May 28, 2020

To the Class of 2020

Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini

International Human Rights Clinic students who graduated in 2020 smiling before the law school went remote.
International Human Rights Clinic 2020 graduates with clinicians and faculty.

We celebrate you today, all that you have achieved, and all that lies ahead. Of course, none of us expected your law school careers would end this way. Each of you lost precious time on campus and long-anticipated moments of camaraderie and celebration during your last term when the coronavirus pandemic forced the law school online. While there is no substitute for the in-person ceremony that you earned and deserve, the fact that we are celebrating remotely does not detract from your accomplishments and the relationships you have built — of which there are many!

In our Clinic, you have worked to address some of the most pressing and complex human rights issues that we face: climate change, socio-economic inequality, women’s leadership, accountability for gross human rights violations in Haiti, Myanmar, Bolivia, and Colombia, and preventing harms from the arms trade, killer robots, incendiary weapons, and explosive weapons, to name but a few. You have proven yourselves to be tireless and collaborative advocates, and we have been dazzled by your talents and your dedication more times that we can count.

The coronavirus has hit close to home for many of us. Some have lost a loved one, or nursed a family member fighting the disease, or been affected by the pandemic’s severe economic impact. Others have supported family members working on the frontlines or watched as their communities have struggled to formulate a response to this crisis. We have seen you respond to these adversities — just as you have faced other challenges — with grit and grace. You have shown compassion, kindness, and empathy towards your peers and the communities that we work with; you have come together, leaning on each other and the deep bonds you have built, to seek and offer support; you have modeled flexibility and creativity in finding new ways to learn and live; you have shown resilience and courage in the face of uncertainty and adversity that many of us have not previously known. These traits will serve you well not only as we respond to this pandemic, but throughout your lives and your careers.

We feel so grateful for the time that we have spent together, and will hold close the memories of working, laughing, and learning with you. We wish you long and meaningful careers. Even more importantly, we wish you lives enriched by friendship and filled with happiness. It has been an honor to watch you grow as advocates and as people, and to serve as your teachers, mentors, and now as your colleagues. We are incredibly proud of you.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!

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May 28, 2020

COVID-19 Response Can Help Reimagine Climate Change Response

Posted by Ayoung Kim JD'20

For the past three years, my peers and I at HLS have worked towards earning our law degrees in the hopes of contributing to a more equitable society.  As the Class of 2020 graduates this month, I realize that the path toward justice has become more urgent and increasingly challenging. Our class will spend some of our most formative years navigating the enormous human and economic consequences of the pandemic. We must also prepare for a crisis that we already know will be more disruptive, painful, and irrevocable than COVID-19—climate change. Which lessons we take away from this pandemic will determine whether we are able to prevent human suffering of an equivalent—or even larger—scale.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that inequality kills. During COVID-19, low-wage workers have been exposed to disproportionate risk of death without commensurate pay, protections, or status. We can expect the same of those that will work on the frontlines of climate change. These climate essential workers will work in construction, landscaping, delivery, commercial kitchens, bakeries, factories, and manufacturing—under punishing heat waves, lethal air pollution, and increased disease. Others will include incarcerated individuals whose labor is often used to combat extreme weather events for pay as low as $1 an hour plus $2 a day. Scholars fear the rise of “green gig workers”—volunteer laborers who will be tasked with responding to extreme weather events but whose precarious labor would not be acknowledged or as socially protected as those in formal employment.

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May 26, 2020

HLS Advocates Co-Presidents Reflect on 2019-2020

Posted by Emma Broches JD'20 and Samantha Lint JD'20

Two students standing at a table advertising HLS Advocates for Human Rights
Emma Broches (left) and Samantha Lint (right) are 2019-2020 co-presidents of HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted a discussion on the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang China. As murmurs about classes moving online circulated, and US leadership continued to doubt the threat of COVID-19, we held what turned out to be our final Advocates lunch talk of the year. 

If we had known this would be our final “big event”, it might have felt bittersweet. As Co-Presidents, Advocates has been the most significant part of our 3L year and our entire HLS experience. Since we joined the organization in our first year, it has served as a place of refuge, community, inspiration, and learning. That week, as information about the law school’s operations changed each day, we focused on the task at hand. We felt proud to have played a role in facilitating such a critical discussion. One of the speakers Rayhan Asat LLM’16, has now shared her story beyond HLS as well. 

