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April 30, 2020

Clinic complaint prompts UN experts to urge justice for Haiti cholera epidemic


A group of fourteen United Nations independent experts released a statement today calling on Secretary-General António Guterres to fulfill the UN’s 2016 promise to take responsibility and deliver justice for the 10,000 victims of a cholera epidemic caused by UN peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010. The statement, which can be read on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website and below, indicates that the experts have also sent a formal communication to the Secretary-General. The intervention demonstrates escalating concern within the UN’s own human rights system that the organization is failing to uphold its obligations to cholera victims. The communication is remarkable for its unprecedented breadth of support from the UN’s own experts in raising allegations that the organization itself is violating human rights.

The statement and communication from the UN experts was prompted by a formal complaint filed in February from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). The formal complaint called on the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide, to investigate the violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti and a subsequent lack of reparations and fulfillment of legal obligations. Signees to the April 30, 2020 letter from UN Special Procedures included experts whose tenures as mandate holders ends today, including Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights as well as Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing. This intervention marks one of the last actions by them in their capacity as mandate-holders.


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April 28, 2020

COVID-19 and LGBT and gender diverse persons: voices of our communities


Victor Madrigal-Borloz will host “town hall” meetings on pandemic impact

Illustration of a person on videoconferencing technology taking notes from various individuals


Please join us for a conversation with Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (IE SOGI) and HRP’s Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher, to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the responses given by State and non-State actors, on the everyday life of LGBT and gender diverse persons.

At three meetings on April 30 and May 1, the IE SOGI will start with an introduction of 15-20 minutes, where he will make a presentation of preliminary findings on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our communities and discuss recent exceptional measures taken by States to combat the pandemic after declaring a state of emergency.

The floor will then be open so that the IE SOGI can receive information from participants. Initially, each participant will have a maximum of 3 minutes to present their contributions. If possible, participants might be asked follow-up questions in a second round.

Questions that will guide that discussion will be:

– How do we identify that a measure established by the State is COVID-specific?

– What are the limits to using emergency powers when fighting the pandemic?

– What is the impact of existing inequalities during a state of emergency? Are there any ways to respond to the exacerbation of inequalities during a crisis?

– Are there seemingly neutral measures that are having discriminatory effects in practice?

– How is data being gathered and systematized?

You can register to participate in one of the following meetings at the linked text below:

Register here for April 30, 2020 – 15:00 UTC / 11: 00 a.m. EST (in English)
Register here for May 1, 2020 – 09:00 UTC (in English)
Register here for May 1, 2020 – 13:00 UTC (in French) 


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April 22, 2020

Harvard experts discuss climate change fears


To mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Harvard University Gazette contacted experts on climate change, the environment, and sustainability to ask them about their global-warming fears. Tyler Giannini, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Human Rights Program and the International Human Rights Clinic, contributed an essay he co-authored with his daughters Amaya (14 years old) and Rayna (10 years old). Prior to joining the law school, Giannini co-founded EarthRights International, an NGO that works to protect human rights and the environment. Find the full article with contributions from faculty around the University on the Gazette website. Read Tyler, Amaya, and Rayna’s piece below.


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April 20, 2020

Clinic Joins Coalition Urging Halt to Haitian Deportations


As 3 deportees to Haiti and 75 Deportees to Guatemala Test Positive for Coronavirus, 164 Organizations from the U.S. and Haiti Declare Deportations to be Trump’s Cruel, and Usual, Punishment of Haitians


San Diego, California, April 20, 2020 – Today 164 human rights organizations, immigrants’ rights organizations, faith-based groups and academic institutions across the United States and Haiti submitted a letter to the Trump Administration, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) denouncing the deportation of 61 Haitians on April 7, 2020, and urging them to halt deportations to Haiti. The letter comes on the eve of rumors of a deportation flight bound for Haiti scheduled for as early as April 21, 2020. 

Signatories of the letter were “deeply concerned that all detainees in ICE detention centers have a high risk of exposure to coronavirus.” Deportees are not tested for coronavirus in the U.S. before being deported, and sources indicate that some of the Haitians deported on April 7 were quarantined in Haiti, but none of them were tested.

These concerns were amplified with the report last week that three deportees to Haiti and 75 deportees to Guatemala tested positive for coronavirus. With 215 confirmed cases in Guatemala, the U.S. flights alone make up 35 percent of the confirmed cases in the entire country.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has sent a team to Guatemala to investigate further.  Pending outcome of the CDC’s investigation in Guatemala, all deportation flights should be suspended. 

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April 16, 2020

Sabrina Singh JD’20 draws attention to the looming COVID-19 crisis in Nepal


Sabrina Singh JD’20 has been an active member of the human rights community during her time at Harvard Law School (HLS), including leading the Harvard Human Rights and Business Student Association (HuB) for a year and taking the International Human Rights Clinic for the past two years. In addition to her human rights concentration, she has worked to be a voice for international students at Harvard Law School, co-founding the organization, Coalition for International Students and Global Affairs, with Ayoung Kim JD’20. Born and raised in Nepal, Sabrina has been speaking out about how the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate conditions in her home country. The Human Rights Program (HRP) spoke with her recently to learn more about her background, what drew her to human rights, and how she is continuing to advocate for vulnerable populations during this time of uncertainty.

