March 23, 2020

Gerald Neuman submits comments to State Department’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights”


Neuman challenges arguments that roll back human rights


Professor Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP), filed a submission with the controversial “Commission on Unalienable Rights” of the U.S. State Department on March 18, 2020. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo established the Commission in July 2019 to advise the State Department on reformulating U.S. human rights policy. The Commission is charged with bringing policy back to “our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School (HLS).

The mandate of this Commission, and some of the remarks of Commission members at public meetings, have severely alarmed major human rights NGOs, who warn of serious damage to the international human rights system. Neuman’s own submission also addresses several of the concerns that the NGOs have raised. He challenges some Commissioners’ claims that there are too many human rights and argues for the protection of the rights of sexual minorities; he also questions proposals to give priority to civil and political rights over economic and social rights, as well as to privilege freedom of religious conduct over other human rights. Last, he also disputes the suggested foregrounding of the role of “natural law” at the international level.

Before HLS suspended in-person classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, HRP had arranged for a public panel event to discuss the Commission on Unalienable Rights. This April panel would have included Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University, who is also the Chair of the Commission; Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard and the former Dean of Harvard Law School; Katharine Young, Associate Professor of Law at Boston College Law School; and Neuman.

In lieu of the April panel, you can read Dean Minow’s “Remarks before the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” Professor Young’s “Trumping Human Rights in the United States,” and Neuman’s comments. You can also learn more about the Commission on their public-facing website.

The report of the Commission is expected in the summer of 2020. HRP will convene experts for a public (in person or remote) discussion of the Commission’s report in Fall 2020.

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March 13, 2020

Supporting our community and responding to COVID-19


We know it has been a difficult week, as the situation related to the COVID-19 virus changes by the minute. As decision-making around the virus evolves, we are thinking of the safety, health, and well-being of our community on campus and affected communities around the world. This is our top priority right now. We have always sought to build a supportive and inclusive space for our students, partners, and staff, and we realize that this has been an emotional and difficult time for many. We also recognize that responses to the outbreak, such as quarantines and containment, can provide undue social, emotional, and economic hardship to already vulnerable populations. We urge local and national governments to consider the human rights implications of their actions and the distribution of resources as they seek to contain the virus and mitigate its effects. 

Following the guidance of Harvard University and to lower the risk of transmission, the Human Rights Program (HRP) is cancelling all public events for the remainder of the semester. We are sad to postpone these conversations, and we look forward to finding ways of engaging virtually on critical topics during this time. In line with guidance from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, the International Human Rights Clinic has transitioned to conduct classes and clinical work online for the remainder of the term. We are also postponing the application deadline to our postgraduate fellowships from March 15 to March 31. Any graduating student or recent alumni who may face obstacles submitting materials by this date should contact Dana Walters (dwalters@law.harvard.edu). Last, HRP faculty and staff will be transitioning to remote work over the course of the next week. Our offices will be mostly empty as we adjust to this new mode of work.

To our students, we recognize that this is not how you wanted or expected to conduct your semester and that these changes will cause serious disruptions. We understand that many of you are upset and anxious at the prospect of abruptly leaving your community at the law school. We will continue to work with you to mitigate the impact of the disruptions, and to ease potential burdens, stress, and other challenges associated with the evolving public health situation. We want to remain a resource for you. We also encourage anyone at Harvard who is facing hardship to make use of the resources that the University has made available. For more information and to find more resources, please visit Harvard Law School’s COVID-19 FAQ page and Harvard University’s COVID-19 FAQ page

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March 3, 2020

Apply to Be a Joint Wasserstein-Human Rights Program Fellow for Fall 2020


The Human Rights Program and Office of Public Interest Advising (OPIA) at Harvard Law School will jointly host one Wasserstein Fellow-in-Residence who will spend four months on the HLS campus (September through December 2020), and split their time between OPIA and HRP. At OPIA, the fellow will advise students about international public interest and human rights careers and assist OPIA staff in developing advising resources. At HRP, the fellow will devote the majority of their time to research and writing on a specific human rights topic and be a member of its community of visiting fellows.

The Human Rights Program’s Visiting Fellows Program seeks to give thoughtful individuals with a demonstrated commitment to human rights an opportunity to step back and conduct a serious inquiry in the human rights field. The fellows form an essential part of the human rights community at Harvard Law School and participate actively in the Human Rights Program Fellows Colloquium—each fellow makes a presentation to Human Rights Program staff, faculty, and other fellows on at least one occasion. Fellows are also encouraged to participate in a number of other Human Rights Program activities.

Please see OPIA’s website for additional information about the program, and details on how to apply to be a joint Wasserstein Fellow-in-Residence with OPIA and the Human Rights Program. The deadline to apply is April 10, 2020.

