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January 4, 2021

Trusted to listen: Nicolette Waldman ’13 dedicates her career to documenting human rights violations

Posted by Dana Walters


After her first interview in Afghanistan, Nicolette Waldman ’13 realized she had found the career she was meant to pursue. It was the summer after her first year at Harvard Law School, and Waldman had a fellowship with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to research torture of conflict-related detainees. The man she was meeting had escaped from an Afghan prison. He had never been interviewed before, and she could tell he was nervous. A newly minted law student, she was nervous too.

“As the questions went on, he realized that he could lead and all I wanted to do was listen,” she said. “I had thought that interviewing was going to be more adversarial. But this was a shared process where we were both trying to get at what had happened to him. I felt like my role was to be a partner.”

Since graduating from HLS less than a decade ago, Waldman has, by now, interviewed hundreds of people. Some have survived the horrific abuses. Others have committed such abuses themselves. From death camps in Syria to conflicts in Gaza and Somalia, she has documented some of the worst moments of the last few decades. Still, she vividly recalls that first interview in Afghanistan, and how it set a course for her future trajectory.

“There’s something instinctual about knowing when your rights have been violated. It’s incredibly meaningful to sit across from someone and bear witness to their story and to have that individual trust you to tell that story to the world,” she said. “Human rights interviewing is a very niche type of documentation, but I think if it’s done right it can make survivors feel like they’re not alone,” she added.

Waldman (née Boehland) grew up in rural, northern Minnesota and studied English Literature and International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College. After college, she worked for Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. She realized that law school might give her the right tools to make the impact she sought, although it would be deeply difficult to take a step back from the world in which she had already immersed herself. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped bridge that gap, allowing Waldman to work in the field, in post-conflict zones and under close supervision, as part of her legal education.

“I was meant for the field, not a distant cubicle,” she wrote in her application for a Human Rights Program postgraduate fellowship in 2013. In that same application, she anticipated eventually transitioning to a policy job, where she could use her on-the-ground experience with survivors of armed conflict to enact better preventive and remedial measures. Eight years later, Waldman continues to work in the field, while also incorporating policy work aimed at creating better conditions for civilians in conflict.

Matt Wells ’09, Deputy Director for Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Team, recently tapped Waldman to lead a research project that documented the aftermath of the Yezidi genocide and its effects on children and women. Wells, another clinic alum, has been focused on the specific ways that armed conflict and other human rights crises impact children, women, people with disabilities, and older people. He praised Waldman, noting that her ability to seamlessly shift between fieldwork and advocacy is a rare mark of versatility in a human rights lawyer.

Waldman’s work with the Yezidi community was not her first stint with Amnesty. From 2014 to 2018, she was based in Beirut, Lebanon as a researcher on the armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq. In 2016, she began to uncover systematic torture and killings at a detention center in Syria. After many months of research with colleagues, Amnesty published a landmark report on the prison: “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria.” The report was downloaded 39,000 times in the first two weeks after publication and remains one of the most downloaded Amnesty reports of all time. For Waldman, interviewing survivors and family members of victims from Sadynaya prison was harrowing. In the first episode of Amnesty’s recently launched podcast, Witness, she explains that the Syrian government “was using detention as a weapon of war to spread fear.” To some, Sadynaya was known in Syria as the “end of humanity.” Few had made it out alive.

“These interviews just kind of lodged in my heart a bit. They almost felt like a mix of an interview and then a memorial for the person,” Waldman says on the podcast.

Waldman had prepared for this kind of career during law school. Studying under Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, she worked to maintain a strong ban on cluster munitions and to document abuses and post-conflict situations in the Middle East and North Africa. After Waldman’s successful first semester in the clinic, Docherty entrusted her and another student to design a spring clinical project. The project took Docherty, Waldman, and the team to Libya to research the threats abandoned weapons posed to civilians, and they produced a clinic report, co-published with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and the Center for American Progress. This project was Waldman’s first with CIVIC, an organization she would eventually join after law school.

Docherty, who traveled with Waldman to Bosnia on another project with CIVIC, described the way her student immediately connected with the individuals she interviewed and gave them the space to tell their story.

“She never gets cold and detached, but keeps a passion and energy for the work,” said Docherty. “I have seen students turn interviews into an inquisition or an exercise in checking boxes. Nicolette is sincerely interested in what people have to say and demonstrates subtle compassion for their stories.”

After law school, Waldman was awarded a Satter Fellowship in Human Rights with CIVIC, where she focused on the concept of “civilian immunity,” the idea that certain people should be protected from harm during war. Her Satter Fellowship helped launch her career, ultimately bolstering her expertise in civilian protection issues and eventually leading her back to the clinic, where Docherty had just launched the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative.

When Waldman visited as a Senior Clinical Instructor in Spring 2018, Elise Baranouski ’20 worked under her supervision on a project related to military waste disposal practices in Iraq called “burn pits,” which can cause detrimental health and environmental effects. The project sought to address how these burn pits might have harmed not only the American soldiers living on bases with burn pits, but also the Iraqi civilians living nearby. Baranouski, who has a postgraduate fellowship with the MacArthur Justice Center this year, was consistently impressed with Waldman’s keen ability to balance mentoring students with the needs of the project and the affected community. The project involved dozens of interviews, and over the course of the semester Waldman coached the students to lead the interviews themselves.

“She always made sure that we had a well-thought-out agenda going into the interviews, but emphasized the importance of reevaluating and adjusting based on the perceived needs and priorities of the community and of the interviewee,” Baranouski said. “She has an amazing ability to connect with people, and showed us through her example how to really establish a strong rapport and build trust with the people you’re interviewing.”

Waldman had her second child in early October. But as her due date approached, she found it difficult to begin her maternity leave. She was still working on advocacy related to her latest report on the aftermath of the Yezidi genocide and the resulting mental health crises experienced by children and women in the Kurdish Region of Iraq.

Speaking of the need for Yezidi women to be reunited with their children who were born as a result of rape by ISIS members, she said, “It is just such a concrete, solvable problem. I can see what needs to be done, so I’m having a hard time stopping.”

Looking ahead, Waldman recognized a need to be flexible. She knew that returning to work after maternity leave would be tough for more reasons than just juggling motherhood with human rights documentation. The world has been irreparably changed by COVID-19, and with it, approaches to first-person fieldwork in human rights must adapt as well.

“Being a researcher on conflict with two young children is going to be a balance. And with the pandemic, we’re all going to be trying new modes of working. Human rights investigations are going to have to change,” she said. “Still, I feel so lucky to be with Amnesty’s Crisis Response Team. It’s a fantastic team working to expose violations in real time, using creative and innovative methods. Its work, to me, demonstrates the importance and relevance of the human rights approach.”