HRP: Why did you decide to specialize in human rights at Harvard Law School?

Sabrina: My introduction to law school was as an undergraduate summer intern at the Office of Public Interest Advising. That summer, I had the opportunity to interview a human rights lawyer, and I asked her why she chose her career. She said that she loved to be able to fight for what she knows to be good. Her conviction and energy stuck with me as I eventually came back to HLS as a student.  

Sabrina in front of the UN headquarters.

Last November, Sabrina Singh JD’20 attended the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva.

HRP: What kind of work have you been doing in the International Human Rights Clinic?

Sabrina: I have focused on business and human rights (BHR) and economic, social and cultural (ESCR) rights. I had the opportunity to work on BHR clinical projects with [HRP and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor] Tyler Giannini and [former visiting clinical instructor] Amelia Evans LLM’11. With their clinical teams, I researched and helped write a report on multi-stakeholder initiatives, which are global governance bodies set up to create human rights standards for corporate actors; I also helped facilitate a BHR communities training for human rights practitioners in New York; most recently, I worked on a project on the cocoa industry in Ghana. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, which brings together more than a thousand participants who gather to take stock of the BHR field. The theme was ‘government as catalysts for business respect for human rights,’ but one of my principal takeaways was how underrepresented local and grassroots communities are in these spaces.

HRP: What lessons have you internalized from this work and your instructors in the Clinic that you hope to carry forward?

Sabrina: Tyler and Amelia have helped me understand how important it is to look at the human rights implications of economic growth and globalization. [International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor] Susan Farbstein was an amazing mentor for my paper titled, “Realizing Economic and Social Rights in Nepal,” which will be published in the forthcoming edition of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. That paper seeks to understand what role the judiciary can play to realize basic social and economic rights in a post-conflict context. In a poor country like my own, I often hear people ask, ‘What is the relevance of seemingly abstract human rights law when our day-to-day material needs like food and housing are not met?’ I believe human rights law can and must speak to issues such as poverty, hunger, health care, housing, and economic inequality on a global scale.   

HRP: You originally moved to the United States from Nepal for college. How have you remained connected to your community back home?

Sabrina: Co-founding HLS’s international student group and serving on the boards of Human Rights and Business as well as the Law and International Development Society have been ways to stay connected to the international issues that matter to developing countries and certainly to Nepal. I am a part of Nepal Rising, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that mobilized the Nepali diaspora for relief efforts after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015. I am also a co-founder of a growing Nepali women’s collective that has expanded to four cities in the United States. Ours is the first generation of Nepali women to be receiving higher education and career opportunities at an unprecedented global scale; our collective exists to document our experiences and create solidarity among us.

HRP: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Nepal? What particular issues are important for the local and international community to know?

Sabrina: COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities happening on a global scale. My home country is a case in point. First, many people lack access to basic social and economic rights like health care and social security. There are very few hospitals where you can get tested for COVID-19 in the country. We likely have less than 500 ICU beds. Many are likely to slip back into abject poverty with the economic downturn, particularly the 70 percent of the labor force in the informal economy. We have already started to hear some anecdotes about food scarcity on the ground. Second, responses to the pandemic have often not respected basic human rights. About 1,500 Nepali migrants leave every day for wage labor in the Middle East and East Asia. Some do critical work in factories that produce medical equipment to fight COVID-19. Migrant workers are the backbone of the global supply chain. But many of them have lost their jobs in the past few weeks. At the same time, Nepal instituted a nation-wide lockdown and closed its borders, even to its own citizens. Migrant workers are now literally stuck, some sleeping on roads and others trying to swim across a river to come back home.

HRP: How are you trying to raise attention to these issues?

Sabrina: At Nepal Rising, in collaboration with local partners, we are now raising funds to help build the health care system in Nepal to prepare for COVID-19, such as by procuring PPEs [personal protection equipment] and training healthcare professionals on how to use them. Former US Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, is one of our partners for this initiative. We are trying to keep abreast of daily developments and coordinate with other initiatives in civil society. The diaspora and the international community can play a critical role when a fragile state or LDC [least developed country] has a looming public health and economic crisis.

HRP: Finally, how are you coping from day-to-day? How is balancing the daily work of HLS, keeping abreast of the news cycle, and trying to work on behalf of Nepal Rising?

Sabrina: I am precariously fine. It feels anticlimactic to not have a physical commencement and bar exam this summer, but trying to be an advocate for my community helps me too. I got breakfast from the Hark this morning. An individual in the dining staff told me that she is a single mother with three kids and that she is extremely worried about what will happen to her kids if she contracts the virus. So, I feel a mix of anxiety, gratefulness, and solidarity.  

