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April 29, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: “In Accordance with the Law” – How the Military Perverts Rule of Law to Oppress Civilians

Posted by Pwint Htun

Women hold a sign that says, "rule of law," while a hand reaches in a box to vote. Blood is spattered across the scene.
Original art of Maung Maung Tinn, refugee from Myanmar, from “Born Free and Equal” (with permission by artist).

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post was published on the Just Security blog on April 28, 2021.)

“When protestors refuse to listen to our orders to disperse, we shoot at the protestors in accordance with the law.”

These are the chilling words of a Tatmadaw soldier. Unfortunately, they are not isolated ones, and they show how the idea of “law” has been perverted to justify both the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the deplorable violence that has followed. The word “law” (or “upaday” in Burmese) has long been a tenuous concept in Myanmar. After decades living under a military dictatorship, in which laws were used as tools of oppression and could change at the whim of those in power, the people of Myanmar have, understandably, little trust in law. The recent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and the current junta have only further affirmed this perception. The concept of law and the related idea of the rule of law have been warped and manipulated by soldiers and police officers, many of whom believe they are enforcing the “law” to uphold order when they crack down on protests against the coup.

At a recent military tribunal, the “law” was weaponized as a tool to instill fear by issuing unappealable death penalty sentences to 19 young protestors for one soldier’s death even though there were no eye witnesses to the alleged crime. In telling contrast, since early February, nearly 800 unarmed civilians have been killed at the hands of Tatmadaw. It is difficult to imagine a version of Myanmar further away from rule of law than this one. There instead needs to be an all-out effort to strengthen the true meaning of the rule of law in Myanmar by both returning the country to civilian rule and undertaking constitutional reforms to enshrine democratic rights instead of using the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as a tool protecting military might.

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April 27, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Echoes of the Past, Crises of the Moment, Visions of the Future

Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series will brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The article first appeared on Just Security on April 26, 2021). 

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – shattered the all too brief effort to transition to democracy in Myanmar. Over the past two and a half months, the Tatmadaw has continued its illegitimate effort to undermine the democratic elections from last year and prevent the elected government from taking power. In the face of mass popular opposition and international condemnation, the military has only escalated its use of violence against its own population – systematically stripping away rights and violently attacking protestors and dissidents, reportedly killing over 700 civilians as of Apr. 20, 2021, and detaining more than 3,000.

Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the people of Myanmar have stood their ground and refused to be silenced. On Apr. 16, opponents of the coup from across the political spectrum announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) to resist the military. Just as importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a grassroots movement aimed at disrupting state functions and crippling the economy in order to undermine the military’s attempt to rule, has been hugely successful in galvanizing collective action since early February. In addition to the tens of thousands of CDM participants walking out of their private and public sector positions, protests across the country have seen massive youth engagement on a scale not seen in a generation. The organizing power has been impressive. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been used to spread awareness and coordinate protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance. The military has taken notice of the CDM’s power, issuing threats against young people protesting and shooting indiscriminately at protestors of all ages, including children. Parallel movements have arisen in areas like neighboring Thailand, with Thai youth protesting their own authoritarian government in solidarity with activists from Myanmar.

Today we launch a Just Security series that will take a deep dive into the situation in Myanmar. The series will provide insights that put the coup and civilian response into historical and modern context, deepen unexplored angles on the current crises, and survey possibilities and ways forward over the next six months to a year. This series also aims to elevate policy discussions on a number of issues, ranging from peace and accountability to religion and democracy, asking: What is happening now and why?

Within the series, contributions from authors from Myanmar and others working closely on the situation will explore topics such as youth leadership in the CDM and protests, domestic and international solidarity, environmental concerns, the dissolution of rule of law in Myanmar, and what the coup means for ongoing international accountability efforts. Below, we offer an overview of the major themes of the series, along with a timeline of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. The current uprising against military rule must be understood in the context of these decades-long struggles for peace, democracy, accountability, and justice.

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April 22, 2021

Report Finds Haitian Government Complicit in Crimes Against Humanity


Haitian human rights coalition, Harvard clinic release new analysis of state-sanctioned massacres


(April 22, 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Cambridge, MA)
— Three deadly massacres targeting impoverished neighborhoods in Haiti were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH). The report points to evidence that the gang-led attacks were resourced and supported by state actors, ranging from high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration to the Haitian National Police.

