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Blog: Events

March 28, 2022

Another Trump Legacy That Won’t Give Up

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

It appears that on April 1, Harvard Law School will be hosting a lecture by Peter Berkowitz, formerly the Executive Secretary of the Trump Administration’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” (CUR), whose appalling Report has been repudiated by the Biden Administration. The lecture, entitled “Reflections on the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” is presumably part of the ongoing efforts to keep alive the CUR’s misguided project of reorienting and reducing international human rights law, like his presentation at a November 2021 conference at Notre Dame.

While the CUR Report was evidently a compromise document, its overall message was dismissive and hostile toward the current systems of international human rights law.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had convened the commission in order to weaken respect for human rights law, and cut it back to eighteenth-century principles.  The Report favored letting each country give treaty provisions the meaning that it prefers consistent with its own traditions. 

The project was not only inward-focused.  Pompeo’s State Department had the Report translated into the other five UN official languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish) and also into Farsi and German.  It actively promoted the report at the United Nations and in other countries, thereby encouraging autocrats and right-wing populists abroad to follow its example.  Just what the world needs at the present historical moment.

Harvard’s association with the CUR, which was chaired by a faculty member, is regrettable but the University has also been active in critique.  For a fuller set of “reflections” on the CUR Report, I can recommend the panel held by the Human Rights Program in September 2020, or this article by one of the participants.

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January 19, 2022

IHRC’s Bonnie Docherty Shares Thoughts on the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons

By Sarah Foote with Bonnie Docherty

Countries party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major international disarmament treaty, convened last month at the United Nations in Geneva for its Sixth Review Conference. They focused much of their attention on two topics: killer robots, which they refer to as lethal autonomous weapons systems, and incendiary weapons. Students from the International Human Rights Clinic, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, have contributed to civil society efforts to push for negotiations of a new treaty on killer robots, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The Clinic and Human Rights Watch have also spearheaded advocacy to initiate a process to revisit and strengthen CCW Protocol III, which governs incendiary weapons. That protocol has loopholes that undermine its ability to protect civilians from the horrors of incendiary weapons, the source of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering. 

In the conversation below, Bonnie Docherty reflects on the Review Conference, its outcomes, and the next steps for these critical humanitarian issues.

Q. You weren’t able to travel to Geneva for the Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons held last December due to COVID. Were you able to watch the talks?

Bonnie Docherty: I watched all of the sessions from 4 am -12 pm for two and a half weeks through the UN Web TV live stream. Delegates from some countries and organizations did attend in person. However, due to COVID and Omicron, many civil societies representatives and diplomats did not attend for safety reasons. I participated actively through text messages, What’s App, emails, and meetings via Zoom with diplomats and colleagues. I used these tools to advocate for our issues and keep up-to-date with the people on the ground.

Although I could not make remote interventions myself, a Human Rights Watch representative read a statement that expressed our position on killer robots and incendiary weapons. A colleague from Mines Action Canada also delivered a statement I wrote on behalf of eight civil society organizations regarding incendiary weapons.

Lode Dewaegheneire of Mines Action Canada.

Q. What were the most important takeaways from the CCW discussions?

Bonnie Docherty: With regard to incendiary weapons, the outcome of the Review Conference on paper was disappointing because Russia refused to agree to put Protocol III on the agenda for next year. CCW operates by consensus so any one state can block progress. It was very discouraging after our all efforts to put forward a reasonable request—to hold dedicated discussions of the topic next year.

That said, there were powerful and encouraging statements from many states who supported having these discussions. There were impassioned pleas to stop the cruelty that incendiary weapons can cause. These countries understood the true human impact these types of weapons have, and this was important progress. They also recognized victims and the harm they have suffered.

Regarding autonomous weapons systems, the Review Conference made clear that progress on this issue cannot be made in a consensus body. Hopefully, the failure of the Conference to agree to negotiate a legally binding instrument will inspire states to go to a different forum and adopt a new treaty to make real change.

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December 15, 2021

Incendiary Weapons: Views from the Frontlines and the Financial Sector

Posted by By David Hogan, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic

This post originally appeared on humanitariandisarmament.org’s Disarmament Dialogue blog. Videos of the panelists are available there.

As states gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for a major UN disarmament conference, a recent online event illuminated the cruel effects of incendiary weapons and the need for stronger international law. Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, cause horrific injuries and long-term physical, psychological, and socioeconomic suffering. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of these weapons, but two loopholes weaken its effectiveness.

