Blog: Human Rights and the Environment
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May 3, 2021
Posted by Taylor Landis
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”Continue Reading…
April 21, 2021
Posted by Cindy Wu JD'22
You may have seen images of Hindu devotees immersing themselves in large clouds of white foam floating through the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. But what may seem otherworldly belies something much more sinister: a river of deep religious and life-giving significance for millions of people, teeming with toxic industrial and residential pollutants.
Alongside three other Harvard Law School students and our Clinical Instructor, Aminta Ossom, I have spent this past semester studying the relationship between climate change and inequality. This Earth Day, our team is thinking about how climate change and human activities are working in tandem to degrade and deplete the Yamuna River. This environmental harm has significant impacts on the enjoyment of the right to water, as well as on other rights, like cultural rights and the rights to adequate health and livelihoods.
What is the Yamuna?
The Yamuna—a tributary of the Ganga River—is critical both in Hindu culture and as a source of livelihood. Millions of Hindus worship the river as a goddess, and many make an annual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves to wash away their sins and to bring health and prosperity. Besides its religious significance, the Yamuna supports the livelihoods of farmers, fisher-folk and boatsmen and is a crucial source of water for 57 million people, especially for those in the Delhi region.
April 21, 2021
Posted by Lavran Johnson JD'22
The United States has an environmental human rights problem. Across the country, communities of color and lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately located close to chemical processing plants, power plants, and other industrial facilities and shoulder the burden of domestic environmental contamination. Air and water quality standards frequently fail to protect these communities, leading to detrimental health impacts and continued contamination. Although the situation is improving, state and federal agencies have historically failed to reduce the cumulative burdens on these communities. Most of our environmental laws provide protective regimes based on available technology and economic feasibility. Although these regimes place limits on pollution, they reflect a presumption that industries have a general right to pollute. Industry’s right to pollute is constrained by environmental law; but we need a shift away from industrial rights and towards a human right to a clean environment.
After years working as an outdoor educator, I came to law school to focus on environmental law, committed to finding ways through policy and litigation to better protect the environments that had enriched my life. It was in the classroom — and not outside — where I started to build the connections that drive my current work. My torts class, where we studied Rob Bilott’s prosecution of DuPont for chemical pollution, helped to shift my focus towards work that would protect both the environment and the individual people who rely on it. Later, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini exposed me to some of the many ways that environmental exploitation and human exploitation are entangled, but it was working over the summer on an administrative complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency that really crystallized my understanding: environmental justice is fundamentally a human rights issue. All people should be protected from pollution that poses a serious and permanent risk to their health, and historical deprivation and prejudice should not be allowed to undermine that basic protection.
This spring, I entered the International Human Rights Clinic hopeful that I could gain a better grasp of how rights are understood and leveraged, but unsure whether I would be able to do environmental work. I’ve been very lucky to work with Bonnie Docherty and three excellent team members to prepare recommendations for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Bonnie, who is the Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, has worked for decades to highlight the detrimental effects of weapons on both humans and the environment. The TPNW, which Bonnie and previous clinical students helped to shape, reconceptualizes nuclear disarmament by shifting from a tactical focus—one in which states play their nuclear arsenals off each other to maintain geopolitical order—to a humanitarian focus—one in which states must address the ongoing human suffering caused by the use and testing of nuclear weapons. The TPNW, which requires total disarmament, also creates obligations that respond to the legacy of nuclear weapons use and testing through victim assistance and environmental remediation. In places like the Marshall Islands, where many still suffer the effects of the nuclear testing that happens over 60 years ago, these obligations are critical.Continue Reading…
February 22, 2021
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.Continue Reading…
December 7, 2020
Posted by Nathalie Gunasekera JD'21
“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated refugee camps.
In September 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics Dr. Marcos Orellana presented his predecessor’s report on lead poisoning in Kosovo. He delivered a clear message: inaction must end, and justice must be delivered.Continue Reading…
October 16, 2020
Posted by Joey Bui JD'21
Assessing the UN’s Haiti Cholera Response 10 Years On
In 2010, a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission caused an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Haitians. On Oct 8, 2020, ten years after the outbreak began and amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, key experts joined the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School for a webinar to discuss the ongoing failure of the UN to adequately answer to Haitian victims and what lessons the rights organization should learn moving forward.
