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June 30, 2020

UN releases embargoed expert letters drawing on Clinic complaint


Rights experts call on UN to provide remedy to victims of Haitian cholera epidemic


(June 30, 2020) — The United Nations (UN) published two previously embargoed letters from fourteen UN independent rights experts on Saturday, calling on the organization to deliver overdue remedies to victims of cholera in Haiti. Addressed to Secretary-General António Guterres and the Haitian government, the letters respond to a complaint submitted by the International Human Rights Clinic, the 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) in January.  

The experts’ letters adopts the Clinic’s arguments that the UN’s approach following its public apology in 2016 amount to violations of the right to effective remedy. The experts found “glaring limitations” in the UN’s approach, including that the UN has failed to pay any compensation and that its subsequent underfunded effort has amounted to little more than a spate of symbolic development projects. They stressed that “the continued denial of effective remedies to the victims is not only a violation of their human right to an effective remedy, but also a grave breach of public confidence in the Organization’s integrity and legitimacy.” The letters conclude that a “fundamental shift in approach is necessary if the Organization is to uphold the respect for human rights and rule of law.”  

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, led a clinical student team in working on the January complaint. She was recently interviewed by Harvard Law Todaydiving into her nearly-decade long advocacy on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. The interview explores the UN’s failure to adequately respond to the epidemic and provide appropriate reparations to victims. 

As Lindstrom says in the Q&A, “In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the UN bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed.” 

The rights experts released a public statement at the time the letters were sent, which generated significant attention in the media and prompted a preliminary response from the Secretary-General.

June 25, 2020

Seeking overdue reparations for U.N.-caused devastation in Haiti


In Q&A, Beatrice Lindstrom calls for international human rights organization to deliver remedies to cholera victims

Beatrice Lindstrom talks to reporters after a lawsuit against the UN was dismissed
Credit: Edgar Lafond/Haiti Liberté. Clinical Instructor Beatrice Lindstrom at a press conference following oral argument in Georges v. United Nations, a lawsuit to hold the UN accountable for the cholera outbreak. The case was dismissed the day after the UN announced that a New Approach would be forthcoming.

In 2010, United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti. Nearly a decade later and with COVID-19 threatening an already fragile situation, affected communities are still waiting for access to remedy. Beatrice Lindstrom, clinical instructor and supervising attorney in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, has been working for nearly a decade on pathbreaking advocacy to secure accountability from the U.N. for the destruction it caused. Lindstrom was lead counsel in Georges v. United Nations, a class action lawsuit on behalf of those injured by cholera. Prior to joining Harvard Law School, Lindstrom was the legal director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

Harvard Law Today: How and why did the 2010 cholera outbreak begin in Haiti?

Beatrice Lindstrom: Cholera was introduced to Haiti when the U.N. deployed peacekeepers from Nepal—which was experiencing a cholera outbreak—without testing or treating them for the disease. The peacekeepers were stationed on a base in rural Haiti that had reckless waste disposal practices. Untreated waste from the base’s toilets was routinely dumped into unprotected open-air pits that overflowed into the surrounding community and into a nearby tributary. That tributary feeds into the Artibonite River, the primary water source for tens of thousands of Haitians. The resulting outbreak is the deadliest cholera epidemic in the world: At least 10,000 people have died and approximately one million people have been sickened since 2010. To put it in context, the number of cholera infections per capita in Haiti still exceeds the COVID-19 infection rate in any nation.

HLT: How has the United Nations responded?

Lindstrom: Despite scientific consensus that the U.N. base was the source of the outbreak, the U.N. denied responsibility for six years and refused victims access to any forum to hear claims for remedies. The U.N. enjoys broad immunity, but is required to settle claims by civilians out of court. In 2011, the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and its U.S.-based partner Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), where I then worked, filed claims on behalf of 5,000 victims. The U.N. rejected the claims without offering any legal justification, and has refused to refer the claims to an independent claims commission as required under international agreements. The U.N.’s own Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called the U.N.’s response “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.”

It took an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies in Haiti and abroad to persuade the U.N. to shift course. In 2016, the Secretary-General finally issued a public apology and launched a $400 million “New approach to cholera in Haiti.” But over three years later, the U.N. has raised only 5% of the $400 million promised, and has not paid any compensation to victims. Despite initially pledging to center victims in decision-making, critical decisions about the direction and content of the New Approach have been made without victim input. These deficiencies stem from the U.N.’s continued denial of legal responsibility for the outbreak, which would trigger funding through assessed contributions from its member states and ensure that responsibility is shared collectively across the organization. Instead, remedies for cholera victims is treated as charity and left to compete with other humanitarian causes.

