December 6, 2019

2020-2021 Visiting Fellowship Application Now Open

Through its Visiting Fellows Program, the Human Rights Program (HRP) has sought to give individuals with a demonstrated commitment to human rights an opportunity to engage with the human rights community at Harvard Law School (HLS). Each year, the Visiting Fellows Program forms a critical part of creating a human rights community at HLS. For the 2020-2021 academic year, HRP invites scholars and practitioners with substantial experience in human rights to apply to the Visiting Fellows Program.

Applicants may come from a range of backgrounds and with varying academic and professional experiences in the field of human rights. Visiting Fellows commonly come from academic institutions, but a number of fellows have also come from the judiciary and other branches of government. Typically, fellows have come from outside the United States and are individuals with extensive experience. Mid-career applicants are also common, and on occasion, fellows have included more junior individuals in the field with the capacity and interest to develop as teachers or advocates.

For 2020-2021, HRP will be considering both applications for resident Visiting Fellows on semester-long or academic-year-long stays, and applications for short visits of several days or more. Longer times in residence offer an opportunity to step back and conduct a serious inquiry in the human rights field, pursuing academic research and writing at HRP. Shorter engagements provide a chance for more focused interactions with the HLS community, including advising on academic publications and careers as well as training on particular human rights skills and careers in the field.

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December 4, 2019

CJA, IHRC experts urge Bolivian Government to abide by international legal obligations


On November 26, 2019, experts in international law urged the Bolivian Government to abide by its international legal obligations to protect the freedom of assembly and prohibit the excessive use of force against civilian protesters. In a statement signed by a former president and a former executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission, two former and the current UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, two former UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Conditions, as well as leading scholars in international law, the experts made clear what the Bolivian Government’s obligations are under international law.

Since October 20, 2019, there have been reports of deaths and injuries resulting from Bolivia’s social conflict. “In recent weeks, however, there has been a marked increase in the number of reported deaths attributed to security forces policing protests,” said Thomas Becker, Instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “The escalation in the use of lethal force by the Bolivian military and security forces is extremely concerning.”

In their statement, the experts highlighted that Bolivia’s international legal obligations require it to ensure that security forces responding to protests only use lethal force to protect life and only as a last resort. Indiscriminately firing into a crowd of protesters is never allowed.

The experts also raised concerns about the Bolivian Government’s apparent attempt to institute impunity measures through Supreme Decree 4078, which was issued on November 15, 2019. The decree purports to immunize “personnel of the Armed Forces participating in the operations to reestablish internal order and stability” for all actions undertaken in response to the current protests in the country. Under international law, domestic measures that attempt to create such impunity for gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, are invalid.

“The Inter-American Court has held time and again that actions seeking to create impunity for gross human rights violations are incompatible with the American Convention. Governments and their security forces should know that they are not above the law despite domestic measures attempting to immunize them, and the Supreme Decree should be rescinded,” said Claret Vargas, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability.

Read the full statement from the Center for Justice and Accountability here.

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December 4, 2019

Human rights seminar tackles barriers to women’s leadership


In the classroom, Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein JD ’04 encourages students to develop personal leadership styles

Susan Farbstein sitting at a table talking to a group of students
Credit: Lorin Granger
This fall, Harvard Law School Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04 is teaching “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” a seminar focused on advocacy and leadership for students interested in careers in human rights or social justice.

By Dana Walters

Susan Farbstein JD ’04, clinical professor of law and co-director of the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), stands with chalk in hand under a blackboard bearing the word “inspirational.” For the third session of “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” Farbstein has kicked off the discussion by asking students to identify qualities of effective leaders. Adjectives like “empathetic” and “selfless” are enthusiastically shouted across the room.

Throughout the conversation, students are outspoken about considering words like “nurturing”—often traditionally associated with women—along with words like “assertive” and “decisive”—characteristics traditionally coded as masculine, according to “What Makes a Leader?”, an article assigned for class that day. With Farbstein at the helm, the seminar aims to accomplish two goals: to explore the strategic considerations critical to protecting and promoting human rights across the globe, and to investigate the barriers that women face in professional settings, especially in the human rights field.

“The further along I’ve advanced in my profession, the more I’ve become aware of the ways that one’s identity can be both a huge benefit and a huge obstacle,” Farbstein said. Over a 15-year career, she has practiced and taught in the areas of transitional justice, accountability litigation, community lawyering, and economic, social, and cultural rights. Now after working her way into a leadership position at Harvard Law School, she is “trying to make a small intervention for a necessary discussion,” she says. “I want to create space for a conversation that I wish had been taking place more often when I was in law school.”