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March 2, 2020

WATCH: Panel Discusses International Court of Justice Case on Genocide in Myanmar

Arsalan Suleman speaks while Philippe Sands and Yee Htun listen.
From left to right: M. Arsalan Suleman, Philippe Sands, and Yee Htun.

On February 25, 2020, the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School hosted an expert panel to discuss the International Court of Justice (ICJ) case on genocide in Myanmar. In November 2019, The Gambia filed a case with the ICJ alleging that Myanmar military had violated the Genocide Convention for failing to prevent and protect the Rohingya from genocide. In January of this year, the ICJ granted provisional measures in the case against Myanmar. 

To discuss the case, HRP gathered three experts: Philippe Sands QC, the Samuel LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’59 and Judith Pisar Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School for the Spring 2020 term; M. Arsalan Suleman ’07, counsel in Foley Hoag’s International Litigation and Arbitration Practice; and Yee Htun, lecturer on law and clinical instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic. 

The panel was moderated by HRP’s co-director and clinical professor Tyler Giannini. Sands and Suleman are part of the legal team representing The Gambia in the ICJ case; Htun has years of experience working on gender justice and law reform in Myanmar. 

Suleman opened the discussion outlining the origins of case, including the critical role that the Minister of Justice of The Gambia played in initiating the application to the ICJ. Sands discussed the current status of the case as well as the implications of the ICJ’s ruling on provisional measures, commenting for example about the importance of the unanimous ruling and placing the case in the historical context of international jurisprudence. Htun provided insights about the reaction – both positive and negative – within communities from Myanmar. She discussed how the case has been of great importance to the Rohingya community as well as other ethnic nationalities in the country. Htun also highlighted how the ICJ case has brought unprecedented attention to the military in Myanmar. 

Watch the full discussion below:  

The event was co-sponsored by the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, the Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at HKS, and the Asia Center at Harvard University. 

To learn more about the significance of this case, read Yee Htun’s piece, “International Court of Justice Orders Myanmar to Prevent Further Acts of Genocide” on the HRP blog. 

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February 19, 2020

Visiting Fellow Anton Burkov Wins Case Before European Court of Human Rights


On February 5, 2020, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered its judgment in Kruglov, et al. v Russia (no. 11264/04 and 15 other applications), and ruled that the searches of lawyers’ apartments and offices in connection with criminal cases against their clients was illegal.  Human Rights Program Visiting Program Fellow Anton Burkov represented one of the applicants in the case, attorney Alexey Silivanov.

Headshot of Alexey Silivanov with ECHR Navigator logo
Attorney Alexey Silivanov appealed to the European Court of Human Rights after his apartment was searched without his permission.

The judgment concerned searches carried out between 2003 and 2016, all but two of which were based on court warrants. In some of the searches, the investigating authorities seized items such as computers, hard drives, or documents. While the European Convention on Human Rights does not guarantee lawyer-client privilege as such, Article 8 of the Convention guarantees the right to respect for private and family life, the home and correspondence. The Court found that the searches of the lawyers’ homes and offices and the seizure of electronic devices containing personal information lacked sufficient justification, and that there were no safeguards to protect attorney-client confidentiality. As a result, the Court found violations of Article 8. The judgment has important implications for victims of similar searches in Russia.

Dr. Burkov has developed an online teaching platform called ECHR navigator, the logo of which is above.

For details please refer to the full judgment in English and in Russian.

Dr. Anton Burkov is the founder of ECHR-Navigator, an online teaching platform on strategic application to the ECHR which you can learn more about on Facebook. He is a Fulbright Fellow at Harvard Law School and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Human Rights Practice Program of the University of Arizona.

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February 13, 2020

Despite Progress, Work Remains to be Done on Explosive Weapons Political Declaration


By Bonnie Docherty


Efforts to protect civilians from the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities took a step forward this week when more than 70 countries met in Geneva to discuss draft elements of a new political declaration.

According to a new paper co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch, the text is a good foundation for further work, but several areas need to be strengthened in order to maximize the protection of civilians.

Explosive weapons, such as airdropped bombs, rockets, and missiles, produce a pattern of immediate and reverberating effects when they are used in populated areas. In addition to killing and injuring civilians at the time of an attack, they can damage critical infrastructure, which in turn interferes with essential services such as health care and education. The problem is exacerbated if the weapons have a wide area effect due to inaccuracy, a large blast or fragmentation radius, or the delivery of multiple munitions at once.

In their new paper, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch call on countries to commit to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. They also recommend that the declaration include strong commitments on assistance for victims, data collection and sharing, and follow-up meetings to review progress.

This week’s gathering, held at the United Nations in Geneva, represented the second round of consultations in an Irish-led process that began last November. Ireland plans to hold negotiations of the declaration at the next meeting on March 23-24 and to invite states to Dublin to endorse the final instrument in late May.

