Blog: Human Rights and the Environment

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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October 20, 2016

Tomorrow, Oct. 21: “Addressing Climate Displacement Globally and Locally”


October 21, 2016


“Addressing Climate Displacement Globally and Locally”


A Panel Discussion

12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Milstein West

Please join us for a panel examining challenges at the intersection of climate change, human rights, and displacement. Experts from around the world will discuss international and domestic approaches to dealing with displacement driven by climate change crises, ranging from drought in Somalia to rising tides in Alaska.

The panelists are: Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor of Law and director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at University of New South Wales (UNSW), and the leader of the UNSW Grand Challenge on Refugees & MigrantsWalter Kälin, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Bern, envoy of the chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative, and formerly Representative of the United Nations’ Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons; and 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. This panel will be moderated by Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic.

This event is part of a three-day, mostly closed-door conference sponsored by the International Human Rights Clinic, the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic.

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October 19, 2016

Tomorrow, Oct. 20: A conversation with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, on climate change displacement

Event poster shows a headshot of Mary Robinson wearing a red blazer over a black shirt and pearls.

October 20, 2016


Climate Change Displacement: Finding Solutions to an Emerging Crisis


A conversation between Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland;
President of the Mary Robinson Foundation- Climate Justice; UN Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate and HLS Dean Martha Minow

3:00- 5:00 p.m.
Milstein West

Please join us for a conversation between Mary Robinson and Martha Minow on the topic of climate change, human rights and displacement. Ms. Robinson is formerly the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, as well as the former UN Special Envoy on Climate Change.

This conversation is part of a three-day, mostly closed-door conference sponsored by the International Human Rights Clinic, the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic and the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic examining challenges of climate change, human rights, and displacement, and efforts to address this emerging crisis in the wake of the Paris COP 21 agreement.

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October 12, 2016

Clinic Highlights Human Rights Costs of South African Gold Mining


For Immediate Release


South Africa: Protect Residents’ Rights from Effects of Mining


Government Response to Environmental and Health Threats Falls Short


(Cambridge, MA, October 12, 2016)—South Africa has failed to meet its human rights obligations to address the environmental and health effects of gold mining in and around Johannesburg, the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) said in a new report released today.

The 113-page report, The Cost of Gold, documents the threats posed by water, air, and soil pollution from mining in the West and Central Rand. Acid mine drainage has contaminated water bodies that residents use to irrigate crops, water livestock, wash clothes, and swim. Dust from mine waste dumps has blanketed communities. The government has allowed homes to be built near and sometimes on those toxic and radioactive dumps.

Report cover shows fencing in front of a dilapidated house and what looks to be the South African landscape.

Examining the situation through a human rights lens, the report finds that South Africa has not fully complied with constitutional or international law. The government has not only inadequately mitigated the harm from abandoned and active mines, but it has also offered scant warnings of the risks, performed few scientific studies about the health effects, and rarely engaged with residents on mining matters.

“Gold mining has both endangered and disempowered the people of the West and Central Rand,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at IHRC and the report’s lead author. “Despite some signs of progress, the government’s response to the crisis has been insufficient and unacceptably slow.”

The report is based on three research trips to the region and more than 200 interviews with community members, government officials, industry representatives, civil society advocates, and scientific and legal experts. It provides an in-depth look at gold mining’s adverse impacts and examines the shortcomings of the government’s reaction.

For example, although acid mine drainage reached the surface of the West Rand in 2002, the government waited 10 years before establishing a plant that could stem its flow. In addition, the government has not ensured the implementation of dust control measures and has left industry to determine how to remove the waste dumps dominating the landscape.

The Cost of Gold calls on South Africa to develop a coordinated and comprehensive program that deals with the range of problems associated with gold mining in the region. While industry and communities have a significant role to play, the report focuses on the responsibility of the government, which is legally obliged to promote human rights.

The government has taken some positive steps to deal the situation in the West and Central Rand. This year, it pledged to improve levels of water treatment by 2020. In 2011, it relocated residents of the Tudor Shaft informal settlement living directly on top of a tailings dam. The government along with industry has also made efforts to increase engagement with communities.

Nevertheless, The Cost of Gold finds that the government’s delayed response and piecemeal approach falls short of South Africa’s duties under human rights law. As a result, the impacts of mining continue to infringe on residents’ rights to health, water, and a healthy environment, as well as rights to receive information and participate in decision making.

“The government should act immediately to address the ongoing threats from gold mining, and it should develop a more complete solution to prevent future harm,” Docherty said. “Only then will South Africa live up to the human rights commitments it made when apartheid ended.”

For more information, please contact:
In Cambridge MA, Bonnie Docherty: [email protected]

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September 20, 2016

The Clinic Welcomes New Advocacy Fellows

Posted by Cara Solomon

Now that we’re in the rhythm of the semester, it’s time to introduce some new faces in the International Human Rights Clinic. We’re thrilled to welcome five new clinical advocacy fellows, all accomplished lawyers with different expertise and experiences. They’re leading clinical projects this semester on a range of new topics, from human rights protection in investment treaties to armed conflict and the environment.

The Clinic's new advocacy fellows, from top right: Rebecca Agule, Yee Htun, Fola Adeleke, Juan Pablo Calderon-Meza, and Salma Waheedi.
The Clinic’s new advocacy fellows, from top left: Rebecca Agule, Yee Htun, Fola Adeleke, Juan Pablo Calderon-Meza, and Salma Waheedi.

In alphabetical order, here they are:

Fola Adeleke is a South African-trained lawyer who specializes in international economic law and human rights, corporate transparency, open government and accountability within the extractives industry. This semester, his projects focus on human rights protection in investment treaties and reconfiguring the licensing process of mining to include more consultation with communities.

Rebecca Agule, an alumna of the Clinic, is an American lawyer who specializes in the impact of conflict and violence upon individuals, communities, and the environment. This semester, her project focuses on armed conflict and the environment, with a focus on victim assistance.

Juan Pablo Calderón-Meza, a former Visiting Fellow with the Human Rights Program, is a Colombian attorney whose practice specializes in international law and human rights advocacy and litigation. This semester, his project focuses on accountability for corporations and executives that facilitated human rights abuses and atrocity crimes.

Yee Htun is the Director of  the Myanmar Program for Justice Trust, a legal non-profit that partners with lawyers and activists to strengthen communities fighting for justice and human rights. Born in Myanmar and trained as a lawyer in Canada, Yee specializes in gender justice and working on behalf of refugee and migrant communities. This semester, her project focuses on women advocates in Myanmar.

Salma Waheedi is an attorney who specializes in international human rights law, Islamic law, gender justice, family law, comparative constitutional law, and refugee and asylum law. Born in Bahrain and trained as a lawyer in the U.S., Salma currently holds a joint appointment with Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program, where she focuses on family relations in Islamic jurisprudence. This semester, her project focuses on gender justice under Islam.

We’re so pleased to have the fellows as part of our community this semester. Please swing by at some point to introduce yourself and say hello.

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