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June 28, 2012

“Death Penalty in Decline”: Coverage of Monday’s Event

Posted by Corydon Ireland, Harvard News

This article originally appeared in The Harvard Gazette

If current trends continue, the death penalty may be eliminated worldwide as early as 2026.

That’s according to a visiting fellow at Harvard. “It’s not a feel-good topic,” said Christof Heyns during a panel on Monday. “But it is also not simply gloom and doom.”

Heyns was among six experts who participated in “The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread,” a conversation about the global fate of what he called “systematic and organized violence by the state.” The event, in a packed classroom in Griswold Hall, was co-sponsored by the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program and Amnesty International USA. It came on day one of a two-day international conference on the death penalty at Harvard Law School (HLS).

Heyns, a South African legal scholar and human rights activist, is a visiting fellow with the Human Rights Program, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. In October, he will submit a report on worldwide death penalty trends to the General Assembly.

Another panelist, University of Middlesex (London) legal scholar William A. Schabas, affirmed the worldwide downward trend in death penalty usage. About 40 nation-states — a fifth of the world’s total — still have provisions for the death penalty, he said, but in the past year only 20 have carried out executions. In the past 35 years, Schabas estimated, two or three nation-states a year have either abolished the death penalty or ceased to use it.

In the United States, the death penalty is in decline as well, said Carol Steiker, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law and Harvard Law School’s special adviser for public service. Annual executions have dropped from about 100 to 50 in 10 years.

For one, Steiker said, there is an increasing sense of the fallibility of evidence, including the place of DNA in what some lawyers call “the innocence revolution.”

A Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty is far more likely today than a decade ago, Steiker said. But is that even desirable? Forty years ago, the court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia created a virtual moratorium on the death penalty, but also “a furious backlash,” she said. (The court’s renewed acceptance of the death penalty came in 1976, with Gregg v. Georgia.)

It is better, perhaps, to simply let such laws be “hollowed out,” state by state, said Steiker. She cited recent laws, ballot initiatives, legislation, and moratoriums in California, Oregon, Montana, Colorado, Kentucky, and New Hampshire.

The panel addressed another issue: Is the death penalty a form of torture?  Yes, said Juan Méndez. The American University legal scholar, a native of Argentina, is the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Like Heyns, he will submit a report on the death penalty to the General Assembly in October.

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June 27, 2012

Human Rights and Climate Change: An Opinion Piece

Posted by Cara Solomon

At the request of the Yale Journal of International Law, Bonnie Docherty and Tyler Giannini wrote an opinion piece, “Human Rights and Climate Change Adaptation at the International Level”, which appeared yesterday as part of an online symposium. It responded to the new article “Avoiding Apartheid: Climate Change Adaptation and Human Rights Law,” written by Margaux Weiss (HLS ’08 and HRP graduate) and David Weiss. Here is an excerpt of Bonnie and Tyler’s piece:

“The issue of climate change refugees provides an excellent case study of how a human rights framework could work at the international level. Experts predict that climate change will lead to the migration of tens, and maybe hundreds, of millions of people, many of whom will cross national borders. [Hall and Weiss] note that recognition of climate change refugees is an example of “how human rights could begin to play a concrete role in climate negotiations,” but they do not explore the topic in depth. In “Confronting a Rising Tide: A Proposal for a Convention on Climate Change Refugees,” we lay out the components and negotiation process for a proposed instrument on climate change refugees. We also note that an integrated approach that blends efforts to mitigate and adapt is needed. The proposal draws on human rights for essential protections, assignment of state responsibility, and procedural elements.”

Bonnie and Tyler published “Confronting a Rising Tide” in the Harvard Environmental Law Review in 2009. They have both regularly supervised clinical projects on the intersection of human rights and the environment and co-teach a seminar on the topic.

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June 19, 2012

TODAY: A Discussion with Leading Experts on the Death Penalty

Event Notice

Monday, June 25, 2012

Amnesty International USA and the Human Rights Program present

“The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread?”

5:00-6:30 pm

Griswold Hall 110

A Panel Discussion featuring:

Christof Heyns, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; University of Pretoria

Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; American University, Washington D.C.

