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March 31, 2020

Recapping Discussion on Repression in Xinjiang


HLS Advocates for Human Rights Hosts Event Highlighting Atrocities Against Uyghurs


By Jasmine Shin JD’21 & Samantha Lint JD’20

On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted a discussion at Harvard Law School on abuses committed by the Chinese government against Uyghur minorities in the Xinjiang region. HLS Advocates is a student practice organization which conducts human rights projects in partnership with NGOs around the world; raises awareness of human rights issues; and builds students’ capacity through trainings.

Speakers for the event included Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Rayhan Asat LLM’16, an alumna of Harvard Law School who is of Uyghur origin. The discussion was moderated by Professor William Alford, the Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. The event was co-sponsored by East Asian Legal Studies at HLS, the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard, and the Harvard Muslim Law Students Association. 


The Appalling State of Oppression in Xinjiang


The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic minority group who are predominately Muslim. They are one of the two largest groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in Northwest China. Several Uyghur communities also live in neighboring countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

The Uyghurs have been long regarded as potential threats by the Chinese government due to their cultural and ethnic differences from the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, and demands for a separate state from some members of the Uyghur community. 

Richardson emphasized the unparalleled scale of arbitrary detention of Uyghurs today, enabled by surveillance technology and driven by a misguided notion of sinicization. Over the past several years, HRW has documented the use of political re-education camps against Uyghurs by authorities in Xinjiang, where “torture, ill-treatment, denial of access to medical care, and intentional degradation” occur routinely. Richardson also highlighted the Chinese government’s surveillance of the Uyghur community – both as troubling on its own and as facilitating the detention program. For example, the Xinjiang police use an app “that gathers information about what is mostly perfectly legal behavior – how often [one] pray[s], when [one] talk[s] to [one’s] neighbors, whether [one] go[es] in the front or back door of [one’s] house.” 

The Chinese government’s abuses against the Uyghurs, Richardson noted, are driven by “[its] mistrust of ethnic minorities” hidden behind a “security claim.” The Belt and Road Initiative may also be an additional motivating factor, as Xinjiang is an important region for the initiative due to its close proximity with countries to the west of China. Overall, the oppression of Uyghurs highlights the dangers of “sinicization – a fixed idea of what a ‘good’ Chinese citizen is – and a desire to produce a dissent-free society enabled by technology and surveillance.”

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March 23, 2020

Gerald Neuman submits comments to State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights”


Neuman challenges arguments that roll back human rights


Professor Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP), filed a submission with the controversial “Commission on Unalienable Rights” of the U.S. State Department on March 18, 2020. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established the Commission in July 2019 to advise the State Department on reformulating U.S. human rights policy. The Commission is charged with bringing policy back to “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School (HLS).

The mandate of this Commission, and some of the remarks of Commission members at public meetings, have severely alarmed major human rights NGOs, who warn of serious damage to the international human rights system. Neuman’s own submission also addresses several of the concerns that the NGOs have raised. He challenges some Commissioners’ claims that there are too many human rights and argues for the protection of the rights of sexual minorities; he also questions proposals to give priority to civil and political rights over economic and social rights, as well as to privilege freedom of religious conduct over other human rights. Last, he also disputes the suggested foregrounding of the role of “natural law” at the international level.

Before HLS suspended in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HRP had arranged for a public panel event to discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This April panel would have included Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, who is also the Chair of the Commission; Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard and the former Dean of Harvard Law School; Katharine Young, Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School; and Neuman.

In lieu of the April panel, you can read Dean Minow’s “Remarks before the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” Professor Young’s “Trumping Human Rights in the United States,” and Neuman’s comments. You can also learn more about the Commission on their public-facing website.

The report of the Commission is expected in the summer of 2020. HRP will convene experts for a public (in person or remote) discussion of the Commission’s report in Fall 2020.

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March 13, 2020

Supporting our community and responding to COVID-19


We know it has been a difficult week, as the situation related to the COVID-19 virus changes by the minute. As decision-making around the virus evolves, we are thinking of the safety, health, and well-being of our community on campus and affected communities around the world. This is our top priority right now. We have always sought to build a supportive and inclusive space for our students, partners, and staff, and we realize that this has been an emotional and difficult time for many. We also recognize that responses to the outbreak, such as quarantines and containment, can provide undue social, emotional, and economic hardship to already vulnerable populations. We urge local and national governments to consider the human rights implications of their actions and the distribution of resources as they seek to contain the virus and mitigate its effects. 

