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Blog: Human Rights and the Environment

October 16, 2020

“Deep Shame Within the Ranks of UN Staff”

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.

Eight individuals on zoom during a webinar.
From left to right, top: Beatrice Lindstrom, Philip Alston, Louise Ivers; Middle: Marie Deschamps, Mario Joseph, Andrew Gilmour; Bottom: Inobert Pierre, Josette Sheeran.
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August 25, 2020

Human Rights Clinic team submits amicus brief in Chiquita Brands lawsuit

Posted by Dana Walters

Chiquita bananas on display in grocery store
Credit: cbarnesphotography/iStock

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.

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June 30, 2020

UN releases embargoed expert letters drawing on Clinic complaint


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 Todaydiving 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.” 

The rights experts released a public statement at the time the letters were sent, which generated significant attention in the media and prompted a preliminary response from the Secretary-General.

June 25, 2020

Seeking overdue reparations for U.N.-caused devastation in Haiti


In Q&A, Beatrice Lindstrom calls for international human rights organization to deliver remedies to cholera victims

Beatrice Lindstrom talks to reporters after a lawsuit against the UN was dismissed
Credit: Edgar Lafond/Haiti Liberté. Clinical Instructor Beatrice Lindstrom at a press conference following oral argument in Georges v. United Nations, a lawsuit to hold the UN accountable for the cholera outbreak. The case was dismissed the day after the UN announced that a New Approach would be forthcoming.

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.

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May 28, 2020

COVID-19 Response Can Help Reimagine Climate Change Response

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.

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April 30, 2020

Clinic complaint prompts UN experts to urge justice for Haiti cholera epidemic


A group of fourteen United Nations independent experts released a statement today calling on Secretary-General António Guterres to fulfill the UN’s 2016 promise to take responsibility and deliver justice for the 10,000 victims of a cholera epidemic caused by UN peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010. The statement, which can be read on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website and below, indicates that the experts have also sent a formal communication to the Secretary-General. The intervention demonstrates escalating concern within the UN’s own human rights system that the organization is failing to uphold its obligations to cholera victims. The communication is remarkable for its unprecedented breadth of support from the UN’s own experts in raising allegations that the organization itself is violating human rights.

The statement and communication from the UN experts was prompted by a formal complaint filed in February from 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). The formal complaint called on the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide, to investigate the violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti and a subsequent lack of reparations and fulfillment of legal obligations. Signees to the April 30, 2020 letter from UN Special Procedures included experts whose tenures as mandate holders ends today, including Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights as well as Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing. This intervention marks one of the last actions by them in their capacity as mandate-holders.


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April 22, 2020

Harvard experts discuss climate change fears


To mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Harvard University Gazette contacted experts on climate change, the environment, and sustainability to ask them about their global-warming fears. Tyler Giannini, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Human Rights Program and the International Human Rights Clinic, contributed an essay he co-authored with his daughters Amaya (14 years old) and Rayna (10 years old). Prior to joining the law school, Giannini co-founded EarthRights International, an NGO that works to protect human rights and the environment. Find the full article with contributions from faculty around the University on the Gazette website. Read Tyler, Amaya, and Rayna’s piece below.


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April 26, 2017

Tomorrow, April 27: Climate, Migration and Health


final_climate_week_posterApril 27, 2017

“Human health in a changing climate”

A Harvard symposium

9:00 a.m.- 2:30 p.m.

Jefferson Hall 250
17 Oxford St,
Cambridge, MA

Lunch provided

Please join the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Climate Change Solutions Fund, and the Harvard University Center for the Environment for a symposium on human health in a changing climate, with welcoming remarks by Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust. The keynote address will be by Gina McCarthy, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, followed by remarks by Michelle Williams, Dean of the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.

HRP’s Bonnie Docherty will moderate a 10:15 a.m. panel on climate, migration and health, featuring Jennifer Leaning, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University; Michael VanRooyen, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; and Kira Vinke, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

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November 22, 2016

VIDEO: Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, speaks at joint conference on climate change displacement


We’re so pleased today to share coverage of our recent joint conference, “Climate Change Displacement: Finding Solutions to an Emerging Crisis,” which brought together experts from around the world to discuss the governance challenges that come with this critical issue. Thanks again to the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic for partnering with us on this conference, which was comprised of closed meetings and two public events.

Mary Robinson speaks in front of a backdrop covered in Harvard Law School's logo.
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, in conversation with HLS Dean Martha Minow.

Below, you’ll find the video of the first event: a conversation between Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and current UN special envoy on El Niño and climate change, and Dean Martha Minow. Harvard Law School has posted a summary of that talk, along with some excerpts, on the home page.

The Harvard Gazette also went in-depth with one of the conference attendees, Robin Bronen, a human rights attorney, senior research scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and co-founder and executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice. Robin participated in the second public event, entitled “Addressing Climate Change Globally and Locally.” You’ll also find video of that event below.

Thanks to all of the conference participants, and to the many other scholars, advocates, and affected communities who are working so hard on this issue.

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October 25, 2016

Commentary: Justice is long overdue for the widows of South African mineworkers


We’re very pleased to cross-post this piece by Emily Nagisa Keehn, Associate Director of HRP’s Academic Program, who argues in The Guardian that it’s vital the court of appeals uphold a ruling that makes South Africa’s gold mining industry accountable to women whose husbands died from silicosis. Emily co-authored the piece with her former colleague, Dean Peacock, Executive Director of Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa.

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