Report cover shows the image of Haitian citizens marching in the streets protesting.

The report, “Killing with Impunity: State-Sanctioned Massacres in Haiti,” analyzes three attacks that took place between 2018-2020, which have together killed at least 240 civilians. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air, and Cité Soleil, which have played a leading role in organizing protests demanding government accountability for corruption and other human rights violations.

“Moïse’s government has been pushing the story that the attacks are merely gang infighting, but the evidence demonstrates high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up of the attacks,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a member organization of OHCCH.

The report relies on investigations by Haitian and international human rights experts that show that senior Moïse administration officials planned the attacks or otherwise assisted by providing the gangs with money, weapons, or vehicles. Off-duty police officers and resources were utilized to carry out the attacks. The Haitian National Police repeatedly failed to intervene to protect civilians despite the sites of the attacks being in close proximity to multiple police stations. In each attack, gangs arrived in the targeted neighborhood, shot at residents indiscriminately, raped women, and burnt and looted houses. The massacres repeatedly involved gangs affiliated with the G9 alliance led by Jimmy Chérizier, which reportedly enjoys government connections.

“We found that Moïse’s failure to stop or respond to attacks initiated by his subordinates may make the President himself liable for crimes against humanity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Clinic who supervised the research and drafting of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to stand up for human rights, fully investigate allegations of serious abuses, and do its part to hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.

The report comes amidst a deepening crisis for democracy and human rights in Haiti. Widespread demonstrations have gripped the nation, with large swaths of the population protesting government corruption, rising insecurity, and Moise’s increasingly authoritarian conduct. Notably, to repress dissent, Moise has criminalized common forms of protest and created an intelligence agency to provide surveillance of the political opposition. Attacks against civilians, including the assassination of prominent government critics, have largely been carried out with impunity. Although most experts and much of civil society agree that President Moïse’s constitutional mandate ended on February 7, 2021, he has refused to step down, insisting that an illegal constitutional referendum take place before elections for his replacement.   

The finding that the attacks amount to crimes against humanity strengthens the prospects for accountability. In addition to imposing an international obligation on the Haitian government to prosecute the people responsible, it opens the door to prosecutions in national and international courts outside of Haiti. It also means that perpetrators can be pursued indefinitely as no statutes of limitations apply.

“Just like Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eventually had to stand trial for his brutal repression decades after he left office, the perpetrators of today’s massacres can no longer escape justice by relying on statutes of limitations,” Joseph added.

The UN has raised alarm that the ongoing lack of accountability for massacres has fostered an enabling environment for further carnage. Yet another attack on Bel-Air earlier this month bore striking similarities to the massacres analysed in the report.

“The attacks covered in the report are particularly severe and well-documented, but they are part of a widespread, systematic campaign of violence and intimidation of political dissidents,” said Pierre Esperance, Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), an OHCCH member that has led independent investigations into repeated attacks on impoverished neighborhoods. RNDDH has documented at least 11 massacres over the course of Moise’s presidency.

The report relies on evidence collected by a range of Haitian and international actors over the last few years and analyzes it under international criminal law. Harvard Law School students Joey Bui JD’21 and Nathalie Gunasekera JD’21 led the research and drafting of the report under Lindstrom’s supervision.

Read the report in English, French, and Haitian Creole.

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April 22, 2021

Un rapport révèle la complicité du gouvernement haïtien dans des crimes contre l’humanité


Une coalition haïtienne de défense des droits humains et la Clinique de droit de Harvard publient une nouvelle analyse des massacres perpétrés contre les résidents des quartiers défavorisés avec l’appui de l’État haïtien 


(22 avril 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haïti; Cambridge, Massachusetts) — Trois massacres sanglants ayant pris pour cible les résidents des quartiers défavorisés ont été perpétrés avec l’appui du gouvernement haïtien et constituent des crimes contre l’humanité, révèle un rapport publié aujourd’hui par la Clinique internationale de défense des droits humains de la Faculté de droit de Harvard et l’Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes Contre l’Humanité (OHCCH). Le rapport met en évidence des attaques lancées par des gangs lourdement armés qui ont obtenu des ressources et l’approbation d’acteurs étatiques, allant des hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse à des agents de la Police nationale d’Haïti.  