Alongside Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18 and current S.J.D. student Regina Larrea Maccise, Farbstein curated materials on women’s leadership and considered how this topic might be integrated into existing elements of an International Human Rights Clinic seminar, “Advanced Skills Training for Human Rights Advocacy.” Farbstein previously co-taught the class with Tyler GianniniHuman Rights Program and clinic co-director and clinical professor of law. Scenarios and readings in the seminar enable students to target entrenched, structural challenges—inequality, corporate power, climate change—as they prepare to enter the workplace after graduation. The seminar has changed frequently over the years, with students’ interests informing the direction of the class. Throughout, Farbstein and Giannini have always asked students to consider leadership and its interaction with identity.

Over the last year, however, Farbstein realized that she wanted to focus more deeply on the issue of women’s leadership. “It’s so clear from a variety of recent events and public conversations—around unconscious bias, the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings, the electability of a woman as president—that we’re struggling with how to achieve true gender parity in our society, including in the workplace,” said Farbstein. “I wanted to do something to respond to this particular moment by bringing those conversations very thoughtfully and intentionally into the classroom and into a field—human rights—where my students aspire to build their careers.”

Woman writing on a chalkboard.
Credit: Emma Golding
For the third session of “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” Farbstein kicked off the discussion by asking students to identify qualities of effective leaders.

For the third session of “Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop,” Farbstein kicked off the discussion by asking students to identify qualities of effective leaders.

Farbstein worked with Gómez Upegui and Larrea Maccise to develop four new sessions for the advanced seminar. An introductory session frames the idea of women’s leadership using an intersectional lens, while later classes dissect themes like workplace culture, bias and stereotypes, harassment, and microaggressions within institutional and human rights contexts.

In the first of these four new sessions, Farbstein assigned readings that address the grim statistics around harassment, diversity, and bias. McKinsey’s 2018 Women in the Workplace review, for instance, describes how microaggressions impact a woman’s ability to function in the workplace, with 40 percent of black women surveyed indicating that colleagues routinely question their judgment in their areas of expertise. A Forbes piece on the widespread gender bias faced by female lawyers notes that male law firm partners earn 44 percent more than female partners and that women are more likely to be interrupted when speaking, including at the Supreme Court, where nearly 66 percent of all interruptions are directed at the three female justices.

“To be a working woman is always an act of rebellion,” said Fabiola Alvelais JD ’20 in response, reflecting on the ways the system simply fails to support professional women.

Beyond exposing the sheer scale of the problem, the statistics serve an additional purpose: They allow Farbstein to engage with her class’s needs and approach the material flexibly, depending on students’ comfort levels. “If they need to stay at a general and abstract level, the numbers are there for them to discuss and reflect on. And if they are comfortable going deeper, which they have been, it gives students who have experienced or encountered gender discrimination in some form the feeling that they’re not the only one out there,” Farbstein said. The statistics hold personal stories within them.

Farbstein’s classroom has a casual intimacy. In part, this is a result of the relaxed tone that she sets and the deep bonds that she develops with her students. The International Human Rights Clinic itself has a community-oriented spirit, and students in the advanced seminar have all spent at least one, and often several, prior semesters together, working on clinical teams or in introductory advocacy seminars.

Students in Susan Farbstein's workshop.
Credit: Emma Golding
Students in “Human Rights Careers” describe Farbstein as a professor who fosters an inclusive and comfortable environment. From left: Fabiola Alvelais JD ’20, Jillian Rafferty JD ’20 and Daniel Moubayed JD ’20.

Student Monica Sharma JD ’20 echoed many of the same words her classmates used to define good leadership when asked to describe Farbstein, in particular noting the way she actively listens to students and lets discussions evolve naturally. Sharma described the advanced seminar as unique, a place where one can formally “consider your power as a Harvard student or as a lawyer.” The discussion, while academic, is inclusive and comfortable, allowing students to draw on their own experiences as well as the readings.

“When you’re talking about ethics or morality, personal narrative comes into play,” Sharma said. “We like to dissociate the law from human experience in a lot of ways, but this class helps you to confront both as they exist in reality and in your work.”