Although the spring semester changed substantially in March, this event, fortunately, was just one of many of Advocates’ accomplishments. With over 70 members supporting 11 projects with NGOs around the world; seven events; four trainings; and a special anniversary project, Advocates had a productive — even if abbreviated — year!

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May 24, 2020

At Harvard, Niku Jafarnia J.D. / M.P.P. ’20 found a wealth of ways to advocate for refugees

Posted by Dana Walters

Niku Jafarnia sits on the steps of HLS
Credit: Kathleen Dooher

“I have always felt very strongly that I need to work against inequality and the forces that make it possible,” says Niku Jafarnia J.D./M.P.P. ’20. For her, draconian and difficult immigration systems that favor certain populations are key sources of the disparities she hopes to eliminate.

When President Donald Trump instituted the first of many travel bans that targeted Muslim-majority countries in 2017, Jafarnia was a first-year law student and she was furious. She had not yet entered the legal clinics that would become like a home to her at Harvard Law School. Still, she emailed Sabrineh Ardalan ’02 and Phil Torrey of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, asking how she could fight back.

“Had I not been in law school when this happened, I would have felt at a loss with what to do,” she says.

At the airport, she stood with Ardalan and Torrey holding a sign offering legal assistance and translation services in Persian. No one took her up on the offer, but the moment stands out to her from the last four years of graduate school. From the energetic and welcoming response of HLS’s clinical faculty to finding a way to act, she had found a community and a path towards countering what she sees as oppression.

Jafarnia believes that she has been lucky. A constellation of factors, such as being born in the U.S., has provided her with a great amount of opportunity, she said. She is constantly tuned in to how she can use her privilege to dismantle the inequitable structures that cause harm to others. When her parents emigrated from Iran in 1977 to pursue graduate education, they did not necessarily expect to stay, she said, but the combination of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War kept them in the U.S. Throughout law school, she has focused on issues related to migration, driven by a deep connection to people whose stories feel so familiar.

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May 22, 2020

HRP’s Summer 2020 Fellows Will Intern Remotely at Human Rights Orgs


HRP is pleased to announce its 2020 summer fellowship cohort: Sondra Anton JD’22, Anoush Baghdassarian JD’22, Zarko Perovic JD’22, and Mohammad Zia JD’21. Each year, HRP awards students funding to undertake summer internships at human rights organizations around the world. Due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, this year’s fellows will be working remotely for their organizations. Learn more about this year’s cohort below.

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May 20, 2020

Blog Series Highlights Workers’ Rights During COVID-19


Clinical Students Ask How Human Rights Norms Can Aid Relief for Informal Workers 


Over the course of the semester, Aminta Ossom JD’09, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has led a team in examining workers’ rights and the informal economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading globally earlier this year, Ossom’s team pivoted to raising awareness on how shutdowns and virus transmission was exacerbating conditions for those, such as street vendors and ride-share drivers, whose vocations do not meet traditional models of employment. This week, HRP is posting blogs by Ossom’s clinical students, Tara Boghosian JD’20, Sienna Liu JD’21, Jessica Sawadogo JD’21, and Alicia Alvero Koski JD’20, who each explore what human rights can contribute as informal workers contend with this crisis. 

Last week, Ossom moderated a panel, “Rethinking Essential: Business, Work, and Human Rights in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” for the COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice during a Pandemic series. The panel, which featured  Anita Ramasastry (UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights), Alison Kiehl Friedman (ICAR), Kim Cordova (UFCW), and Janhavi Dave (Homenet South Asia), sought to examine how vulnerable workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic whilst providing essential services. The group also discussed whether or not the pandemic presents opportunities to address market failures and position workers’ rights as central to a more sustainable, just, and resilient economy. The series was convened by Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Duke Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and Just Security. You can still watch the “Rethinking Essential” panel, which will be available soon on the series website.

Read all the blog posts below:

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May 20, 2020

Excluding marginalized workers from COVID-19 relief is bad policy—is it also a human rights violation?

Posted by Tara Boghosian JD ’20

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the most expansive COVID-19 relief package in the world, so why does it still exclude many vulnerable workers and small business owners?  