Image of Haitian citizens marching in protest.

Le rapport, intitulé Massacres cautionnés par l’Etat : regne de l’impunite en Haïti, présente une analyse de trois attaques qui ont été exécutées entre 2018 et 2020 et qui ont coûté la vie à au moins 240 civils. Les massacres ont pris pour cible les quartiers populaires de Port-au-Prince La Saline, Bel-Air et Cité Soleil, des quartiers qui ont tous joué un rôle de premier plan dans l’organisation des manifestations réclamant que le gouvernement rende des comptes sur la dilapidation du fonds petro-caribe et d’autres violations des droits humains qui affligent le pays.  

« L’administration Moïse maintient que ces attaques ne sont que des querelles internes entre gangs armés, mais des preuves indéniables établissent que des représentants du gouvernement de haut niveau ont joué un rôle important dans la planification et l’exécution des attaques, ainsi que pour les dissimuler », affirme Mario Joseph, avocat responsable du Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, l’un des membres de l’OHCCH.  

Le rapport s’appuie sur des enquêtes menées par des experts haïtiens et internationaux en droits humains qui établissent que de hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse ont soit planifié les attaques, soit offert leur assistance en fournissant aux gangs de l’argent, des armes et des véhicules. Des policiers en civil et des ressources policières ont été utilisés pour exécuter les attaques, au cours desquelles la Police nationale d’Haïti n’est pas du tout intervenue. Lors de chaque attaque, des gangs sont arrivés dans le quartier visé et ont ouvert le feu sur des civils, violé des femmes, incendié et pillé des maisons. Les massacres ont tous été perpétrés par la fédération des gangs armés sanguinaires dénommée G9 en Famille et alliés, dirigée par Jimmy Chérizier qui entretiendrait des liens étroits avec le gouvernement. 

« Nous avons conclu qu’en n’ayant pris aucune mesure pour freiner les attaques initiées par ses subordonnés, ou pour y réagir, le président Moïse se rend responsable de crimes contre l’humanité », déclare Beatrice Lindstrom, l’enseignante clinique de Harvard qui a supervisé la recherche et la rédaction du rapport. « Nous espérons que cette conclusion lance à la communauté internationale un signal d’alarme pour se porter à la défense des droits humains et réévaluer le soutien qu’elle accorde à Jovenel Moïse », ajoute-t-elle.  

Ce rapport est publié dans le contexte d’une crise de la démocratie et des droits humains qui s’intensifie en Haïti. Tout au long de son mandat comme président, Jovenel Moïse a de plus en plus eu recours à des mesures autoritaires pour réprimer la dissidence. Notamment, il a criminalisé certaines formes de protestation populaire pacifique et a mis sur pied une agence de renseignements dans le but de surveiller l’opposition politique. Des attaques contre des civils ont été perpétrées en toute impunité, notamment l’assassinat de citoyens engagés bien connus.  Même si la majorité des experts et des membres de la société civile s’entendent pour dire que le mandat constitutionnel du président Moïse a pris fin le 7 février 2021, le président refuse de quitter son poste et insiste pour qu’un référendum constitutionnel illégal soit tenu avant l’élection de son remplaçant.     

La conclusion du rapport montrant que ces attaques correspondent à la définition de crime contre l’humanité aurait des conséquences importantes sur le plan de la responsabilité. En plus d’imposer à l’État haïtien une obligation internationale de traduire en justice les responsables, cette conclusion permettrait aux Nations Unies et aux tribunaux étrangers de veiller à ce que justice soit rendue. Cela signifie en outre que les auteurs des crimes pourraient faire l’objet de poursuites indéfiniment, puisqu’aucune prescription ne s’applique au crime contre l’humanité. 

