September 30, 2020

Confronting conflict pollution: new principles argue for greater assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war

Posted by Dana Walters

A woman peers behind a wall as she sees smoke billowing and fire.
A woman looks at fire and smoke from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before the fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 4, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, irreparably damaging the environment and disrupting the lives of the people who called the area home. When Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, visited the islands in March 2018, she spoke with survivors who suffered from immediate and long-term health effects and who remain displaced decades after the tests.

“Many survivors in the Marshall Islands described having no warning that the tests were going to occur. Then there was blinding light. The sky turned red and various other colors, and then white, radioactive ash fell everywhere,” Docherty said. “Eventually, the U.S. military came and evacuated the communities. For years, as some people would try to return to their home, they did not know if they were still at risk or if the land was safe. There was a remarkable lack of information distributed to those who were most affected.”

The experiences of survivors in the Marshall Islands, as well as other places where armed conflict and military activity have harmed the environment, provided an impetus for “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” a major report released today. Co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the report establishes a new framework for addressing the human harm resulting from the environmental consequences of conflict.

The report lays out 14 principles that cover a range of harm and assistance, establish a mechanism for shared responsibility, identify key implementation measures, and apply overarching human rights norms. The report also includes a detailed commentary, explaining the principles and providing precedent for them. The overarching goal of the principles is to ensure that victims’ needs are met and that they can realize their human rights.

“There have been huge advances in developing legal frameworks for protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts in the last decade,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at CEOBS. “The principles help fill a clear gap in clarifying how states and the international community should respond to the consequences of environmental degradation on communities.”

Weir and a panel of other experts joined Docherty for an online launch event on September 30.

The report adapts the concept of victim assistance, originally designed to deal with explosive weapons, to conflict-related pollution, such as that from nuclear weapon use and testing, oil well fires in Iraq, or the bombing of industrial plants in Ukraine.

Docherty began the process of drafting principles regarding toxic remnants of war with Weir and then-Clinical Fellow Rebecca Agule ’10 in fall 2016. After taking a short break to assist the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during the negotiations of the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), she returned to the project in fall 2018 with an exceptional team of clinical students: Matthew Griechen ’19, Daniel Levine-Spound ’19, and Susannah Marshall ’19. Docherty’s experiences with the TPNW, the first treaty to require assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war, informed the clinic’s principles.

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September 28, 2020

Litigating Identity Systems Guide

The cover of the report h

Last week, Privacy International, a longstanding International Human Rights Clinic partner, published “A Guide to Litigating Identity Systems,” which draws on comparative research students Maithili Pai LLM ’20 and Spencer Bateman JD ’20 undertook with the Clinic’s Assistant Director, Anna Crowe LLM’12, last academic year on the human rights implications of national identity systems — data-intensive government programs that link each individuals’ identity with a card or number.

As the guide notes, public discussion on national identity systems has mostly focused on their perceived benefits, which “limits the extent to which groups and individuals concerned about the human rights impact of identity systems can organize around strong arguments challenging those systems, in whole or part.” The guide “seeks to fill that gap by providing a clear, centralised source of the arguments advanced in and discussed by national courts that discuss the negative implications of identity systems, particularly on human rights. It gives advocates a tool for developing arguments in any given national context challenging an identity system, informing debate from a human rights perspective, and further building the repertoire of arguments that can be advanced in the future.”

You can read the guide and learn more about it on Privacy International’s website.

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September 28, 2020

Susan Farbstein Publishes Article about Apartheid Litigation in Harvard International Law Journal


The most recent print edition of the Harvard International Law Journal, published today, features an article by Susan Farbstein, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School, about the long-running Apartheid suit.  Entitled “Perspectives from a Practitioner: Lessons Learned From The Apartheid Litigation,” the piece draws on her work as co-counsel in the Alien Tort Statute case that sought to hold corporations accountable for their role facilitating human rights abuse in apartheid South Africa.

“The article really represents my attempt, as a human rights practitioner, to analyze the experience of litigating the Apartheid suit,” Farbstein explains.  “While lawsuits alone can’t fundamentally improve human rights, the article contends that litigation can be a powerful option for individuals or communities that have survived human rights abuse, and that it played an important role for many stakeholders involved in this particular case.  I try to honestly consider the challenges that we faced over the years, and acknowledge the ways that we fell short of our ambitions.  But I also suggest that critiques of human rights litigation often miss the mark because they demand too much of litigation—which is, of course, just one of the many tools available to the human rights movement—and because the critiques fail to understand the multiple goals of this kind of effort.” 

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September 25, 2020

WATCH: Navigating Black Identity in the Human Rights Field

Five individuals talk on zoom in a grid pattern.
Top left to right: Aminta Ossom, Cassandre Théano; Middle: Godfrey Odongo, Christopher Richardson; Bottom: Rosebell Kagumire.