The Clinic has been actively involved in efforts to reduce the suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas since 2011. Through its field research and legal analysis, it has supported the campaign for a new political declaration on the topic.

The recent Clinic-Human Rights Watch analysis of the draft text was produced by Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, and clinical students Jillian Rafferty, JD/MPP ’20, and Parker White, JD/MPP ’20. Docherty and White also participated in the consultations in Geneva.

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February 7, 2020

Gerald Neuman files amicus curiae brief to US Supreme Court on review of expedited removal


Gerald Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, recently filed an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in a case about the habeas corpus rights of refugees. The case involves the power of federal courts to review decisions about deporting recently-arrived refugees who have been refused protection and are being returned to their home countries.      

Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam concerns Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam, a Tamil who fled his home country of Sri Lanka in fear for his life. Soon after arriving, Thuraissigiam was denied asylum in the United States and immigration officers ordered his removal.

The case challenges statutory limits on judicial review of “expedited removal” decisions against noncitizens who have recently entered the United States. Expedited removal – an executive procedure recently expanded by the Trump administration – provides very minimal opportunity for individuals to present their claims.  The Ninth Circuit held that the denial of any judicial review of the legality of the removal decision violated the Suspension Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That clause prohibits the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, except during invasion or rebellion. The Government seeks to overturn the Ninth Circuit holding, and more broadly to undo existing precedent on the right to habeas corpus for migrants facing removal. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and a decision is expected in the spring.

The amicus brief of seven leading Scholars of Habeas Corpus Law demonstrates, on the basis of history and precedent, that the Suspension Clause protects noncitizens against unlawful detention and removal. It shows how the statutory limits on judicial review of expedited removal are radically inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee of habeas corpus.

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February 6, 2020

Groups Ask Human Rights Experts to Intervene in UN Response to Haiti Cholera


Three years after admitting its responsibility for cholera, UN continues to violate victims’ rights


February 6, 2020 (New York, NY; Cambridge, MA; Port-au-Prince, Haiti) — Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, 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), filed a formal complaint last week asking UN experts to investigate human rights violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti. The complaint is a request to the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide.

In 2016, after years of denial, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly apologized for the UN’s role in introducing cholera to Haiti and launched a “New Approach to Cholera in Haiti,” a $400 million plan to eliminate cholera and provide “material assistance” to those most affected by the disease. The epidemic has killed 9,789 people and sickened 819,000 since 2010, and Haiti remains vulnerable to cholera due to inadequate investments in water, sanitation and health systems.

 “Three years after admitting it was responsible for cholera, the UN continues to unconscionably violate victims’ right to reparations and deny its legal obligations,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of the BAI.  Since 2010, BAI and IJDH have worked to advance cholera victims’ struggle for justice, including by filing 5,000 claims with the UN and a class action lawsuit in U.S. federal court.

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy revealed that the UN’s lawyers waged “an extraordinary internal campaign” to keep the Organization from accepting full responsibility for cholera. In his parting email, the outgoing Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, slammed UN leadership for failing to honor cholera victims’ rights, calling it “the single greatest example of hypocrisy in our 75-year history.”

The complaint filed last week documents serious deficiencies in the UN’s response under Secretary-General António Guterres’ leadership that violate the right to effective remedy protected under human rights law. Major findings include:

  • The UN refused to fund the New Approach through its regular budget, instead relying on charitable donations that have raised only 5% of the $400 million promised. 
  • The UN made key decisions about the New Approach without victim input. Victim groups organizing for cholera justice were sidelined and labeled a “risk” by the UN Development Programme.
  • The UN is denying victims direct compensation for the devastating harms they suffered, in violation of both human rights law and its own legal framework.
  • The UN has done little to prevent similar health disasters in the future, with internal UN audits showing that the UN continues its unsafe sanitation management in peacekeeping missions around the world.

“We are appealing to UN Special Procedures to protect victims’ rights to remedies for the harms they suffered. This is as urgent for the countless families who lost loved ones and struggle to survive as it is for the UN’s own legitimacy,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, who led a team of students in drafting the complaint.

UN Special Procedures previously took up the cholera issue in a joint allegation letter in 2014, raising concerns that the UN was denying cholera victims access to legal remedies. Efforts to persuade the UN to change course culminated in a highly critical 2016 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston. This engagement amidst an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies played a key role in prompting the UN to eventually admit its role in the outbreak.

“UN Special Procedures are the eyes and ears of the human rights system.  We are calling on these experts to again take action to protect the integrity of the UN human rights system by holding the UN to its commitments and the rights it claims to protect and promote world-wide,” said IJDH Legal Advocacy Director Sienna Merope-Synge.

A full copy of the 32-page complaint can be found here. Harvard Law School Clinical students Steven Jiang JD ’21, Gigi Kisela JD ’21, and Saranna Soroka JD ‘20 contributed to the drafting of the complaint.