« Comme ce fut le cas pour l’ancien dictateur Jean-Claude Duvalier qui a été traduit en justice quelques décennies après avoir quitté le pouvoir, afin d’assumer la responsabilité des terribles conséquences de la répression brutale avec laquelle il avait dirigé le pays. Les auteurs des massacres d’aujourd’hui ne peuvent plus échapper à la justice en invoquant des clauses de prescription », ajoute Mario Joseph.  

Les Nations Unies ont signalé que l’absence d’imputabilité pour les massacres a favorisé un environnement favorable à d’autres carnages. Malgré cet avertissement, une autre attaque présentant des ressemblances frappantes avec les massacres analysés dans le rapport a été perpétrée à Bel-Air au début de ce mois-ci.  

Selon Pierre Espérance, directeur exécutif du RNDDH « les attaques dont fait état ce rapport sont particulièrement brutales et bien documentées, et elles s’inscrivent dans le cadre d’une campagne de violence et d’intimidation généralisée et systématique menée contre les dissidents politiques ». Le RNDDH a documenté au moins 11 massacres au cours de la présidence de Jovenel Moïse.  

Le rapport repose sur une analyse rigoureuse des éléments de preuve qui ont été recueillis par de multiples acteurs haïtiens et internationaux au cours des dernières années, au regard du droit international pénal. Les étudiants de la Faculté de droit de Harvard Joey Bui (JD’21) et Nathalie Gunasekera (JD’21) ont dirigé les recherches et rédigé le rapport sous la supervision de la professeure Lindstrom. 

Read the report in EnglishFrench, and Haitian Creole.

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April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: What the Yamuna River Teaches Us About Climate Change and Human Rights

Posted by Cindy Wu JD'22

You may have seen images of Hindu devotees immersing themselves in large clouds of white foam floating through the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. But what may seem otherworldly belies something much more sinister: a river of deep religious and life-giving significance for millions of people, teeming with toxic industrial and residential pollutants.

Alongside three other Harvard Law School students and our Clinical Instructor, Aminta Ossom, I have spent this past semester studying the relationship between climate change and inequality. This Earth Day, our team is thinking about how climate change and human activities are working in tandem to degrade and deplete the Yamuna River. This environmental harm has significant impacts on the enjoyment of the right to water, as well as on other rights, like cultural rights and the rights to adequate health and livelihoods.

What is the Yamuna?


The Yamuna—a tributary of the Ganga River—is critical both in Hindu culture and as a source of livelihood. Millions of Hindus worship the river as a goddess, and many make an annual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves to wash away their sins and to bring health and prosperity. Besides its religious significance, the Yamuna supports the livelihoods of farmers, fisher-folk and boatsmen and is a crucial source of water for 57 million people, especially for those in the Delhi region.

A young boy sits on a trash-ridden beach in front of the Yamuna River.
The Yamuna River near Okhla Bird Sanctuary. Creative Commons License 2.0 Generic by Subodh Kumar Jha.
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April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: Environmental Justice is a Human Rights Struggle

Posted by Lavran Johnson JD'22

The United States has an environmental human rights problem. Across the country, communities of color and lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately located close to chemical processing plants, power plants, and other industrial facilities and shoulder the burden of domestic environmental contamination. Air and water quality standards frequently fail to protect these communities, leading to detrimental health impacts and continued contamination. Although the situation is improving, state and federal agencies have historically failed to reduce the cumulative burdens on these communities. Most of our environmental laws provide protective regimes based on available technology and economic feasibility. Although these regimes place limits on pollution, they reflect a presumption that industries have a general right to pollute. Industry’s right to pollute is constrained by environmental law; but we need a shift away from industrial rights and towards a human right to a clean environment.

After years working as an outdoor educator, I came to law school to focus on environmental law, committed to finding ways through policy and litigation to better protect the environments that had enriched my life. It was in the classroom — and not outside — where I started to build the connections that drive my current work. My torts class, where we studied Rob Bilott’s prosecution of DuPont for chemical pollution, helped to shift my focus towards work that would protect both the environment and the individual people who rely on it. Later, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini exposed me to some of the many ways that environmental exploitation and human exploitation are entangled, but it was working over the summer on an administrative complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency that really crystallized my understanding: environmental justice is fundamentally a human rights issue. All people should be protected from pollution that poses a serious and permanent risk to their health, and historical deprivation and prejudice should not be allowed to undermine that basic protection.