On September 24, the Human Rights Program hosted the first event in a series exploring racial justice in the human rights field. Aminta Ossom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, convened the series and moderated the first event, Advocating While Black: Navigating Black Identity in the Human Rights Field. Read an interview with Ossom on our blog about why she convened the series and what she hopes to discuss throughout the year.

Panelists for the September 24 event included:

  • Rosebell Kagumire, Editor, AfricanFeminism

  • Godfrey Odongo, Senior Program Officer, Wellspring Philanthropic Fund

  • Christopher Richardson, Immigration Attorney, General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer, BDV Solutions

  • Cassandre C. Théano, Assistant Director, Human Rights and Public International Law, Columbia Law School

Watch a recording of the event with captions at this link or below:


Thanks to our co-sponsors: the Harvard African Law Association, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice.

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September 24, 2020

Sabrina Mahtani on Gender & Prison Alternatives


The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime and the Thailand Institute of Justice recently released a Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures, a handbook with information and guidance on alternatives to incarceration. Part of a Criminal Justice Handbook Series, the toolkit approaches incarceration as a last resort, providing support and guidance to make sure that women are not detained or imprisoned unnecessarily. “Now more than ever, with the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is a need to look towards non-custodial measures for women offenders to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system, maintain the health and safety of those in prison and ensure effective rehabilitation,” says the press release on the Thailand Institute of Justice’s website.

Human rights lawyer Sabrina Mahtani led the drafting and research, which took place in large part at Harvard Law School while she was a joint Fellow-in-Residence in the Human Rights Program and the Office of Public Interest Advising. You can learn more about Sabrina at the end of this post.

Sabrina recently spoke with HRP about developing the toolkit and where she hopes it will make the most impact.

In September 2020, the Thailand Institute of Justice and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime held an expert meeting in Bangkok to review the material for the report. Mahtani occupies the back row, second from left. Photo Credit: Thailand Institute of Justice.

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September 23, 2020

Event Series Explores Racial Justice and Human Rights


During the 2020-2021 academic year, the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School is organizing a series of virtual events on racial justice and human rights. Convened by Aminta Ossom JD’09, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, the series aims to foster dialogue between students, scholars, and practitioners on the role that race plays both in the practice and substance of international human rights work. The first event, “Advocating While Black: Navigating Black Identity in the Human Rights Field,” will take place on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 12 pm. Register on Zoom here.

HRP spoke with Ossom about the series and what she hopes to unpack throughout the year.

Event poster for Advocating While Black, which will feature:
Rosebell Kagumire, Christopher Richardson, Godfrey Odongo, Cassandre Théano, and Aminta Ossom.
“Advocating While Black” is the first in an event series focused on racial justice and human rights.
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September 22, 2020

Planning for a Year of Activism with HLS Advocates for Human Rights

Posted by Marie Sintim

HLS Advocates for Human Rights (Advocates) is a student practice organization (SPO) at Harvard Law School (HLS). Many students first join the HLS human rights community through Advocates their 1L year. In the SPO, students work on human rights projects with partner organizations around the world. Over the last year, the organization has decided to formally renew its commitment to social justice by creating Executive Board roles to lead activism within the organization. Sondra Anton JD’22 is one of the new Directors of Activism for the 2020-2021 academic year; Advocates is currently soliciting applications for a Co-Director to further assist with this work.

Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Sondra attended Washington University in St. Louis before receiving her master’s degree in politics from the University of Oxford. Sondra is interested in the field of international human rights law, particularly topics surrounding justice and accountability in post-conflict societies. After graduation, she hopes to use her law degree to represent victims and survivors of mass atrocity and severe human rights abuses in national courts or international tribunals. She is also very passionate about domestic social justice movements and the fight for racial justice in the United States.

Marie Sintim, Program Assistant in the International Human Rights Clinic, spoke with Sondra recently about her role and what she she envisions for activism with the organization this year.

A woman wearing a yellow romper smiles.
Sondra Anton JD’22
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September 21, 2020

Mourning the Passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by Gerald Neuman

Photo Credit: Tony Rinaldo.

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the nation and the world have lost a champion of human equality. At the Human Rights Program, we must mourn and remember while we persist.

Justice Ginsburg was a tireless defender of universal human rights. She initially gained fame as the strategist of constitutional reform for women’s equality, fighting legalized stereotypes and making clear the harm they imposed on everyone. As a judge of the D.C. Circuit (where I first met her) and as a Supreme Court Justice she kept attention on the rights of all – including women, racial minorities, religious minorities, LGBT persons, immigrants, the poor, prisoners. She sought to ensure the efficacy of antidiscrimination law and to preserve access to the courts. 

Justice Ginsburg expressed her openness to the world in such ways as her refusal to confine constitutional rights within the nation’s formal borders, her willingness to learn from foreign constitutional experience, and her acceptance of self-executing treaty provisions.  