Sabrina is interested in economic and gender issues and human rights and international law. She has spent her law school summers at Latham & Watkins, Human Rights Watch, and EarthRights International. Sabrina graduated from Swarthmore College with Highest Honors in Political Science and Sociology & Anthropology.

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April 16, 2020

ACCPI Revamps Humanitarian Disarmament Website and Responds to COVID-19

Posted by Jillian Rafferty JD/MPP'20

Screenshot of new Humanitarian Disarmament website with a large picture of a UN meeting.

The International Human Rights Clinic’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) relaunched its flagship website, humanitariandisarmament.org, this week. The site aims to increase public awareness of the humanitarian approach to governing weapons and serves as a hub of information for practitioners in the field. 

In addition to having updated content and greater functionality, the new website has responded to COVID-19 by initiating a series of blog posts reflecting on the pandemic’s effects on humanitarian disarmament and creating a new “COVID-19 and Disarmament” resources page.

Since its formation in 2018, the ACCPI has been a key player in humanitarian disarmament. Its inaugural conference brought global experts to campus to reflect on the state of the movement and strategize about the way forward. Since then, the ACCPI has not only created and maintained humanitariandisarmament.org, but also held a workshop for diplomats in Geneva, co-published and translated a primer on the topic, and promoted coordination among civil society leaders working on different weapons issues.

Humanitarian disarmament seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment and implementation of norms. A people-centered approach in both substance and process, it prioritizes protecting people rather than advancing national security. Humanitarian disarmament advocates have driven the negotiation, universalization, and implementation of numerous international legal instruments, including the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The 1997 and 2017 Nobel Peace Prizes recognized the role humanitarian disarmament coalitions played in banning antipersonnel landmines and nuclear weapons.

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April 9, 2020

Clinic, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots Propose Elements of a New Treaty on Fully Autonomous Weapons

Posted by Daniel Moubayed JD'20

Governments should negotiate a treaty that prohibits fully autonomous weapons and requires meaningful human control over the use of force, the International Human Rights Clinic and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said in two publications released last week.

The first paper outlines key elements of the proposed treaty. The second paper expands on the proposal and responds to some of the challenging “frequently asked questions.”

Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, presented the papers on April 2 at the Berlin Forum on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, the first-ever major digital disarmament meeting. While Germany had originally planned to hold an in-person meeting in Berlin, its decision to move it online exemplifies the disarmament community’s efforts to continue work on this key issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonnie Docherty on
On April 2, Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, presented virtually at the Berlin Forum for Lethal Autonomous Weapons. Credit: Elizabeth Minor / Article 36.

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” are weapons systems that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The technological capacity for autonomy in these systems raises a host of moral, legal, and ethical concerns. In light of these concerns, a new treaty is needed to clarify and strengthen existing international law.

Over the past year, the Clinic has worked closely with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global civil society coalition, to develop the proposal for key elements for a new treaty. In crafting the elements, the Clinic team analyzed government positions, examined legal precedent, and reviewed technical publications. The team also consulted with lawyers, ethicists, technology experts, civil society representatives, and others during UN conferences and the Campaign’s global meeting in Argentina in February.

The cover of a report on killer robots printed in four different languages.
In February 2020 at the Campaign’s global meeting in Argentina, the Clinic team had their publications available in four languages. Credit: Daniel Moubayed.

The proposed treaty covers all weapons systems that select and engage targets on the basis of sensor processing, rather than human input. The broad scope is designed to ensure that systems posing legal and ethical concerns do not escape regulation. While this scope requires examination of existing weapons, the proposed restrictions are narrow and directed at future ones.

The heart of the treaty proposed by the Campaign and the Clinic consists of three key elements: (1) a general obligation to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force, (2) prohibitions on specific weapons systems that independently select and engage targets and by their nature pose fundamental moral or legal problems, and (3) specific positive obligations to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained in the use of all other systems that select and engage targets.

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April 2, 2020

Clinic Signs Letter Urging Bangladesh to Uphold Rohingya Refugee Rights During COVID-19 Pandemic


April 2, 2020 — The International Human Rights Clinic joined human rights organizations around the world today in urging Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to prioritize the safety and well-being of the Rohingya refugee population during the COVID-19 pandemic. The area of Cox’s Bazar District houses a significant population of refugees from Myanmar, more than 850,000 individuals who have fled persecution in their home country due to ethnic discrimination and violence. Today, human rights organizations ask the Bangladesh government to lift restrictions on Internet connectivity and halt construction of barbed wire fences, in order to better ensure that the refugee community and aid workers can respond safely in a crisis that would ultimately have devastating effects in the area. The letter specifically asks Bangladesh to “uphold the rights of Rohingya refugees to health, freedom of expression and access to information, and freedom of movement.” Read the full letter to the Prime Minister as a PDF linked here and copied below.

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