February 24, 2021

WATCH: Human Rights, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Racial Justice


From documenting historical incidents of mass racial violence to taking protests against police brutality to international forums, social justice lawyers have long turned to human rights law and strategies to advocate for racial justice in the United States. At the same time, US legacies of exceptionalism, isolationism and nationalism pose challenges for what is a fundamentally universalist human rights project. On February 4, 2021, the Human Rights Program hosted the second webinar in a series of events exploring racial justice and human rights. This event explored how international human rights approaches are being used in conjunction with domestic civil rights advocacy to push for law and policy change in the United States. Panelists spoke about their work raising awareness of, and seeking accountability for, racial injustice, while reflecting on circumstances in which the international human rights framework presents an imperfect vehicle for mobilizing change.The event, “Human Rights, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Racial Justice, featured:

– Gay McDougall, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School; Former United Nations Independent Expert On Minority Issues (2005-2011); Former Vice-Chair United Nations Committee on the Elimination Of Racial Discrimination

– Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch;

– Maryum Jordan, Counsel for the Special Litigation and Advocacy Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

The event was moderated by Aminta Ossom, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law in the International Human Rights Clinic at HLS.

Thanks to our co-sponsors: the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, and the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

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February 22, 2021

Joint Statement to UN Security Council on the Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have issued a letter in advance of the United Nations Security Council session on Haiti today. The letter can be viewed here and is reprinted in full below.

The three U.S. based law school clinics also released a statement last week calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

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February 22, 2021

Satter Human Rights Fellowship Application Now Open


The application for the Satter Fellowship in Human Rights is now OPEN. Made possible by a generous gift by Muneer A. Satter JD’87, the fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocity or widespread and severe patterns of rights abuse. The Satter Fellowship has helped launch the careers of many human rights practitioners who have gone on to contribute substantially to the field.

Applications are due March 29, 2021. Applicants must email Tyler Giannini for advising by March 1, 2021.

Learn more and apply here: https://hrp.law.harvard.edu/fellowships/post-graduate-fellowships/satter-human-rights-fellowship/

Please note that this fellowship is only open to Harvard Law School recent graduates and alumni.

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February 22, 2021

Human Rights Council Must Break Circle of Impunity in Sri Lanka


22 Organizations Urge UN Resolution Ensuring Human Rights and Justice in Sri Lanka


(Geneva, Switzerland — February 22, 2021)  The UN Human Rights Council must take immediate and concrete action to prevent impunity for past abuses and address the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, said a coalition of 22 organizations today. Highlighting recent recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an open letter from human rights non-governmental organizations and academic centers and clinics urges the Human Rights Council to enhance monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, establish an independent mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of past and ongoing violations, and prioritize support to civil society and victims. The Human Rights Council opens its 46th session today. 

Ongoing impunity for serious human rights violations, including allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed over the course of a decades-long war has created a crisis of accountability in Sri Lanka. The toll on civilians, who have suffered serious violations and abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, and sexual violence, has been enormous with the High Commissioner noting how “the failure to deal with the past continues to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of survivors.” UN bodies have documented Sri Lanka’s persistent failures to protect human rights and a pattern of obstructing investigations, rewarding human rights abusers, and targeting government critics. It is essential that the Human Rights Council pass a resolution with concrete action as a signal to the Government of Sri Lanka that continuing impunity and abuses are not acceptable, and to affirm that the United Nations is committed to securing justice for survivors.

Read the letter from the coalition on the situation in Sri Lanka here.

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February 17, 2021

Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


Law Clinics Call for U.S. Government to Condemn Haitian President’s Actions


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have released a statement calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

Issued on February 13, 2021, the statement describes alarming actions taken by Moïse in the week preceding that threaten the rule of law and suggest an escalating constitutional crisis. Among the many issues cited, the statement notes Moïse’s refusal to step down after the conclusion of his term, the arbitrary detention of notable political officials, the removal of Supreme Court justices, and state violence against protestors and journalists. The U.S. based law clinics identify the crisis as part of a trend of “grave, state-sanctioned human rights abuses in Haiti” and worry that Moïse’s continual affront toward democratic checks on his power indicates his inability to “oversee free and fair elections for his replacement.”

The statement urges the Biden administration to forge a new path in U.S.-Haiti relations.

“The current U.S. administration should not continue the improper pressure that the Trump administration placed on Haitian actors to acquiesce to an unconstitutional electoral process,” the statement says. “Instead, the Biden administration should support democracy and human rights and condemn Moïse’s attacks against Haiti’s constitutional institutions. Otherwise, Moïse may be emboldened to further restrict human rights and democracy.”

The statement also asks the U.S. to halt deportations, given the political instability. “Since the beginning of February, ICE has deported more than 600 people to Haiti, many without even the opportunity to request asylum. These flights have included many children, infants and pregnant women.”

The statement concludes by making specific recommendations for the U.S. government in order to “support the rule of law in Haiti and [to] call on the Haitian government to meet its international human rights obligations.” This week, the organizers reached out to the United Nations to clarify its position on the issue.

Read the full statement here.

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January 29, 2021

Lockdown and Shutdown: New White Paper Exposes the Impacts of Recent Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh

A group of Rohingya refugees stand in a circle, some with mouths agape as they crowd around a photo watching something.
Rohingya refugees watching the reporting on the International Court of
Justice genocide case. Photo by Khin Maung (Kutupalong Camp)


The Cyberlaw Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School were proud to co-author a new white paper, Lockdown and Shutdown: Exposing the Impacts of Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in collaboration with Athan, the Kintha Peace and Development Initiative, and Rohingya Youth Association. The report exposes the impacts of internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the voices of ethnic minority internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who describe the shutdowns’ impacts in their own words. The co-authors joined to present a webinar to launch the report on January 19, 2021, which you can watch below or on the HRP YouTube channel.

