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May 19, 2020

Carwil Bjork-James Explores Bolivia’s 2003 Gas War and 2019 Election Crisis in New Working Paper


A new paper, “Mass Protest and State Repression in Bolivian Political Culture: Putting the Gas War and the 2019 Crisis in Perspective,” by Carwil Bjork-James, Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University, has just been released as part of the HRP Working Paper Series. The paper explores Bolivian political conflict since 1982 and the range of protest tactics and political actors’ acceptance of or willingness to repress mass protest. Bjork-James zeroes in on two episodes: the 2003 Gas Wars and the recent upheaval following the 2019 election. The bulk of the white paper presents and extends the results of a report he drafted as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case before the United States Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida. Staff in the International Human Rights Clinic have been litigating Mamani for over a decade.

As Bjork-James describes in a blog post on his website:

“Overall, Bolivia has a political culture of frequent mass participation in disruptive protest, which is reflected in laws, legal precedents, traditions of tolerance, popular attitudes toward protest and repression, and the words and actions of politicians and other leaders. For nearly a century, many Bolivian government leaders have claimed their legitimacy as representatives of recent outbursts of mass protest, but this history has been interrupted many times by military and authoritarian rulers who cracked down on protest. During the shorter, but current period of electoral democracy (since 1982), politicians of various political stripes have contrasted their values and actions with those of the pre-1982 dictatorships, creating a certain space for protest and an incomplete but nonetheless real aversion to deadly repression of protest.

However, there are now two exceptional moments that burst the bounds on deadly repression: the 2003 Gas War and the 2019 political crisis that saw the overthrow of Evo Morales. The white paper examines each of them in detail. In 2003, President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada moved to criminalize longstanding forms of protest, and orchestrated a military response that directly killed at least 59 civilians. In 2019, three weeks of dueling protests over the October 20 election prompted Morales’ November 10 resignation under pressure from security forces. After Morales’ ouster both military commanders and interim president Jeanine Áñez presided over deadly repression.”

Read “Mass Protests” on our publications page and Bjork-James’s blog post on his website, “Carwil Without Borders.”

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May 14, 2020

How do you protect against indirect discrimination?

Posted by Dana Walters

HLS’s Human Rights Program convenes experts to explore the concept of indirect discrimination on the basis of religion


In 2010, France adopted a law banning full-face coverings in public. Opposed by several human rights organizations, the law was challenged quickly in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and later before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC).

In bringing the cases, the applicants charged that the law discriminated against them indirectly. On the face of it, the law treated everyone the same, but it had disproportionate effects for Muslim women who wore niqabs. Notably, the ECtHr upheld the law, while the HRC found it to be a violation of human rights.

Cases like these, and differences between approaches, occupied much of the conversation at a recent Harvard Law School Human Rights Program (HRP) workshop focusing on indirect discrimination on the basis of religion.

Gerald Neuman ’80, the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, convened the workshop on Saturday, April 18. HRP hosted the workshop in cooperation with the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Read the full story about the workshop on the Harvard Law Today website.

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May 11, 2020

Clinic and partner orgs urge Malaysian PM to address hate speech against Rohingya


(May 11, 2020) — The International Human Rights Clinic and 83 partner organizations sent an open letter to Prime Minister Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Muhyiddin bin Haji Mohd. Yassin today, urging the Malaysian government to take action regarding threats of violence and ‘hate speech’ directed at ethnic Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

As the letter states,

“Starting in the third week of April 2020, hateful messages targeting the Rohingya community in Malaysia have proliferated on social media platforms. Many posts included discriminatory and dehumanizing language and images as well as calls for Rohingya in Malaysia to be forcibly returned to Myanmar. Numerous online petitions calling for the expulsion of Rohingya were launched on Change.org and other platforms. Some petitions garnered thousands of signatures. Online users threatened prominent Rohingya activists, as well as their supporters, with physical attacks, murder and sexual violence.”


The letter calls on the Malaysian government to take steps to condemn the online hate speech, in order to “ensure that incendiary rhetoric does not trigger discriminatory acts or physical attacks.”

Read the full letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia on Article 19’s website.

In a recent interview on Harvard Law Today, Yee Htun, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law in the Clinic, noted the long history of hate speech against the Rohingya and contextualized recent events:

“Social media has played a large role […] and ultra-nationalist groups have strategically used it to portray the Rohingya as terrorists, illegal migrants, and opportunistic interlopers who are going to be a resource drain and engulf the country. Our clinic will be releasing a report soon on hate speech in Myanmar, [detailing] its drivers, main narratives, and its impact on religious and ethnic minorities and human rights defenders. In a way, our findings fit in with larger global populist movements. Whether we’re talking about in the U.S. or Hungary, this kind of “othering” rhetoric is frequently used to justify security measures and restrict immigration. And the pandemic offers a potential carte blanche excuse to exclude and infringe people’s human rights. Now, border countries that could have provided asylum are saying they need to safeguard their own countries from infection.”

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May 8, 2020

Clinic co-directors sign joint submission to Pompeo’s “rights commission”


On May 7, 2020, Duke Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic made a joint submission to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights. Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic Co-Directors Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein are among the signatories, which includes clinical faculty from over 20 U.S. law schools.

The Commission on Unalienable Rights is tasked with revisiting questions about what constitutes human rights, the effects of rights claims, and the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. As Duke Law noted in their press release, the Commission “quickly drew the attention of human rights advocates nationwide because of its troubling mandate, membership, and risks to women’s, LGBTI, and socioeconomic rights.” The joint submission seeks to “delve deeper into the ten core concerning propositions relied upon by the Commission and identifies eight principles of international human rights law that should instead guide its work.” You can read the full submission on Duke Law’s website.

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May 8, 2020

Beatrice Lindstrom Co-Authors Op-Ed on 2010 Haiti Cholera Epidemic, UN Peacekeepers, and COVID-19


Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor and Supervising Attorney for HLS Advocates for Human Rights, co-authored an op-ed with Adam R. Houston that appeared in the International Peace Institute’s (IPI) Global Observatory blog on May 6, 2020. The article questions how much United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations have learned in the wake of the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti. The article can be read in full below or on the IPI Global Observatory website.


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May 6, 2020

Advocating for human rights in Myanmar during COVID-19

Posted by Dana Walters

Yee Htun speaks about respecting refugee rights in the midst of a global pandemic

Landscape of Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp, filled with makeshift houses and roofs that are crumbling.
The refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh houses hundreds of thousands of refugees. Credit: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council

Across southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands of persecuted ethnic minorities in poverty face a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence. Since August 2017, more than 745,000 ethnic Rohingya have escaped oppression and violence in Myanmar and live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In November 2019, a case was filed against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice alleging that the crimes committed against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, violate the Genocide Convention.

Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic was one of 50 organizations to send a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh urging the government to uphold refugee rights as the world faces and fights the novel coronavirus. Still, ongoing violence in Myanmar means individuals continue to flee, this time facing border restrictions and lockdowns. Most recently, boats of escaping Rohingya were turned away at Malaysia’s border, a move that sparked condemnation from human rights groups.

The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Yee Htun, clinical instructor and lecturer on law in the International Human Rights Clinic, to learn more about how Myanmar and those who have fled the state are confronting this crisis. Htun was born in Myanmar and fled the country after the pro-democratic uprising in 1988.

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