerous places for defenders.

 

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.

(From left to right) Esperanza Martinez, Margoth Escobar, Alicia Huetica, Gloria Ushigua speak in front of the IACHR.

From left to right: Esperanza Martinez, Margoth Escobar, Alicia Huetica, Gloria Ushigua speak in front of the IACHR.

 

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

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