Early in the semester, student Daniel Moubayed JD ’20 had already found it personally enriching to be brought into the conversation on women’s leadership. “Too often those conversations happen in informal environments. It’s critical that we’re doing this inside the classroom and in a professional setting with a cross section of students,” he said.

In her own teaching, Farbstein seamlessly integrates legal expertise with lived experience. She recognizes that students are not blank slates: they have histories and subjective perspectives that contribute to the debate.

“Part of being a good human rights practitioner is sometimes being vulnerable, drawing on your own life experiences without prejudging the experiences of others, and engaging with the emotions that people carry with them,” Farbstein said. She added, “It’s good practice for students to consider: what is your comfort level when you start to enter this kind of territory?”

For Gómez Upegui, the work she did with Farbstein demonstrated how endemic and culturally rooted the difficulties are, creating situations in which women are dispersed across organizations, lack support networks, and are isolated as they attempt to confront significant challenges.

Still, the breadth of research did not adequately address the marginalization Gómez Upegui, who is Colombian, has witnessed in the legal and human rights fields. “There’s a tremendous lack of intersectional content out there,” she said. “We found endless amounts of work in the business sector and much in the corporate law sector within a white feminist context. Once we narrowed to look at the human rights and social justice fields, the literature winnowed. And we had to fight to find research addressing the lives of women of color or women of low socioeconomic status.”

Susan Farbstein sitting with students around a table
Credit: Lorin Granger
“These students are each going to be leaders in their own way, and I can already see our conversations informing their decisions and actions,” said Farbstein (center). “Hopefully they will be inspired, and also better equipped, to create more opportunities for women leaders in human rights, and in the legal profession more broadly.”

In addition to the seminar, Farbstein is leading a project in the clinic that investigates gender equity in the human rights field. The team aims to unpack the barriers women human rights advocates face in their professional advancement. Over the course of the year, they will interview a variety of practitioners to provide qualitative evidence to support their findings.

Sharma, who is also a member of Farbstein’s project team, said that engaging with the movement on a self-referential level was vital. She noted that the way lawyers jump to find remedies can often lead to institutional and systemic problems.

Reflecting on the larger importance of the clinical project, Sharma said, “Sometimes in human rights, there is an idea that you sacrifice yourself to the work. Things get lost in the drive to fulfill the mission. It’s important to take a good look and ask, ‘Do organizations practice as they preach?’ I really believe that if you make an atmosphere supportive and encourage diversity of thought, then the work itself will be better.”

The clinical team has already identified factors that may impede gender equity in the human rights field—from the tightly-knit network of practitioners and organizations, to the notion that this is already a progressive space, to a mission-driven “martyr” culture that fosters a sense of selfless dedication to the cause. These initial ideas have, in turn, found their way into the classroom as students consider such obstacles as well as potential strategies to overcome them.

Farbstein hopes that her seminar will help students imagine the kinds of leaders they want to become. “Human rights practitioners talk a lot about how to make the movement more effective and inclusive, but this class is a very concrete step in the right direction,” she said. “These students are each going to be leaders in their own way, and I can already see our conversations informing their decisions and actions. Hopefully they will be inspired, and also better equipped, to create more opportunities for women leaders in human rights, and in the legal profession more broadly.”

You can also read this piece on Harvard Law Today, published December 3rd, 2019.

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December 3, 2019

2020 HRP Summer Fellowship Application Now Open

Summer fellowships for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School (HLS) human rights experience and provide rich professional, personal, and intellectual opportunities. Many students and alumni/ae who are committed to human rights were introduced to the field through an internship. Interns work for at least eight weeks with nongovernmental or intergovernmental organizations concerned with human rights, exclusively outside the United States.

The Summer 2020 application is NOW OPEN to returning JDs or SJDs at HLS. Learn more about the process on our Application Timeline webpage and apply online via this application form. Candidates who wish to apply must meet with Anna Crowe prior to submitting their application. You can schedule an appointment with her at this scheduling link.

Last summer, students had a range of experiences across the globe, from studying human rights-based climate change litigation at Amnesty International in London to working with community lawyers on indigenous rights for the NGO Colectivo Emancipaciones in México. Over the next couple months, HRP will be showcasing 2019 summer fellows with excerpts from their final reports. Follow along at our blog and email hrp@law.harvard.edu with any questions.