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January 27, 2021

Banning Nuclear Weapons: Milestones and Memories

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

At the stroke of midnight on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was transformed from words on paper to binding law. States parties — countries that have have agreed to be bound by the treaty — are now obliged to uphold a ban on nuclear weapons, take measures to ensure the weapons’ elimination, and address the harm caused by past use and testing. Signatory states may not violate its object and purpose.

The TPNW’s entry into force, triggered last October when Honduras became the 50th state to ratify, is a milestone for humanitarian disarmament, a crucial step toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and an uplifting moment in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

This landmark moment also offers an opportunity to look back on negotiations at the United Nations in New York in 2017. The hard work, determination, and collaboration of hundreds of individuals made the TPNW a reality.

My colleague Anna Crowe LLM’12 and I participated in the negotiations with a four-person team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. The students included Carina Bentata JD’18, Molly Doggett JD’17, Lan Mei JD’17, and Alice Osman LLM’17.

At a reunion celebration last week, our team reflected on the experience and shared memories that will likely resonate with our fellow campaigners. “Witnessing the treaty’s adoption was overwhelming,” Mei said. “It felt like a key moment in my life. Even though it wouldn’t affect me personally, it was monumental.”

During the four weeks of negotiations, we partnered with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which later received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. We engaged in advocacy and offered legal advice on a range of topics.

While negotiators devoted much of their attention to the TPNW’s prohibitions on future actions, we focused on the treaty’s positive obligations, affirmative requirements to mitigate the harm already inflicted by nuclear weapons. In partnership with campaigners from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, we argued successfully for obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation. This group became known as ICAN’s “pos obs team,” after the positive obligations for which we were calling.

Eight individuals smile after the treaty passed. They wear badges and formal clothes.
The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.
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January 22, 2021

Clinic Celebrates Nuclear Ban Entering into Force

Posted by Dana Walters

Members of the team that supported the 2017 negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons met virtually this week to raise a glass to the treaty entering into force. Pictured: (top, left to right) Bonnie Docherty (Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection at Harvard Law School), Anna Crowe (International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School), Elizabeth Minor (Article 36); (bottom, left to right) Molly Doggett JD’17, Erin Hunt (Mines Action Canada), Lan Mei JD’17.

Today, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters into force. What exactly does this mean? All of the treaty’s obligations, from providing assistance to victims of use and testing to banning possession, transfer, use, and other activities related to nuclear weapons, become law. Campaigners around the world, including some of our own at Harvard Law School, put in a monumental effort to make this day happen.

In 2017, the International Human Rights Clinic played a significant role in negotiations that brought the treaty from imagination to reality. Working with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Article 36, Bonnie Docherty JD’01 and Anna Crowe LLM’12 led a team of students to ensure that the treaty held fast to humanitarian disarmament principles.

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January 13, 2021

Impeachment Can Vindicate Human Rights

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

Impeachment is an extraordinary procedure for responding to abuse of power by government. Is legislative trial of elected officials consistent with human rights? It depends. Groundless political trial, or arbitrary and irregular proceedings, may violate the rights of the officials, and more importantly the political rights of the voters who elected them. But procedurally regular and substantively justified impeachments, with appropriate sanctions, may be consistent with the rights of the officials and essential for preventing future violations of the rights of others and protecting democracy.

We are facing such a moment in the United States. The U.S. Constitution provides that, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (Article II, sec. 4.) It gives the House sole power to impeach, and it gives the Senate sole power to try impeachments. (Article I, sec 2, cl. 5; sec. 3, cl. 6.) The Constitution provides that the consequences of impeachment and conviction “shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States,” while leaving the person impeached subject to other ordinary legal proceedings. (Article I, sec. 3, cl. 7.) Although impeachment uses some of the vocabulary of criminal law, the only sanctions that the Senate may impose are job-related – removal and future disqualification, not imprisonment, and not even a fine.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the treaty body that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, examined the consequences of impeachment from a human rights perspective in 2014. (Paksas v. Lithuania, UN Doc. CCPR/C/110/D/2155/2012 (2014).)  The impeached Lithuanian president Rolandas Paksas, who had been impeached after conferring Lithuanian citizenship on a suspicious Russian donor to his campaign, complained that barring him from future re-election violated his rights of political participation under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The majority of the Human Rights Committee concluded that under the particular circumstances of the case, in which the consequences of impeachment were not clearly specified by law and the Constitutional Court developed its interpretation as an outgrowth of the Paksas proceedings, permanent disqualification from being President, Prime Minister or Minister “lacked the necessary foreseeability and objectivity and thus amount[ed] to an unreasonable restriction” violating article 25. (Id. para. 8.4.)

I wrote a partly dissenting opinion in that case, emphasizing that presidential impeachments are rare and difficult.  (Id. p. 17.)  They are not merely a vote of no confidence, as in a parliamentary system that contemplates renewed elections to test a leader’s political support, but a more severe recognition of abuse of power.   Some democracies limit the number of times that a president who has served honorably can be reelected, in order to ensure a healthy and competitive political system.  It is foreseeable and appropriate that a president who corrupts or attacks the democratic system should be permanently barred from seeking additional opportunities to do so again.  That sanction does more to protect political rights than it does to limit them.

In the United States, unlike Lithuania, it has been clear for centuries that a foreseeable outcome of impeachment is permanent disqualification.  When attempts to subvert the electoral process by baseless allegations and intimidation culminate in incitement to interfere by force with the congressional confirmation of the election results, disqualification would be a vindication of human rights.

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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.

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