Alas, as the Supreme Court shifted during her decades of service, her fidelity to a better constitutional understanding was increasingly shown in her eloquent dissenting opinions. Throughout her career, Justice Ginsburg’s dedication, skill and fortitude offered, and continue to offer, an inspiring example to all good lawyers, and especially so to human rights lawyers.

Gerald L. Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and the Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at HLS. He teaches human rights, constitutional law, and immigration and nationality law.

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September 17, 2020

Rethinking MSIS: MSIs and the Search to Cure the Global Governance Gap

Posted by Judy Gearhart

The phenomenon of multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) has spread rapidly across the globe since the 1990s, with governments and multinational corporations (MNCs) alike promoting them as the new solution to the global governance gap even before they were fully road-tested. Civil society organizations (CSOs) saw them as a way to engage MNCs on the environmental and social problems exacerbated by global trade. MNCs saw a means to inoculate their global reputations from the risks of doing business in places where human rights scandals were greater than at home. Just as MNC staff required vaccines against tropical diseases before departing, the corporation needed to guard against the risk of coming into contact with the plagues of corrupt governments and abusive employers.  

Yet MSIs, at least those focused on the impact of global supply chains, were only set up to address the symptoms, not the cause of these plagues. Most failed to recognize how MNCs were actually fueling corruption and employer abuse by constantly demanding lower prices and faster production times. Thus, the global governance gap grew wider as MNCs diversified their supply chains and effectively played one producer country against the other. When the scandals multiplied and children were found making clothing for Wal-Mart in Honduras or soccer balls for adidas and Nike in Pakistan, global brands sought help from MSIs.

The majority of MSIs are set up as public charities and their goals express the intent to protect a public good. This includes MSIs working with public sector institutions to improve accountability such as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), those covering workers’ rights such as Social Accountability International or the Fair Labor Association, and environmentally focused groups such as Rainforest Alliance and Marine Stewardship Council. What nearly all of them have in common is a mission to address a lack of regulation or the weak legal protections of national resources, the environment, or workers. Yet MSIs focused on supply-chain monitoring—as distinct from MSIs engaging the public sector—have been largely silent or disengaged on advocacy for legal reforms and rule of law, often turning a blind eye as member MNCs’ suppliers pursue multi-year legal battles against whistle-blowers or worker organizers

The recently released MSI Integrity report, Not Fit for Purpose, tracks the uptake of MSIs as a reference point for addressing gaps in global governance. MSI Integrity cites how the UN Guiding Principles (UNGPs) on Business and Human Rights extended legitimacy to MSIs by directly referencing them, and the 23 countries that have referred to MSIs in their National Action Plans for implementing the UNGPs. Yet most MSIs are a weak stopgap for failing legal protections. They are also poor exemplars of good governance given the extent to which they have eschewed the key elements of transparency, accountability, and participation. 

Not Fit for Purpose could have distinguished more among distinct MSI approaches, e.g. supply-chain versus public governance-focused MSIs, and those treating symptoms through risk mitigation among suppliers versus Fairtrade’s work to gain market access for small farmers. The report is very helpful though, especially in identifying patterns and quantifying how the majority of MSIs fall short on models of good governance: 

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September 15, 2020

Clinic Intern Q&A: Edi Ebiefung JD’21


Edi Ebiefung JD’21 was one of three interns in the International Human Rights Clinic this summer, who worked on various human rights projects under clinical staff. He recently spoke with the Human Rights Program about his summer with the Clinic and how he sees it influencing his future trajectory. You can read about interns Sondra Anton JD’22 and Laura Clark JD’20 on our blog, and read below to find out about Edi.

A man wearing a plaid shirt poses for a headshot in front of a white wall.
Edi Ebiefung JD’21

Human Rights Program: What projects did you work on this summer? What work product were you most proud of?  

Edi Ebiegung: I worked on projects concerning the intersection of environmental issues and human rights in India, the impacts of the coronavirus in South Africa, the possible international legal responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic, and professional responsibility issues concerning the clinic here in the United States. 

A difficult question as everything was rather interesting, but if forced to choose perhaps the work related to the pandemic as there was a certain urgency and topicality to it. 

HRP: What was challenging about interning remotely? How did you work with your supervisors to overcome those challenges? 

EE: The hardest part was probably developing a rapport with colleagues and clinicians since everything was remote and we were not actually meeting. This was overcome with a regular and surprisingly successful balance of Zoom meetings and check-ins that were not long enough to be annoying but not so short that they were ineffective.

HRP: How do you think this internship will influence your law school career and beyond? 

EE: It reaffirmed my interest in the international impacts and significance of the law. I would very much aspire to have an international element in my future practice of the law. 

HRP: Outside of interning in the Clinic, how did you spend your time this summer?

EE: I tried to actively spend some time outside, even if just for short bicycle rides around my neighborhood or up and down Mass. Ave.

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