It was a rare occasion in which a UN official spoke publicly with Haitian and foreign advocates who have been extremely critical of the UN’s response. During the event, former UN officials provided an inside look at the UN’s failures in Haiti, and expressed shame about the UN’s response. The panel also identified key takeaways for the UN to adopt in order to prevent a repeat in the future.
The virtual panel, which was a part of Harvard Worldwide Week and was co-sponsored by seven different Harvard centers and groups, included Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer at Bureau des Avocats Internationaux who has led efforts to seek justice for victims, as well as Haitian doctors who have worked on the frontlines of the outbreak, Dr. Inobert Pierre of St. Boniface Hospital and Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps of GHESKIO. Presenting perspectives from the UN were Josette Sheeran, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti; Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; and Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights.Continue Reading…
August 25, 2020
Posted by Dana Walters
If everything had gone according to schedule, the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) would have filed an amicus curiae brief in December 2019 in a case against Chiquita Brands International, the world’s largest banana company. The suit, on behalf of families who suffered mass atrocities by paramilitary groups during the Colombian armed conflict, seeks accountability for the reign of terror Chiquita aided and abetted from 1997 to 2004.
However, after several delays and further challenges caused by the pandemic, the clinic and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) finally filed the brief on behalf of human rights experts on June 5, 2020. The process included dozens of drafts and memos, multiple back-and-forths with amici, and hundreds of hours of time of a dozen alumni and students in multiple time zones. The amicus brief is one small part of a larger, evolving corporate accountability litigation landscape, one in which the clinic has been involved for decades. In a globalized economy where supply chains are diffused, attorneys and affected communities have sought to use U.S. courts to stop U.S. corporations and executives from assisting in violating human rights abroad.
“Chiquita and cases like it present a central question facing U.S. courts today—whether the United States is going to become a safe haven for U.S. corporations implicated in human rights violations outside the country,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program (HRP) and the IHRC.Continue Reading…
June 30, 2020
Rights experts call on UN to provide remedy to victims of Haitian cholera epidemic
(June 30, 2020) — The United Nations (UN) published two previously embargoed letters from fourteen UN independent rights experts on Saturday, calling on the organization to deliver overdue remedies to victims of cholera in Haiti. Addressed to Secretary-General António Guterres and the Haitian government, the letters respond to a complaint submitted by the International Human Rights Clinic, the 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) in January.
The experts’ letters adopts the Clinic’s arguments that the UN’s approach following its public apology in 2016 amount to violations of the right to effective remedy. The experts found “glaring limitations” in the UN’s approach, including that the UN has failed to pay any compensation and that its subsequent underfunded effort has amounted to little more than a spate of symbolic development projects. They stressed that “the continued denial of effective remedies to the victims is not only a violation of their human right to an effective remedy, but also a grave breach of public confidence in the Organization’s integrity and legitimacy.” The letters conclude that a “fundamental shift in approach is necessary if the Organization is to uphold the respect for human rights and rule of law.”
Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, led a clinical student team in working on the January complaint. She was recently interviewed by Harvard Law Today, diving into her nearly-decade long advocacy on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. The interview explores the UN’s failure to adequately respond to the epidemic and provide appropriate reparations to victims.
As Lindstrom says in the Q&A, “In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the UN bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed.”
June 25, 2020
In Q&A, Beatrice Lindstrom calls for international human rights organization to deliver remedies to cholera victims
In 2010, United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers caused a devastating cholera outbreak in Haiti. Nearly a decade later and with COVID-19 threatening an already fragile situation, affected communities are still waiting for access to remedy. Beatrice Lindstrom, clinical instructor and supervising attorney in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, has been working for nearly a decade on pathbreaking advocacy to secure accountability from the U.N. for the destruction it caused. Lindstrom was lead counsel in Georges v. United Nations, a class action lawsuit on behalf of those injured by cholera. Prior to joining Harvard Law School, Lindstrom was the legal director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Harvard Law Today: How and why did the 2010 cholera outbreak begin in Haiti?