The event was entitled, “Incendiary Weapons: The Humanitarian Call for Stronger Law,” and co-hosted by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. It featured three panelists: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, survivor of a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972; Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who treated victims of an incendiary weapons attack in Syria; and Roos Boer, a researcher at PAX, a Dutch peace organization. Kim Phuc and Dr. Hallam detailed the grievous suffering caused by incendiary weapons and articulated their hopes for a more peaceful future, while Boer described financial institutions’ policies for divesting from incendiary weapons.

Bonnie Docherty

Moderator Bonnie Docherty, of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, opened the event by explaining the shortcomings of existing law and what states should do to address them. First, Protocol III’s definition of incendiary weapons excludes most multipurpose weapons with incendiary effects, such as white phosphorus. Second, the protocol has weaker restrictions for ground-launched weapons than for airdropped ones, even though they have the same damaging effects. At the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, underway in Geneva until December 17, 2021, CCW states parties should agree to set aside time to assess the adequacy of the protocol with an eye toward strengthening it.

Kim Phuc

Known around the world as “the girl in the picture,” Kim Phuc was immortalized at age 9 by a photograph that shows her screaming and running naked down a road in Trảng Bàng, Vietnam, after having her clothing burned off by napalm. Kim Phuc’s memories of June 8, 1972, include fleeing bombs and explosions of gasoline and screaming, “too hot,” as her skin was on fire.  Her parents located her in a hospital morgue three days after the attack, and she was transferred to a burn clinic in Saigon. Every day a nurse placed her in a tub “filled with a surgical soft solution and warm water [that] made it easier to cut [her] bare skin off.” She remembers, “The pain was unbearable, and I just cried as a child. When I couldn’t bear, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I just passed out.”

Although Kim Phuc ultimately survived and left the burn clinic 14 months later, she endured lasting physical and emotional scars. She recalls, “I didn’t feel pretty growing up. I was certain no boy would ever love me or marry me and that I would never have a normal life.” She dreamed of being a doctor and was accepted into medical school, but the Vietnamese government cut her off from her studies so that she could serve as a symbol for the state, making her feel like “a victim all over again.” This was a “very low point” in her life. Kim Phuc reports that even now, she still receives laser treatment for burns covering her arm, back, and neck. “With all the scars, [I] have no pores, cannot sweat, so I have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and gout.” She also still suffers from pain, nightmares, and trauma, and whenever she sees a gun, fear and memories of war and fire return.

While her suffering exemplifies the impacts of incendiary weapons, Kim Phuc expressed hope for the world. She later married, defected to Canada, and founded the Kim Foundation International, a non-profit that funds projects to help child victims of war around the world. She also travels the world as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She described the difficult but liberating task of forgiving those who caused her harm and credits her Christian faith with making that possible. Kim Phuc said that she “will forever bear the scar” of the napalm attack, but she articulated her dream that “one day, all people will live without fear in real peace, no fighting and no hostility.” She said: “I believe that peace, love, and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapons.”

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June 17, 2021

The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support

The International Human Rights Clinic was pleased to co-sponsor an event in the Asia Center’s Asia: Beyond the Headlines event series on, “The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support.” We were joined by panelists:

Moe Thuzar, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, National University of Singapore Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences; Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Kelley Currie, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security; former  U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the U.S. Representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch

The event was moderated by James Robson, James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center.

Panelists discussed the ASEAN response to the coup, what the international community can do to support democracy in Myanmar, and how economic sanctions could impact the Myanmar military.

The Clinic has also been co-sponsoring a series with Just Security exploring the implications of the coup in Myanmar. Read all the posts in our Beyond the Myanmar coup series.

May 4, 2021

A Burning Issue: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch

This post also appears on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.

Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating physical and psychological injuries on civilians in conflict zones, and those who survive endure a lifetime of suffering. While Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of incendiary weapons, loopholes in the protocol have limited its effectiveness.

“The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and Shortcomings of International Law,” a recent online event organized by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), brought together an incendiary weapon survivor, a military trauma nurse, a burn rehabilitation doctor, and a disarmament lawyer, who collectively highlighted the problems of these cruel weapons. Drawing on their first-hand experiences and professional expertise, the speakers vividly detailed the humanitarian consequences of incendiary weapons and called on states to strengthen international law regulating their use.

Two of the panelists had personally witnessed the horrors of incendiary weapons. “Abu Taim” (pseudonym) was a teacher at a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria, that was attacked with incendiary weapons in 2013. In pre-recorded video testimony, he recalled exiting the school right after the strike: “I saw bodies, and those bodies were only black. . . . I came closer to their bodies to know, who are those people? Who are those students? I didn’t recognize their faces.”