This spring, I entered the International Human Rights Clinic hopeful that I could gain a better grasp of how rights are understood and leveraged, but unsure whether I would be able to do environmental work. I’ve been very lucky to work with Bonnie Docherty and three excellent team members to prepare recommendations for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Bonnie, who is the Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, has worked for decades to highlight the detrimental effects of weapons on both humans and the environment. The TPNW, which Bonnie and previous clinical students helped to shape, reconceptualizes nuclear disarmament by shifting from a tactical focus—one in which states play their nuclear arsenals off each other to maintain geopolitical order—to a humanitarian focus—one in which states must address the ongoing human suffering caused by the use and testing of nuclear weapons. The TPNW, which requires total disarmament, also creates obligations that respond to the legacy of nuclear weapons use and testing through victim assistance and environmental remediation. In places like the Marshall Islands, where many still suffer the effects of the nuclear testing that happens over 60 years ago, these obligations are critical.

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April 6, 2021

Court Upholds $10 Million Judgment Against Bolivian Leaders for 2003 Massacre


April 6, 2021, Miami — Yesterday, a federal judge rejected an attempt by Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, to vacate a $10 million damages award against them for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous people in 2003. A jury found the former officials liable under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) in April 2018, after a month-long trial that included six days of jury deliberations. The trial marked the first time in US history that a former head of state sat before his accusers in a US human rights trial. In an unusual move, a month later the trial court set aside the jury verdict and entered its own judgment holding the defendants not liable based on insufficient evidence. In August, the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. The defendants filed a second motion to vacate the jury verdict and damages award. Yesterday, on April 5, 2021, the trial court rejected that request. 

“This news brings me so much happiness,” said Hernan Apaza , whose sister Roxana was killed by Bolivian soldiers in 2003. “We held on to hope for so many years despite so many obstacles for justice. Finally, those who committed these egregious crimes will be held accountable. “

In September and October 2003, acting under the authority of Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, the Bolivian military killed 58 of its own citizens and injured more than 400, almost all of them from indigenous communities, during a period of civil unrest known as the “Gas War.” Among those killed were an eight-year-old girl, a pregnant woman (whose fetus also died), and elderly people. After the massacre, Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín fled to the United States, where they have lived since. Former military commanders and government officials who acted under the authority of the two men were convicted in Bolivia in 2011 for their roles in the killings. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the same case but could not be tried in absentia under Bolivian law.

The appellate court held that plaintiffs provided sufficient evidence that “soldiers deliberately fired deadly shots with measured awareness that they would mortally wound civilians who posed no risk of danger. None of the decedents were armed, nor was there evidence that they posed a threat to the soldiers. Many were shot while they were inside a home or in a building. Others were shot while they were hiding or fleeing. ” The appellate court vacated the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case to the district court to decide whether the jury verdict should be reinstated under the proper standard. 

Yesterday, the district court ruled in favor of family members of those killed in the massacre, reinstating the $ 10 million jury verdict. The court held that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence that the deaths constituted “extrajudicial killings” under international law and that the defendants were responsible for those killings under the doctrine of command responsibility. The appellate court had also ordered a new trial on plaintiffs’ related wrongful death claims, because the district court had abused its discretion in admitting certain evidence that was favorable to the defendants. The trial on those wrongful death claims is pending.

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April 5, 2021

In Memoriam: Christof Heyns


Christof Heyns, a towering figure in the human rights community, passed away on March 28, 2021. Professor Heyns was Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria. In 2012, he was one year into his term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, when he came to HRP as a Visiting Fellow. He focused his research on the legal framework concerning the death penalty, the use of force by the police during demonstrations, and armed drones; he contributed immensely to the intellectual life of the university.

Professor Heyns touched many lives — at HLS and beyond. Past and current members of HRP who knew or worked closely with him pay tribute below.

As a Human Rights Program Visiting Fellow in 2012, Christof Heyns helped organize and spoke at, “The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread?” Heyns, who was U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions at the time, center, speaks as Lloyd Barnett, Member of the Inter-American Inst. on Human Rights, left, and Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, right, look on. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
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