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November 19, 2019

Mamani Plaintiff Teófilo Baltazar Cerro Pens Op-Ed Urging 11th Circuit to Reinstate $10 Million Verdict

Teófilo Baltazar places flowers on the tomb of his wife, Teodosia, who was shot and killed during Black October.
Teófilo Baltazar places flowers on the tomb of his wife, Teodosia, who was shot and killed during Black October. Photo Credit: Thomas Becker.

This story originally ran in NACLA Reports (North American Congress on Latin America) under the title, “Survivors Fight for Justice for 2003 Bolivian Military Massacre.”

Teófilo is one of the nine plaintiffs in Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, a U.S. federal lawsuit against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister. 

On November 19, surviving family members of a 2003 massacre in El Alto are urging the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a $10 million judgement against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister. 


Last week in Bolivia, a president resigned under military pressure as civilian supporters of different political parties clashed in the streets. Bolivia is in turmoil today, and not for the first time. Sixteen years ago, at a time of political protests against the government’s plan to export Bolivian gas through Chilean ports, the army opened fire on civilians in the city of El Alto, killing over 70 people, including my wife and our unborn child.

One way to stop such violence is to provide justice for past acts: to hold accountable those in command of the forces that shoot at unarmed civilians. That is why I am in Miami today. Together with eight fellow plaintiffs who also lost loved ones in the massacre, I will continue to appeal the decision to overturn a ruling that held the masterminds of these killings responsible.

When the Eleventh Circuit hears the appeal in what is known as the Mamani case today, it will be an important test. Can the legal system deliver justice for people like me? From a young age, as an Indigenous Aymara person growing up in Bolivia, I was taught that the answer was “no.” Although my country has the largest population of Indigenous peoples in South America—about 60 percent—we have always been treated as second class citizens. We did not have political or economic power. We did not have a voice. And our lives did not have much value.

In 2003, during what has become known as “Black October,” a soldier shot my pregnant wife, Teodosia, while she praying in her sister’s home. Over a period of several weeks, Bolivian soldiers, acting under the command of former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and his defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, massacred Indigenous Bolivians. Soldiers injured over 550 people and killed more than 70, including my wife and our unborn child.

Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.After my wife was murdered, I did not know what to do. The love of my life was gone, and I was left alone to raise our seven children. Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.

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November 19, 2019

Indigenous Bolivian Family Members Urge Appeals Court in Miami: Reinstate Judgment Against Former Bolivian President and Defense Minister for Civilian Massacre

Judge Erroneously Set Aside Jury Verdict of Liability, Lawyers Say

Contact: press@ccrjustice.org

November 19, 2019, Miami – Today, Indigenous Bolivian family members urged the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a judgement against Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous civilians in 2003.

A U.S. jury found the two former officials liable under the Torture Victim Protection Act in April 2018 and awarded the victims’ families $10 million in damages. The unanimous verdict came after a month-long trial that included six days of deliberations. The judge later set aside the jury verdict and entered his own ruling holding the defendants not liable.

“I was proud, during the trial, to be able to hold these two men to account in their adopted country,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff whose pregnant wife Teodosia was shot and killed while praying inside her sister’s home. “We have faith that the Court of Appeals will see what the Bolivian people and the American jury also saw: that Goni and Sánchez Berzaín are responsible for these killings, and that justice must be done.”

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November 18, 2019

Clinic, HRW Release Report in New Effort to Curb Explosive Weapons

A Call for International Action to Protect Civilians in Conflicts

International representatives at work during the Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, 1st October 2019
Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, October 1, 2019 Photo Credit: BMEIA/Eugenie Berger

Governments should make a commitment to protect civilians from the harmful impacts of explosive weapons used in towns and cities during conflicts, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a diplomatic conference in Geneva.

The 23-page report, “A Commitment to Civilians: Precedent for a Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” lays out the components of a new political declaration on explosive weapons, bolstering its case with precedent from existing declarations.

Explosive weapons, including artillery shells, rockets, mortars, and air-dropped bombs, have recently caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Civilians are often killed or injured by the initial explosion, crushed by collapsing buildings, or maimed by explosive remnants of war. Reverberating effects include damage to homes and essential infrastructure, interference with health care and education, large-scale displacement of people, degradation of the environment, and denial of humanitarian access.

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November 13, 2019

Clinic, HRW Release Report Urging Russia to Support Action on Incendiary Weapons

Picture shows the use of an incendiary weapon showering from the sky.
Use of an incendiary weapon in Bdama, Idlib in July 2018.
© 2018 Syria Civil Defense.