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March 16, 2021

WATCH: The Impact of COVID-19 on LGBT Persons Webinar


In his recent report to the United Nations General Assembly, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, addressed the particular impact of COVID-19 on LGBT persons, communities, and populations, highlighting social exclusion and violence, as well as institutional drivers of stigma and discrimination. Madrigal-Borloz, who is also the Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher at the Human Rights Program, joined HRP on February 18, 2021, for a discussion of his findings, which also includes recommendations and identifies good practices aimed at creating a COVID-19 response and recovery free from violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

This event was organized by the Human Rights Program and co-sponsored by the HLS LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

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March 11, 2021

Rayhan Asat LLM’16: Her Brother’s Keeper


HLS Advocates for Human Rights is proud to present the Spotlight Series, a forum for essays and opinion pieces written by Harvard Law School students and alumni calling attention to pressing domestic and international human rights issues. If you are a Harvard Law student or alumnus/a and would like to contribute a piece to Spotlights, please contact Sondra Anton ([email protected]) or Ikram Ais ([email protected]). 

The views and opinions expressed in Spotlight pieces are those of the authors or interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the International Human Rights Clinic, or the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.


On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted “Surveilled, Detained, Disappeared: Repression in Xinjiang,” a panel discussion on the oppression of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.  At the event, Rayhan Asat (LLM ‘16), the first Harvard Law School graduate of Uyghur origin, shared publicly for the first time that her brother, Ekpar Asat, had been forcibly disappeared after returning to China from a U.S. State Department-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C as part of the International Visiting Leaders Program (IVLP).

Rayhan was in the final weeks of her LLM program at HLS when Ekpar came to the United States to participate in the IVLP.  Ekpar visited her during this trip and promised her that he’d be back in a few months’ time to attend her graduation ceremony with their parents.  Unfortunately, that was the last time that Rayhan saw her brother.  Her parents canceled their trip to the U.S., and she never heard from Ekpar again. Nearly four years later, Rayhan learned that her brother had been sentenced by the Chinese government to fifteen years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination,” despite Ekpar’s track record of “continuous effort in cultivating ethnic harmony, and greater understanding between the Han and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Province of China.”

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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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December 16, 2020

Fall 2020: Online Advocacy and Learning

Posted by Dana Walters

For the Human Rights Program, fall 2020 was different — but no less busy. After a brief stint with remote schooling last spring, faculty, students, and staff committed to shifting their methods of advocacy and learning fully online this fall. Despite challenges, we all found ways of maintaining community and building connection virtually.

The International Human Rights Clinic held two introductory classes and an advanced seminar for third-year JDs. With almost 40 students this fall, projects examined the right to water in South Africa and the United States; killer robots; accountability for human rights violations by corporations and the United Nations; the arms trade treaty and gender-based violence; climate change and human rights; and more.

Fourteen students and a teacher smile on zoom in a grid format. Some have virtual backgrounds. It's a mix of women and men.
Bonnie Docherty (top, second from left) ran an introductory class in the Clinic on Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection.
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November 4, 2020

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity UN Mandate: Virtual Consultation on 2021-2023 Work-Plan

Individuals sit around a U-shaped conference table speaking.

The UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (IE SOGI) will convene an open consultation with State and non-State stakeholders to consolidate the mandate’s approaches and priorities for the remainder of the IE SOGI’s tenure. This consultation will serve as the main channel through which the IE SOGI will collect views and inputs to inform the preparation of his work plan for 2021-2023.

The consultation will start with a general segment during which the IE SOGI will introduce his draft work plan. Thereafter, participants will be invited to present their views and provide inputs to the discussion.

The online consultation will take place through the Zoom platform, on Friday, November 20 at 15:00 – 18:00 (CET) / 09:00 – 12:00 (EST). Registration is required to attend the meeting.

Guiding Questions for the Consultation:

The following questions may guide contributions from participants at the consultation:

  1. Are the narratives of impact depicted in the document an adequate portrayal of the mandate’s added value?

  2. Does the document include all necessary dimensions, principles and approaches necessary to ensure an intersectional, balanced and inclusive programme for the mandate?

  3. Are the thematic priorities identified in the document duly reflective of the best added value by the mandate to all stakeholders in their work of addressing violence and discrimination based on SOGI?

  4. As currently planned, are the activities and products an adequate response to the needs of stakeholders? Should different activities and products be considered?

  5. The document includes certain commitments of interacting with global processes (v.g., Beijing + 20). Are there any other global, regional, or local processes the interaction with which should be included in the document as well?

The consultation will be open to States, UN agencies, programmes and funds, regional human rights mechanisms, National Human Rights Institutions, members of civil society organizations, academic institutions, corporate entities, and all other interested stakeholders. The consultation will be held in English.

Read the Draft Work Plan under consultation at this link.

Register now to attend the virtual consultation!

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