The Academic Program convenes expert meetings and hosts conferences on human rights issues throughout the calendar year. These conferences can be initiated by faculty, staff, fellows, or students, and often involve international non-governmental organizations and other partners.

Past Conferences


Human Rights in a Time of Populism

March 23-24, 2018
Harvard Law School

The Human Rights in a Time of Populism conference discussed the challenges that current developments characterized as populist pose to the goals of the international human rights system.

The multidisciplinary conference addressed questions including:

What is “populism”?  Is it increasing and if so why?

What challenges does populism create for the protection of internationally recognized human rights?

How can human rights NGOs and human rights institutions respond to these challenges?

Have human rights NGOs or institutions contributed unintentionally to the rise of populism by provoking backlash?  Does increased populism point in other ways to lessons that should be learned by human rights NGOs or institutions?

Speakers spoke to these questions generally and within particular national or regional contexts.

Read coverage and watch videos from the event.


Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead

Inaugural Conference of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative at Harvard Law School

March 5 and 6, 12-1:30 p.m.
Austin 100 (North), Harvard Law School

This conference brought together international experts in humanitarian disarmament, a movement that strives to end civilian suffering caused by inhumane and indiscriminate weapons. Drawing on first-hand experience in creating international law, conference participants discussed how the movement has developed over the past two decades and explore where it should go from here.

The conference includes two public events: a keynote conversation with leaders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigns to ban nuclear weapons and landmines; and a panel that examines current issues in humanitarian disarmament, including efforts to end the urban use of certain explosive weapons, reduce the environmental impact of armed conflict, ban killer robots, and control the unlawful arms trade.

Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead launched the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, which is housed in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). The conference was co-organized by IHRC, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Read coverage and watch videos from the event.


Behind Bars: Ethics and Human Rights in U.S. Prisons

November 30 – December 1, 2017
Harvard Medical School Campus, Boston, MA

The United States leads the world in incarceration. The “War on Drugs” and prioritizing punishment over rehabilitation has led to mass imprisonment, mainly of the nation’s most vulnerable populations: people of color, the economically disadvantaged and undereducated, and those suffering from mental illness. Although these social disparities are striking, the health discrepancies are even more pronounced. What can be done to address this health and human rights crisis?

This conference examined various aspects of human rights and health issues in our prisons. In collaboration with educators, health professionals, and those involved in the criminal justice system—including former inmates, advocates, and law enforcement—the conference clarified the issues, explore possible policy and educational responses, and establish avenues for action.


Documentary & Discussion: “13th”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017
6:15 p.m.
Armenise Building, D-Amphitheater

The evening before the conference, there was a screening of the film followed by a panel discussion.
This event was free and open to the public. Conference attendees were encouraged to attend


Climate Change Displacement: Finding Solutions to an Emerging Crisis (October 2016)

The International Human Rights Clinic, the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic brought together experts from around the world for a three-day conference on climate change displacement, and the governance challenges associated with this emerging crisis. The conference was comprised mostly of closed-door meetings, with two public events: A conversation with Mary Robinson, President, Mary Robinson Foundation- Climate Justice, Former President of Ireland, and Current Envoy on El Nino and Climate Change, and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow; and a panel discussion examining international and domestic approaches to dealing with displacement driven by climate change crises, from drought in Somalia to rising tides in Africa.

Read coverage and watch videos of the public events.


30th Anniversary of the Human Rights Program  (September 2014)

Our half-day celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Human Rights Program featured a keynote speech by Dean Harold Hongju Koh, JD ’80, former Legal Adviser of the U.S. Department of State, and one of the country’s leading experts in public and private international law, national security law, and human rights.

Read coverage of the event and watch videos of the keynote speech and panels

Details on panels and panelists here.


Reconsidering the Insular Cases (February 2014)

This conference drew leading experts to examine the legacy and ways forward from the supreme court decisions of 1901 that gave only partial constitutional protection to Puerto Rico and other U.S. overseas territories, including American Samoa and the Philippines.  Keynote address by the Hon. Juan Torruella,  U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Watch the video of keynote speaker Hon. Juan Torruella

Read coverage of the conference


Acknowledge, Amend, Assist:
Addressing Civilian Harm Caused by Armed Conflict and Armed Violence 
(October 2013)

The moral imperative to help civilian victims of armed conflict and armed violence has generated widespread international action. While sharing a common goal, the various approaches currently employed sometimes conflict with each other. At this international symposium, representatives of civil society, governments, militaries, and universities examined similarities and differences among humanitarian responses. Panelists sought identify gaps in assistance and areas for future collaboration.

The symposium opened with a keynote address by Kenneth Rutherford, Co-Founder, Landmine Survivors Network, and Director, Center for International Stabilization and Recovery, with introductory remarks by Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School.

Watch a video of the conference

Read coverage of the conference


Divided by a Common Heritage: Human Rights in Europe and the United States (September 2013)

This conference was devoted to commonalities and divergences in approaches to human rights. Topics included privacy and security (in the context of cyber communications) and discrimination and equality (racial and other forms of intolerance). Panelists were Harvard academics and European scholars and practitioners.

Mr. Thorbjørn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, delivered a keynote address, with Martha Minow making introductory remarks.

This conference was sponsored by the Council of Europe, the Human Rights Program, the Center for European Studies at Harvard, and the Weatherhead Initiative for Global History at Harvard.


The Future of the Death Penalty (June 2012)

Co-sponsored with Amnesty International USA, and organized by Academic Program Visiting Fellow Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, this two-day conference drew some of the world’s leading experts in the field, including Juan Méndez, UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and Nigel Rodley, Member of the UN Human Rights Committee and Chair of the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex. A public panel followed, entitled “The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread?”


Litigation against the Vatican before the ICC (February 2012)

This conference focused on a complaint submitted to the International Criminal Court Prosecutor by The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, requesting an investigation of the Vatican for crimes against humanity. The conference included a public panel, “Sexual Violence against Children by Clergy: Is the Vatican Legally Accountable?,” during which participants reviewed the background and international legal framework for this action. Panelists included: Barbara Blaine, Founder & President, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests; Pam Spees, Senior International Human Rights Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights; and Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law.


United Nations Reform & Human Rights

This conference brought together leading scholars and practitioners in the field of international humanitarian law and experts on the United Nations to evaluate the current status of the UN and to address future directions for the various Charter Bodies, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Security Council. It also addressed new UN approaches to humanitarian intervention, and the impact of UN reform on economic, social, and cultural rights.


Nigeria: From Crisis to Sustainable Democracy

This conference focused on the transition in Nigeria and the diverse problems facing the government and civil society in that nation.


Religion, Democracy, and Human Rights

This conference, organized by the staff of the Harvard Human Rights Journal, focused on the tensions between the universality of human rights and the cultural challenges presented by differing belief systems.


From the Precipice of War to the Path of Peace: A Symposium on Kashmir

This symposium facilitated academic discussion among intellectuals from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and the United States about peaceful and long-lasting solutions to the Kashmir conflict.


Sexual Rites, Human Rights: Activists and Academics in Discussion

This student-initiated conference explored how domestic and international human rights address sexuality, both strategically and doctrinally.

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