Media Contacts:

Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney
Bureau des Avocats Internationaux
T: +509 3701 9879 | E: mario@ijdh.org
(Kreyol, French, English)

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
T: +1 617 495 1654 | E: blindstrom@law.harvard.edu
(English, Kreyol)

Sienna Merope-Synge, Legal Advocacy Director
Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti
T: +1 917 864 6901| E: sienna@ijdh.org
(English, French, Kreyol)

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January 31, 2020

2019 HRP Summer Fellow Reflection: Emily Ray JD’21


Ray spent summer 2019 at the Forest Peoples Programme in Guyana


Summer fellowships for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School human rights experience. During the summer of 2019, HRP funded five HLS students to intern abroad at nongovernmental organizations for 8-12 weeks. At the conclusion of their internships, students returned to HRP with a deeper appreciation for the type of work required of human rights practitioners. While our 2020 summer fellowship application is open this month, we’ll be excerpting portions from their fellowship reports to provide a glimpse into the kinds of experiences open to human rights students at Harvard Law. 


When Emily Ray JD’21 departed for the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) in June 2019, she was lucky to be joining International Human Rights Clinic alum, Lan Mei JD’17. Mei had been with the FPP for two years, first as a Henigson Fellow in Human Rights and then as a full-time staff attorney. As the only permanent staff member living in Guyana, Lan directly supervised Emily over the course of her internship.

FPP is a human rights organization committed to working with indigenous communities across the globe to secure their rights to their lands and their livelihood. They employ a partnership model and collaborate intensively with local organizations on their mission. At FPP in Guyana, Emily spent the bulk of her time working with the Wapichan people in partnership with the Amerindian People’s Association (APA). The Wapichan have a collective organization, the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), through which villages can discuss shared issues and make decisions on governance and unified goals. 

Over the summer, Emily focused on producing a training for members of the SRDC’s villages on mining in the Wapichan territory. As she describes it:

“The SRDC already had an established community program intended to monitor mining in the territory and record information for community awareness and potential use in later legal actions. However, the monitoring program needed to be revamped and updated in line with the community’s concerns and with Guyana’s mining laws. The 3-day training that we prepared and delivered served a number of functions; it allowed us to get a better sense of which mining issues the community cared most about and how to redesign the monitoring forms/program to address those issues; it also acted as a sort of know-your-rights training that educated community members about relevant Guyanese and international law. My personal role in this training consisted of preemptive research about applicable laws, working with Lan to plan and later adjust the training curriculum, generating handouts for participants to take home to their villages to disseminate information, leading several different elements of the training, and assisting in facilitating group work. After the 3-day primary workshop, we spent a fourth day working with the community monitors on fine-tuning the actual form that they complete on monitoring trips.” 

Emily’s summer with the FPP was her first experience doing grassroots human rights work. She originally came to HRP’s summer fellowship program wanting to think more about the intersection between environmental conservation and indigenous rights. FPP’s small in-country base meant Emily was able to try her hand at a variety of projects, from drafting communications between villages and government officials to interpreting the language in the Guyanese constitution and mining regulations. 

Emily described Lan as conscientious mentor. She learned a great deal from Lan through Lan modeling what an effective human rights advocate does. Emily noted she particularly admired Lan’s flexible demeanor and perceptive intellect.

“When we met with community stakeholders, Lan showed an acute ability to know exactly what was needed at any moment. If someone needed expert legal analysis on their rights, she would jump in. If we were at a community meeting and she noticed no one was taking notes, she would grab a pencil. She understood how doing international human rights work might require you to wear many ‘hats.’”

After working directly with clients on the ground, Emily saw first-hand how direct legal representation can be constrained by larger systemic forces. She hopes to gain a more holistic picture of the “entire human rights ecosystem” by studying policy in her 2L summer. During the fall semester, she worked on an International Human Rights Clinic team on women’s rights among refugees from Myanmar. She is also a dedicated member of HLS Advocates for Human Rights.


Interested in learning more about HRP Summer Fellowships? Schedule an advising appointment with Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, and apply to join our 2020 cohort today! Please note that you do not need to have a confirmed placement organization before you apply for the 2020 HRP summer fellowship pool. Applications are due TOMORROW, February 1, 2020!

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January 30, 2020

Clinic Welcomes New Program Assistant, Marie Sintim


As spring semester gets underway, we are pleased to welcome a new face to the Human Rights Program. Marie Sintim joins HRP as the new Program Assistant, supporting the International Human Rights Clinic.

Prior to HRP, Marie was the communications and outreach coordinator at Harvard Medical School’s Family Van, a mobile health clinic. A forever southerner, she holds a B.A. in Gender Studies from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She loves cooking and caring for plants, and she used to work at a kitchen store.

Marie sits in HRP’s lobby. Be sure to swing by and say hi!

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