William A. Schabas, Professor of International Law, University of Middlesex, London

Carol Steiker, Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law, Special Advisor for Public Service, Harvard Law School

Lloyd Barnett, Member of the Inter-American Institute on Human Rights

Nigel Rodley, Chair, Human Rights Center, University of Essex; Member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee

Forty years ago, the US Supreme Court handed down Furman v. Georgia, which led to the de facto moratorium on the death penalty for four years. The US is one of the few industrialized democracies which permits the death penalty. Globally, judicial execution is prohibited in the vast majority of countries; increasingly the long confinement of prisoners on death row is viewed as a form of torture. This panel discussion will explore these and other dimensions with the world’s leading experts on the death penalty.

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June 14, 2012

History Shows That Those Who Commit International Law Violations Outside the United States Can Be Held Liable in U.S. Courts


Clinic files amicus curiae brief with U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of legal historians in major Alien Tort Statute case

June 14, 2012, Cambridge, MA—Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic has submitted a supplemental amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of petitioners in a major Alien Tort Statute (“ATS”) case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. Nine eminent legal historians joined the brief as amici: William R. Casto, Charles Donahue, Robert W. Gordon, Nasser Hussain, Stanley N. Katz, Michael Lobban, Jenny S. Martinez, and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

Clinical Directors Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini served as counsel for the amici, who argue that Congress, when enacting the statute, did not intend to restrict its territorial reach. Rather, the ATS was passed to address universally-condemned violations of the law of nations, such as piracy.

“This statute was clearly designed to open U.S. courts to those who suffered egregious violations of international law, wherever they are committed,” said Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “The framers had in mind abuses like piracy, which necessarily takes place outside the United States.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kiobel in late February and a week later requested supplemental briefing on the question of whether the statute encompasses violations committed outside the territory of the United States. The case, which has attracted international attention, involves claims for human rights abuses committed in Nigeria.

“Kiobel is one of the most significant human rights cases to come before the U.S. Supreme Court in years,” said Susan Farbstein, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. “As a team, we felt honored to do the work of clarifying the historical record on how the courts have traditionally interpreted the ATS and the legal doctrines it embodies.”

Historical documents unearthed by the Clinic’s research team in British and American archives confirm that, from the outset, survivors could bring ATS claims for violations of international law occurring outside the United States. In one of the earliest interpretations of the statute, dating to 1795, the U.S. Attorney General opined that individuals harmed in a raid in British Sierra Leone could use the ATS to seek redress in U.S. courts.

“It’s been gratifying to see the principles of justice are transcendent throughout history,” said Russell Kornblith, JD ’12, who was a key member of the project team.

In addition to Kornblith, clinical students Poppy Alexander, JD ’12, Yonina Alexander, JD ’12, and Daniel Saver, JD ’12, contributed countless hours towards the brief, working in close collaboration with the amici. The Harvard team was supported by international researchers, including students from the School of Oriental and African Studies under the supervision of Deval Desai, LLM ’09.

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June 13, 2012

Clinic Files Supplemental Brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Kiobel Case

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

After months of hard work, the International Human Rights Clinic filed today a supplemental brief of amici curiae professors of legal history with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of petitioners in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. We’ll post more about this tomorrow, after we’ve gotten a good night’s sleep.

For now, we wanted to say that this wouldn’t have been possible without the superlative work of our students (and now graduates), Poppy Alexander ’12, Yonina Alexander ’12, Russell Kornblith ’12, and Daniel Saver ’12. We’re so fortunate to be able to work with such talented individuals every day.

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June 8, 2012

“White Phosphorous: The New Napalm?”

Posted by Cara Solomon

On the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War, Bonnie and Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch have co-authored an important piece in Salon about the lingering threat posed by incendiary weapons.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

“Too hot! Too hot!” wailed 9-year-old Kim Phuc as sticky napalm burned through her clothes and skin. Forty years ago this week, Kim Phuc was photographed running down the road away from her burning village after a South Vietnamese plane dropped incendiary weapons.

The photograph, taken by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut for Associated Press on June 8, 1972, became emblematic of the terrible impact on civilians of the U.S.-led bombing campaigns over Southeast Asia.

In the decade that followed, the shocking consequences that napalm inflicted on civilians in Vietnam and elsewhere became a major factor motivating adoption of a new international law restricting the use of some incendiary weapons. But that law, Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), has failed to live up to its promise.

Today, children continue to endure the devastating impacts of incendiary weapons. It is time for governments to revisit CCW Protocol III and strengthen existing law to minimize that suffering.

Click here for the rest of the article.

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