Mehrsa Baradaran begins to answer these questions in her April 9 article, “The U.S. Should Just Send Checks—But Won’t” in The Atlantic. Baradaran describes how the CARES Act excludes several vulnerable groups of individuals and businesses. Most expressly, the U.S. government’s Small Business Administration categorically refuses aid to all sex-related businesses (even legal ones, like strip clubs) and businesses run by anyone with a criminal record. In turn, these business’ employees are left out, too. Further, even though the CARES Act seems to provide for generous individual aid, lots of workers will struggle to meet the practical requirements for receiving the aid, including all undocumented immigrants. Baradaran argues that these policies are rooted in the longstanding American belief that the poor are inherently undeserving and must prove their moral uprightness in order to receive aid. And, as Baradaran notes, shaping economic policy around this belief is not only cruel but counterproductive. Being generous with aid during the crisis would do more to keep the economy afloat.  

What is also clear, but not discussed by the article, is that in addition to being bad policy, these exclusions also raise human rights concerns. The international treaty on economic, social and cultural rights provides for the right to work in Articles 6 and 7, which can be fulfilled in part by governments putting in place social protection systems that prevent unemployment. This right is not contingent on the type of work that a person does. In addition, Article 9 of the treaty recognizes the right of everyone to social security, which the treaty’s monitoring body has interpreted to include non-contributory unemployment insurance. That body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has also specified that these benefits must be both accessible to all workers—including part-time, casual, seasonal, self-employed, undocumented, and informal economy workers—and adequate to cover their basic needs. Finally, the treaty states that individuals’ enjoyment of economic and social rights should improve progressively, so governments are also expected to increase rather than decrease access to social security over time.  

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May 20, 2020

Lockdown Policies in African Countries Often Clash with Economic Reality

Posted by Sienna Liu JD'20

A woman buys bananas in bulk for resale. Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

While there may be a middle-class bias in policies such as “social distancing” in the U.S., countries around the world that rely on cash-based commerce and thriving informal economies are facing a different kind of hardship.  

A recent news article published by Quartz Africa depicts the current situation for informal workers in African countries under lockdown: informal workers, particularly street vendors, small-scale business owners, and traders, are attempting to do business despite the dual threats posed to their health and physical safety. In addition to the health risks that accompany continued contact with customers, these workers are also facing incidents of police brutality as patrolling officers harshly enforce lockdowns and curfews in various countries. 

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May 20, 2020

The Role of Women’s Equality in Economic Recovery

Posted by Jessica Sawadogo JD ’21

A woman makes a bed and prepares laundry in Indonesia.
A domestic worker in Jakarta, Indonesia. Copyright: ILO/A. Ridwan Licensed: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.

As researchers learn more about coronavirus and the way it impacts us all, they’ve revealed a few key differences along gendered lines. Slightly more women than men may be getting COVID-19, but more men are dying from the virus. Women, on the other hand, are more economically vulnerable from the financial fallout of the novel coronavirus. This difference takes on a new meaning as the world braces itself for an impending recession.  

The New York Times bi-weekly newsletter on gender and society recently reported a sobering fact: that the economic fallout from the coronavirus will have a “disproportionate negative effect on women.” The newsletter examines the results of a study from researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, which found that the economic downturn will result in worse economic outcomes for women than for men and that the disparity from this crisis will be even worse than in previous recessions. The differences are attributed to women’s disproportionate representation in jobs that have been most affected by the global shutdown, like those in the restaurant and travel sector, for example. In addition, because women are often responsible for childcare, those who are able to work from home will see an increase in their overall workload with reduced availability for remunerated work. 

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May 20, 2020

Human Rights and Equal Relief for Gig Economy Workers

Posted by Alicia Alvero Koski JD'20

A rideshare vehicle. Credit: Eugene E. Kim. License: CC by 2.0.

Attempts to expand U.S. unemployment benefits in the wake of COVID-19 show the pitfalls of a narrow definition of employment. International human rights treaties, in contrast, provide a more expansive approach, one that could provide assistance to a population of workers that has experienced increased difficulty obtaining relief for lost work.  

The pandemic has caused unemployment on a massive scale. Workers who live paycheck to paycheck are especially hard hit and face an uphill battle to pay for basic necessities. In response, the U.S. government has expanded its unemployment assistance programs, but many non-traditional workers may encounter challenges when trying to claim these benefits. 

According to the New York Times, gig workers like rideshare drivers struggle to claim the benefits they are owed. U.S. states, which manage unemployment payments, have not had the infrastructure in place to handle such claims, meaning gig workers across the country have had to wait longer than others before receiving assistance. 

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