(Geneva) – Russia should support, not block, diplomatic talks about possible action to address the civilian harm caused by the use of incendiary weapons, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week.

Issued ahead of an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, the nine-page report, “Standing Firm against Incendiary Weapons,” highlights the weaknesses of international law regulating incendiary weapons. Such weapons can inflict severe burns, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. Incendiary weapons also start fires that destroy civilian homes, objects, and infrastructure.

“Russia’s regrettable opposition scuttled stand-alone diplomatic discussion this year on incendiary weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and lead author of the report. “Yet there’s a clear humanitarian imperative to deal with these cruel weapons.”

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October 22, 2019

Harvard Gazette: A global look at LGBT violence and bias

By Liz Mineo / Harvard Staff Writer

Victor Madrigal-Borloz pictured in Wasserstein Hall.
Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on Protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, who is in residence at HLS. He’ll present his report to the UN General Assembly soon. Victor is seen in Wasserstein Hall. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Costa Rican magistrate Victor Madrigal-Borloz has served for the past 21 months as the U.N. independent experton protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He will present his report on how laws and cultural norms adversely affect LGBT individuals to the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. The Gazette interviewed Madrigal-Borloz, who is the Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher with the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, to talk about his work and his hopes for the future.


Q&A: Victor Madrigal-Borloz

GAZETTE: Why did you decide to take on this role?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: I have been working in the field of human rights for over 20 years and I saw the possibility to bring about substantial change. The topic bears a lot of significance to me, as a gay man myself. I have been working on these issues for over a decade, first at the Inter-American Commission [on Human Rights] and now at the global level. I have seen many people suffer as a result of stigma and discrimination, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something about it and put my skills at the service of a cause.

GAZETTE: What did your report find in terms of the root causes of violence and discrimination against LGBT people?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: There are primary and secondary root cases. First, there is the notion that societies are structured around certain power relations, which have been designed in relation to a person’s sex. Your role in society is determined by your genital configuration. That’s a very basic construction, and all forms of violence and discrimination come from a defense of those power relations. The other factors come from mechanisms that aim to protect those power relations, such as the idea that gay, lesbian, or trans people don’t exist, and the stigma around them, which is enabled through the message that gay, trans, bisexual, and lesbian people are sick or mentally ill. The other aspect is criminalization. Same-sex relations are still criminalized in 69 countries, which means that, as of today, over 2 billion people live in countries where being gay or lesbian is illegal. Another factor is demonization expressed in the notion that somehow LGBT lives are sinful, immoral; that gays or lesbians cannot be good citizens. The idea is that at the end of the day, there’s something immoral about our existence, and that’s what all of us need to fight against.

GAZETTE: Of your findings, which ones struck you the most?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: What disturbs me is that in 2019 there are countries that are considering bringing back the death penalty for same-sex relations. There was a discussion in Uganda about it, and early this year Brunei Darussalam enacted legislation allowing the stoning of gay men. That, to me, is shocking. What I also find surprising is that there are environments that are actually extremely progressive when it comes to gender identity, but can be very restrictive when it comes to sexual orientation and vice versa. In Pakistan, for example, there is an extremely forward legislation on the recognition of gender identity, but sexual orientation is very much criminalized. Sexual orientation has always been a more challenging notion for societies, which in general have used the notion of a traditional binary, hetero-parental family as the nucleus of society, and this has been recognized in public discourse and in the law. But what we also know is that homosexuals, lesbians, and bisexuals have existed and sought happiness all throughout history.

GAZETTE: What policies or practices have been the most successful in the protection of LGBT rights?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: Anti-discrimination legislation with the words sexual orientation and gender identity is very important because it allows for all actors in the system to understand that a red line has been drawn and that shouldn’t be crossed. This creates the belief that lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, or gender-diverse people are entitled to protection. Other good practices are policies aiming at promoting integration of LGBT people in society and campaigns to change hearts and minds.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion, OC-24, which determined that Costa Rica and other countries in the continent must implement same-sex marriage, and it gave a time frame for that. Despite the fact that this created great polarization in Costa Rica, the Costa Rican state has now put together a campaign called “Yes, I do,” or in Spanish, “Si, Acepto,” which focuses on the parents of gay and lesbian children and their reasons why they support gay marriage and why their children are entitled to happiness.