HLT: Why do you think the U.N. has been reluctant to accept responsibility?

Lindstrom: In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the U.N. bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed. The U.N.’s Legal Counsel has reportedly waged “an extraordinary internal campaign” against anything that would resemble an acceptance of responsibility. Lawyers are often concerned about setting precedent, but here there is consensus among legal experts that the claim falls within the U.N.’s existing duty to compensate for “private law” claims, so the only precedent set would be one of compliance. If the concern is that it would in practice invite claims in other contexts, this implies that the U.N. anticipates many other situations where civilians will be harmed by U.N. negligence. Others resist accepting responsibility because of the financial implications. The $400 million that the U.N. is now seeking for cholera, however, is only a fraction of the $4 billion that it has spent on its stabilization mission in Haiti since the outbreak started. And as governments are now rightly investing trillions of dollars in financial support for households impacted by COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that more could be done for cholera victims if the political will was there.

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June 24, 2020

HRP Awards 2020-2021 Post-Graduate Fellowships


The Human Rights Program (HRP) is pleased to present its 2020-2021 Post-Graduate Fellowship cohort. This year, we have awarded Satter and Henigson Fellowships to six remarkable 2020 Harvard Law School (HLS) graduates: Fabiola Alvelais JD’20, Pavani Nagaraja Bhat LLM’20, Niku Jafarnia JD/MPP’20, Ji Yoon Kang JD’20, Delphine Rodrik JD’20, and Rupali Samuel LLM’20.

HRP’s post-graduate fellowships are designed to help launch the careers of students who have demonstrated great promise as advocates while at HLS. This year’s students are graduating into a world altered by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many of them will begin their fellowships working remotely. As the pandemic exacerbates conditions for the most vulnerable, HRP is more committed than ever to supporting the careers of young professionals devoted to international human rights and social justice. Learn more about the new fellows and their projects below.

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June 8, 2020

Families, Rights Groups Demand U.N. Investigate U.S. Police Brutality, Protest Suppression


Families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile Join Forces with Over 600 Groups from Over 60 Countries Calling For International Scrutiny


GENEVA — In an unprecedented move, the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, together with over 600 rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union and U.S. Human Rights Network, are demanding the United Nations Human Rights Council swiftly convene a special session to investigate the escalating situation of police violence and repression of protests in the United States. Additional signatories include Black Lives Matter and the NAACP.

“Mamie Till Mobley made a decision to open the casket of her son Emmett Till so the world could see the atrocities Black people faced in America. I want people across the world and the leaders in the United Nations to see the video of my brother George Floyd, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry,” said Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd. “I appeal to the United Nations to help him. Help me. Help us. Help Black men and women in America.”

The groups warn of an “unfolding grave human rights crisis” in the United States and write that the recent police killings of unarmed Black people as well as police use of excessive force and repression of protests violate United States obligations under international law. They call on the U.N. to mandate an independent inquiry into the killings and violent law enforcement responses to protests, including the attacks against protesters and journalists. The letter also calls for a U.N. investigation into the firing of tear gas by President Trump in violation of international standards on the use of force.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is the world’s highest multilateral human rights body. It is mandated to strengthen the global promotion and protection of human rights, and to address human rights violations. The council may hold special sessions to address human rights violations and emergencies if at least one-third of its member states demand.

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June 3, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Posted by the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School

Human dignity, equality, and freedom from discrimination are at the heart of human rights. We in the International Human Rights Clinic have been outraged by the unacceptable killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. We condemn the systemic racism, violence, and impunity that enable this tragic loss of life and violate the human rights of Black people. 

We also condemn the government’s violent repression of protestors and journalists across the country. The excessive use of force and attacks on freedom of expression must end.  

Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with those who are leading the fight for racial justice. We all have a role to play in creating a more just and equitable society, and we urge our community to take action.  

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June 2, 2020

Protect Civilians from Explosive Weapons


Strong Political Declaration Will Save Lives


(Washington, DC, June 2, 2020) – Countries should heed the United Nations secretary-general’s call for a new political declaration to protect civilians from the bombing and shelling of cities and towns, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a joint report on the subject with Human Rights Watch.

The 11-page document addresses the importance of a political commitment and elaborates on what it should contain. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has inflicted immediate and long-term suffering on civilians in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other areas of recent conflict.

“Countries should agree to a political declaration to prevent the foreseeable human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” said Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “The declaration should establish that this method of war is unacceptable. Civilian lives are at stake.”

In his annual report on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” which he presented to the UN Security Council last week, Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the “fundamental need” for a new political declaration. It should commit countries to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, he wrote.

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