Beatrice Lindstrom: Cholera was introduced to Haiti when the U.N. deployed peacekeepers from Nepal—which was experiencing a cholera outbreak—without testing or treating them for the disease. The peacekeepers were stationed on a base in rural Haiti that had reckless waste disposal practices. Untreated waste from the base’s toilets was routinely dumped into unprotected open-air pits that overflowed into the surrounding community and into a nearby tributary. That tributary feeds into the Artibonite River, the primary water source for tens of thousands of Haitians. The resulting outbreak is the deadliest cholera epidemic in the world: At least 10,000 people have died and approximately one million people have been sickened since 2010. To put it in context, the number of cholera infections per capita in Haiti still exceeds the COVID-19 infection rate in any nation.
HLT: How has the United Nations responded?
Lindstrom: Despite scientific consensus that the U.N. base was the source of the outbreak, the U.N. denied responsibility for six years and refused victims access to any forum to hear claims for remedies. The U.N. enjoys broad immunity, but is required to settle claims by civilians out of court. In 2011, the Haitian human rights organization Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) and its U.S.-based partner Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), where I then worked, filed claims on behalf of 5,000 victims. The U.N. rejected the claims without offering any legal justification, and has refused to refer the claims to an independent claims commission as required under international agreements. The U.N.’s own Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights called the U.N.’s response “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.”
It took an extraordinary mobilization of cholera-affected communities and allies in Haiti and abroad to persuade the U.N. to shift course. In 2016, the Secretary-General finally issued a public apology and launched a $400 million “New approach to cholera in Haiti.” But over three years later, the U.N. has raised only 5% of the $400 million promised, and has not paid any compensation to victims. Despite initially pledging to center victims in decision-making, critical decisions about the direction and content of the New Approach have been made without victim input. These deficiencies stem from the U.N.’s continued denial of legal responsibility for the outbreak, which would trigger funding through assessed contributions from its member states and ensure that responsibility is shared collectively across the organization. Instead, remedies for cholera victims is treated as charity and left to compete with other humanitarian causes.
HLT: Why do you think the U.N. has been reluctant to accept responsibility?
Lindstrom: In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the U.N. bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed. The U.N.’s Legal Counsel has reportedly waged “an extraordinary internal campaign” against anything that would resemble an acceptance of responsibility. Lawyers are often concerned about setting precedent, but here there is consensus among legal experts that the claim falls within the U.N.’s existing duty to compensate for “private law” claims, so the only precedent set would be one of compliance. If the concern is that it would in practice invite claims in other contexts, this implies that the U.N. anticipates many other situations where civilians will be harmed by U.N. negligence. Others resist accepting responsibility because of the financial implications. The $400 million that the U.N. is now seeking for cholera, however, is only a fraction of the $4 billion that it has spent on its stabilization mission in Haiti since the outbreak started. And as governments are now rightly investing trillions of dollars in financial support for households impacted by COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that more could be done for cholera victims if the political will was there.Continue Reading…
May 28, 2020
Posted by Ayoung Kim JD'20
For the past three years, my peers and I at HLS have worked towards earning our law degrees in the hopes of contributing to a more equitable society. As the Class of 2020 graduates this month, I realize that the path toward justice has become more urgent and increasingly challenging. Our class will spend some of our most formative years navigating the enormous human and economic consequences of the pandemic. We must also prepare for a crisis that we already know will be more disruptive, painful, and irrevocable than COVID-19—climate change. Which lessons we take away from this pandemic will determine whether we are able to prevent human suffering of an equivalent—or even larger—scale.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that inequality kills. During COVID-19, low-wage workers have been exposed to disproportionate risk of death without commensurate pay, protections, or status. We can expect the same of those that will work on the frontlines of climate change. These climate essential workers will work in construction, landscaping, delivery, commercial kitchens, bakeries, factories, and manufacturing—under punishing heat waves, lethal air pollution, and increased disease. Others will include incarcerated individuals whose labor is often used to combat extreme weather events for pay as low as $1 an hour plus $2 a day. Scholars fear the rise of “green gig workers”—volunteer laborers who will be tasked with responding to extreme weather events but whose precarious labor would not be acknowledged or as socially protected as those in formal employment.Continue Reading…
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