Another good measure is access to justice, and this means that judges have to actively seek to implement the principle of nondiscrimination when it comes to LGBT rights. That’s what the Supreme Court of India, the Supreme Court in Botswana, and the High Court in Trinidad and Tobago did when they voted to decriminalize gay sex in their respective countries.

GAZETTE: How do you explain the dramatic advances in the protection of LGBT rights in regions such as Latin America, where same-sex marriage is now legal in five countries?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: It’s the work of civil society and human-rights defenders and advocates who have fought relentlessly for their rights. I began working on these issues over a decade ago, and at that time the trans movement in South America was strong. An extraordinary trans activist in Argentina, Lohana Berkins, used to say that trans women must expose the audacity of their bodies to the society that fails to understand the fragility of their lives. The average life expectancy of a trans woman in Latin America is 35 years, and that’s what Berkins was talking about. It was her voice and those of other great fighters in the LGBT movement that forced people to see their humanity, and ensured that Argentina, Uruguay, and other countries in the continent have the most advanced legislation on legal recognition of gender identity.

GAZETTE: Which countries are the worst and best performers in terms of LGTB rights?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: I have a lot of resistance to ranking countries, because things change very fast. Most of these rights are not necessarily enshrined or written in stone; there are forces in societies that are quite keen on seeing them taken back. We live in times in which rising populism uses certain categories of people, such as LGBT communities, as pawns for their political objectives. But I can say that the most problems arise in the countries where gay sex is criminalized, and they are roughly distributed along the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, some regions of Asia, and the Middle East. It’s not a small part of the world. Criminalization forces people to live underground, and often the situation of those whose existence is considered criminal is devastating. The killing of trans women, for example, has been invisible from public records because they are classified as men. And the levels of violence against lesbian women and gay men all over the world is worrisome.

GAZETTE: Why have there been more gains in protection of sexual orientation than gender identity, and what does it say about the possibility of social change?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: There is a certain concentration of power and influence within gay and lesbian, or cisgender, urban populations. They have been able to represent their valid agendas in the political debate. On issues of concern for the gay and lesbian urban upper and middle class, there has been more progress than on those concerning trans women or trans men coming from the countryside. But those gains show that social change is possible within one generation. Those of us who were born in the ’60s have seen the world change from a majority of countries criminalizing and pathologizing LGBT identities to a majority of countries embracing the richness that comes from diversity.

Social change is possible when the prime minister of Luxembourg speaks at the General Assembly last week, and declares “I was never hoping to be the gay prime minister. I just happen to be the gay prime minister.” When political leaders take part in a pride parade, they are changing the views that people have about LGBT people. I’ve had the honor of marching alongside Justin Trudeau in Vancouver, and the first lady of Costa Rica in pride parades. That makes me hopeful, but also the fact that the new generations have changed their paradigm of thinking; they embrace the notion that their existence is not determined by rigid notions of gender. That is a great source of inspiration.

But I worry that for some, the change will not come fast enough. Elderly LGBT people are suffering enormous health disparities, and after living their lives in inclusive environments, they are being forced to go back into the closet as they move to retirement communities that are not prepared to cater for their needs. They deserve happiness now.

GAZETTE: What would you like to see happening before your tenure as the U.N. independent expert ends in 2020?

MADRIGAL-BORLOZ: My dream is to see a world free of criminalization of same-sex relations by 2030. Given the fact that international human rights law considers criminalization of same-sex relations a violation of human rights, I see no reason why states would actually get away with continuing this practice past 2030. That’s what I like to dream about.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length. This article first ran in the Harvard Gazette on October 22, 2019.

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October 21, 2019

WATCH: Victor Madrigal-Borloz Previews United Nations General Assembly Report

Image of Victor Madrigal-Borloz speaking at Harvard Law School on October 17, 2019.

On October 17, 2019, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher with the Human Rights Program and the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, spoke to the Harvard Law School community, previewing his October 24 address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Mr. Madrigal-Borloz shared findings from his recent report on socio-cultural and economic inclusion for LGBT individuals. The report provides an overview of LGBT access to education, employment, housing, health, public spaces, and religious and political discourse. The talk was organized by the Human Rights Program at HLS and co-sponsored by HLS Advocates for Human Rights and the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Watch the full October 17 address above or on the Harvard Law School YouTube site.

You can read more about Mr. Madrigal Borloz’s HLS residency as a senior visiting researcher on the Harvard Law Today website.

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