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December 13, 2012

From “Glamorous” Activism to Global Movements: An Online HRJ Symposium

Posted by James Tager, JD '13, Online Editor, Harvard Human Rights Journal

Anniversaries are always a great time to reflect on the past and to examine opportunities for the future. This Monday marked the 64-year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Which is why we at the Harvard Human Rights Journal chose this Monday, December 10, to launch our new Online Symposium examining the concept of the ‘broad-based activist movement’ and what it means for human rights. Entitled “Avoiding the Trap,” the Symposium showcases the work of several notable human rights academics as they wrestle with three questions:

1. Is it possible to have a broad-based activist movement that is global in scope and sufficiently informed of the issues? If so, how do we build such a movement?

2. Is there a necessary trade-off between the nuance of a human rights situation and public support for its remedy? If so, where is that trade-off located and how should it be addressed?

3. How do we build a new ‘anti-atrocity constituency’ without falling into the trap of a Savage-Victim-Savior mentality?

Our contributors each provide their own take on these questions, with answers ranging from systematic prescriptions to deeply personal reflections, from a close examination of the recent Kony 2012 debate to insightful analysis of such expansive concepts as “global civil society” and the “glamour” of human rights. As someone who read and re-read these pieces prior to publication, I found myself connecting with them intellectually and at times even emotionally. Each piece challenges us to re-examine some of our own ideas on how to solve some of the Big Issues: atrocities, massive violence, core violations of international law.

The Harvard Human Rights Journal is proud to share these original pieces of human rights scholarship,  which we hope you will find insightful and thought-provoking. The Symposium can be found at the Harvard Human Rights Journal website.

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December 5, 2012

Tomorrow, December 6: “City of God” Film Screening and Debate

Event Notice

HLS Brazilian Studies Association and the Human Rights Program Present:


“City of God”

Film Screening and Debate

5:30- 8:15 pm

Wasserstein B010

Please join us for a debate on urban violence based on the award-winning movie “City of God.” Film starts at 5:30 pm, followed by a debate at 7:45 pm led by HLS Lecturer on Law Fernando Delgado.

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December 5, 2012

A Question of Accountability: The Clinic’s Take on the Alien Tort Statute

Note: this article was written by Cara Solomon and originally published in Harvard Law Bulletin

A Question of Accountability

In a Supreme Court case, the International Human Rights Clinic argues that the Alien Tort Statute applies to corporations

It started off with an insult: A French adventurer, standing in the streets of Philadelphia, called the ambassador of France a nasty name. And perhaps if it had ended there, the Alien Tort Statute might never have come to be.

But language was not enough for the Chevalier de Longchamps, who was nursing a grudge. He lunged toward the ambassador. He hit the ambassador’s cane with his own. And in assaulting a foreign ambassador, Longchamps committed a violation of the law of nations.

It was 1784. The incident in Philadelphia drew international attention; then condemnation; then ridicule, as the Continental Congress lacked the power to take meaningful action in response.

Five years later, as part of the First Judiciary Act, the founders sent a strong message with what they called the Alien Tort Statute: “The district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”

It was an important gesture to the international community—a symbol of solidarity, historians would say: We will open up our new federal court system to victims of violations of the law of nations. The United States had arrived.

Part I

On the morning of Feb. 28, 2012, a team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic took their seats in the U.S. Supreme Court. Sitting directly behind petitioners’ counsel were Clinical Professor Tyler Giannini and Assistant Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04, nationally recognized leaders in Alien Tort Statute litigation, and co-directors of the clinic.

They had waited months to hear oral arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., a case that would test the limits of the centuries-old ATS. It was the highest-profile human rights case to come before the Supreme Court in years.

Even before the Court granted certiorari, Kiobel had become an international flash point for the debate on corporate accountability, generating nearly 40 amicus briefs analyzing the ATS from every angle—foreign policy, the global economy, the international human rights movement. HLS staff, students and alumni were involved on both sides of the issue. For its part, the clinic filed a brief on behalf of legal historians, in support of petitioners.

Illustration by Justin Renteria, courtesy of Harvard Law Bulletin, shows a supreme court building overlaid with the Shell logo.
Illustration by Justin Renteria, courtesy of Harvard Law Bulletin

“What’s at stake in Kiobel is the future of the ATS itself, and whether it will remain an example of how the United States takes its international legal obligations seriously,” said Farbstein.

Kiobel began like any other ATS case in recent memory—with allegations against a company or an individual for violations of international law. Esther Kiobel and 11 other members of the Ogoni people in Nigeria filed suit

against Shell in 2002, alleging crimes against humanity, including complicity in torture and extrajudicial executions. At issue: the company’s actions from 1992 to 1995, when the Ogoni were protesting oil development activities on their land.

Because Shell does much of its business in the United States, the courts agreed to hear the case. But on appeal, the 2nd Circuit turned its attention away from the case and toward the statute itself, dismissing Kiobel on the grounds that corporations could not be held liable under the ATS.

For observers of the ATS, this came as a surprise: For years, courts had allowed cases to proceed on the presumption that corporations were as liable as individuals for violations of international law.

“No one had really questioned it,” said Jenny Martinez ’97, a professor at Stanford Law School and one of the amici represented by the clinic. “It did seem rather obvious.”

After the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, other appellate courts went in the opposite direction, finding corporate liability perm

issible under the ATS—in cases against Exxon Mobil Corp. for violence in Indonesia, the Rio Tinto mining group for violence in Papua New Guinea, and Firestone tire company for child labor in West Africa.

“It was clear from the split in the lower courts that the question in Kiobel—whether a corporation could be held liable—was a central and fundamental threshold question that had to be clarified,” said Giannini.

Sooner or later, he said, the issue was headed to the Supreme Court.

Continue Reading…

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December 3, 2012

First Step for Summer Internships: Meet with a Student Advisor!

Posted by Cara Solomon

Welcome to the application season for summer fellowships! As you may already know, the Human Rights Program provides funding to students interested in doing public interest work abroad. And the deadline is fast approaching: the HRP application is due on February 4, 2013. Also note that you must apply for SPIF (summer public interest funding) by December 21.

The first step in the process is to meet with one of of our student advisers; their focus areas, office hours and contact info are listed below. Unless otherwise noted, office hours will be held in the HRP lounge. If you can’t make office hours, please feel free to contact the student advisors separately to set up a time.

Nicolette Boehland has regional experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan and topical experience in civilian protection in conflict, international humanitarian law, and prison monitoring. Her office hours are on Wednesday from 3- 5 p.m. She can be reached at [email protected]

Tess Borden has regional experience in sub-Saharan Africa and The Hague, Netherlands and topical experience in international justice, regional human rights systems, and UN mechanisms. Her office hours are Monday from 2- 4 p.m.  She can be reached at [email protected]

James Tager spent his 1L summer working with a civil-society body on the Thai-Burmese border, and spent his 2L summer working with Open Society Justice Initiative in New York. He is particularly interested in rights-based social movements, preventing or addressing core violations of international law, and corporate accountability. His office hours are Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected]

Frances Dales has regional experience in Central and South America and topical experience in minority group rights, land rights, and transitional justice. Her office hours are on Thursday from 12- 2 pm. She can be reached at [email protected]

Lillian Langford has regional experience in East Africa, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia, and topical experience in international criminal justice, refugee issues, and foreign legal aid projects. Her office hours are Friday from 11- 1 pm. She can be reached at [email protected]

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