Following the guidance of Harvard University and to lower the risk of transmission, the Human Rights Program (HRP) is cancelling all public events for the remainder of the semester. We are sad to postpone these conversations, and we look forward to finding ways of engaging virtually on critical topics during this time. In line with guidance from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, the International Human Rights Clinic has transitioned to conduct classes and clinical work online for the remainder of the term. We are also postponing the application deadline to our postgraduate fellowships from March 15 to March 31. Any graduating student or recent alumni who may face obstacles submitting materials by this date should contact Dana Walters (dwalters@law.harvard.edu). Last, HRP faculty and staff will be transitioning to remote work over the course of the next week. Our offices will be mostly empty as we adjust to this new mode of work.

To our students, we recognize that this is not how you wanted or expected to conduct your semester and that these changes will cause serious disruptions. We understand that many of you are upset and anxious at the prospect of abruptly leaving your community at the law school. We will continue to work with you to mitigate the impact of the disruptions, and to ease potential burdens, stress, and other challenges associated with the evolving public health situation. We want to remain a resource for you. We also encourage anyone at Harvard who is facing hardship to make use of the resources that the University has made available. For more information and to find more resources, please visit Harvard Law School’s COVID-19 FAQ page and Harvard University’s COVID-19 FAQ page

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March 3, 2020

Apply to Be a Joint Wasserstein-Human Rights Program Fellow for Fall 2020


The Human Rights Program and Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) at Harvard Law School will jointly host one Wasserstein Fellow-in-Residence who will spend four months on the HLS campus (September through December 2020), and split their time between OPIA and HRP. At OPIA, the fellow will advise students about international public interest and human rights careers and assist OPIA staff in developing advising resources. At HRP, the fellow will devote the majority of their time to research and writing on a specific human rights topic and be a member of its community of visiting fellows.

The Human Rights Program’s Visiting Fellows Program seeks to give thoughtful individuals with a demonstrated commitment to human rights an opportunity to step back and conduct a serious inquiry in the human rights field. The fellows form an essential part of the human rights community at Harvard Law School and participate actively in the Human Rights Program Fellows Colloquium—each fellow makes a presentation to Human Rights Program staff, faculty, and other fellows on at least one occasion. Fellows are also encouraged to participate in a number of other Human Rights Program activities.

Please see OPIA’s website for additional information about the program, and details on how to apply to be a joint Wasserstein Fellow-in-Residence with OPIA and the Human Rights Program. The deadline to apply is April 10, 2020.

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March 2, 2020

WATCH: Panel Discusses International Court of Justice Case on Genocide in Myanmar

Arsalan Suleman speaks while Philippe Sands and Yee Htun listen.
From left to right: M. Arsalan Suleman, Philippe Sands, and Yee Htun.

On February 25, 2020, the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School hosted an expert panel to discuss the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case on genocide in Myanmar. In November 2019, The Gambia filed a case with the ICJ alleging that Myanmar military had violated the Genocide Convention for failing to prevent and protect the Rohingya from genocide. In January of this year, the ICJ granted provisional measures in the case against Myanmar. 

To discuss the case, HRP gathered three experts: Philippe Sands QC, the Samuel LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’59 and Judith Pisar Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School for the Spring 2020 term; M. Arsalan Suleman ’07, counsel in Foley Hoag’s International Litigation and Arbitration Practice; and Yee Htun, lecturer on law and clinical instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic. 

The panel was moderated by HRP’s co-director and clinical professor Tyler Giannini. Sands and Suleman are part of the legal team representing The Gambia in the ICJ case; Htun has years of experience working on gender justice and law reform in Myanmar. 

Suleman opened the discussion outlining the origins of case, including the critical role that the Minister of Justice of The Gambia played in initiating the application to the ICJ. Sands discussed the current status of the case as well as the implications of the ICJ’s ruling on provisional measures, commenting for example about the importance of the unanimous ruling and placing the case in the historical context of international jurisprudence. Htun provided insights about the reaction – both positive and negative – within communities from Myanmar. She discussed how the case has been of great importance to the Rohingya community as well as other ethnic nationalities in the country. Htun also highlighted how the ICJ case has brought unprecedented attention to the military in Myanmar. 

Watch the full discussion below:  

The event was co-sponsored by the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, the Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at HKS, and the Asia Center at Harvard University. 

To learn more about the significance of this case, read Yee Htun’s piece, “International Court of Justice Orders Myanmar to Prevent Further Acts of Genocide” on the HRP blog. 

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