Blog: Health

August 13, 2020

WATCH: Victor Madrigal-Borloz Argues for Conversion Therapy Ban


In July, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, presented his report on the practices of so-called “conversion therapy” to the UN Human Rights Council. Shortly after, he conducted two online sessions to elaborate on key findings of the report and engage in further conversation with interested stakeholders. Notably, in the report, Mr. Madrigal-Borloz called for a global ban on the practice, which, he explained, interferes with an individual’s “personal integrity and autonomy.”

The Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School hosted Mr. Madrigal-Borloz on July 10 and 14 where he discussed the harmful practice of conversion therapy in a virtual launch for the public. As discussed at the event and in the report, conversion therapy is a term used to describe a wide range of interventions, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These practices rely on the medically false idea that LGBT and other gender-diverse persons are sick, inflicting severe pain and suffering, and resulting in long-lasting psychological and physical damage.

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July 6, 2020

Amicus brief challenges public health asylum limits


Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program, joined immigration and refugee scholars during June in an amicus brief challenging the Trump Administration’s restriction of asylum procedures during the COVID-19 crisis. The brief supports plaintiffs’ emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the removal of a child fleeing targeted violence in his home country of Honduras.

The Trump administration’s order relies on a broad interpretation of the Public Health Service Act, which allows the CDC to limit the “introduction” of individuals and goods to the U.S. In reality, the CDC order is a thinly-veiled attempt to further curb immigration, only applying to noncitizens (including unaccompanied children) who arrive at the southern and northern borders without documentation. Health experts have decried the order, citing the numerous exemptions as demonstrating that its purpose is to target a disfavored category rather than to protect public health.

“The administration is abusing the CDC to create a shadow deportation system that circumvents all legal limitations on deportation,” said Neuman.

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July 2, 2020

150+ Organizations Issue Global Call for “New Normal”


Humanitarian disarmament approach offers proven model for change


(July 2, 2020) — More than 155 organizations released a joint letter today stating that humanitarian disarmament can lead the way to an improved post-pandemic world.

Endorsed by global campaigns that have garnered two Nobel Peace Prizes and fostered the creation of four international treaties in the past 25 years, the letter argues that humanitarian disarmament’s proven human-centered approach should guide current and future efforts in dealing with the pandemic and advancing human security.

The letter’s signatories include local, national, regional, and international organizations from around the world. Disarmament, human rights, peace, faith, medical, student, development, and other groups have all endorsed the letter. The widespread support across campaigns underscores how seriously the humanitarian disarmament community views the letter’s call. 

Humanitarian disarmament seeks to reduce the human suffering and environmental damage inflicted by arms. To advance its goals of preventing and remediating harm, money invested in unacceptable weapons would be better spent on humanitarian purposes, the letter says. 

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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 20, 2020

Blog Series Highlights Workers’ Rights During COVID-19


Clinical Students Ask How Human Rights Norms Can Aid Relief for Informal Workers 


Over the course of the semester, Aminta Ossom JD’09, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has led a team in examining workers’ rights and the informal economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading globally earlier this year, Ossom’s team pivoted to raising awareness on how shutdowns and virus transmission was exacerbating conditions for those, such as street vendors and ride-share drivers, whose vocations do not meet traditional models of employment. This week, HRP is posting blogs by Ossom’s clinical students, Tara Boghosian JD’20, Sienna Liu JD’21, Jessica Sawadogo JD’21, and Alicia Alvero Koski JD’20, who each explore what human rights can contribute as informal workers contend with this crisis. 

Last week, Ossom moderated a panel, “Rethinking Essential: Business, Work, and Human Rights in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” for the COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice during a Pandemic series. The panel, which featured  Anita Ramasastry (UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights), Alison Kiehl Friedman (ICAR), Kim Cordova (UFCW), and Janhavi Dave (Homenet South Asia), sought to examine how vulnerable workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic whilst providing essential services. The group also discussed whether or not the pandemic presents opportunities to address market failures and position workers’ rights as central to a more sustainable, just, and resilient economy. The series was convened by Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Duke Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and Just Security. You can still watch the “Rethinking Essential” panel, which will be available soon on the series website.

Read all the blog posts below:

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May 20, 2020

Excluding marginalized workers from COVID-19 relief is bad policy—is it also a human rights violation?

Posted by Tara Boghosian JD ’20

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the most expansive COVID-19 relief package in the world, so why does it still exclude many vulnerable workers and small business owners?  

Mehrsa Baradaran begins to answer these questions in her April 9 article, “The U.S. Should Just Send Checks—But Won’t” in The Atlantic. Baradaran describes how the CARES Act excludes several vulnerable groups of individuals and businesses. Most expressly, the U.S. government’s Small Business Administration categorically refuses aid to all sex-related businesses (even legal ones, like strip clubs) and businesses run by anyone with a criminal record. In turn, these business’ employees are left out, too. Further, even though the CARES Act seems to provide for generous individual aid, lots of workers will struggle to meet the practical requirements for receiving the aid, including all undocumented immigrants. Baradaran argues that these policies are rooted in the longstanding American belief that the poor are inherently undeserving and must prove their moral uprightness in order to receive aid. And, as Baradaran notes, shaping economic policy around this belief is not only cruel but counterproductive. Being generous with aid during the crisis would do more to keep the economy afloat.  

What is also clear, but not discussed by the article, is that in addition to being bad policy, these exclusions also raise human rights concerns. The international treaty on economic, social and cultural rights provides for the right to work in Articles 6 and 7, which can be fulfilled in part by governments putting in place social protection systems that prevent unemployment. This right is not contingent on the type of work that a person does. In addition, Article 9 of the treaty recognizes the right of everyone to social security, which the treaty’s monitoring body has interpreted to include non-contributory unemployment insurance. That body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has also specified that these benefits must be both accessible to all workers—including part-time, casual, seasonal, self-employed, undocumented, and informal economy workers—and adequate to cover their basic needs. Finally, the treaty states that individuals’ enjoyment of economic and social rights should improve progressively, so governments are also expected to increase rather than decrease access to social security over time.  

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May 20, 2020

Lockdown Policies in African Countries Often Clash with Economic Reality

Posted by Sienna Liu JD'20

A woman buys bananas in bulk for resale. Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

While there may be a middle-class bias in policies such as “social distancing” in the U.S., countries around the world that rely on cash-based commerce and thriving informal economies are facing a different kind of hardship.  

A recent news article published by Quartz Africa depicts the current situation for informal workers in African countries under lockdown: informal workers, particularly street vendors, small-scale business owners, and traders, are attempting to do business despite the dual threats posed to their health and physical safety. In addition to the health risks that accompany continued contact with customers, these workers are also facing incidents of police brutality as patrolling officers harshly enforce lockdowns and curfews in various countries. 

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May 20, 2020

The Role of Women’s Equality in Economic Recovery

Posted by Jessica Sawadogo JD ’21

A woman makes a bed and prepares laundry in Indonesia.
A domestic worker in Jakarta, Indonesia. Copyright: ILO/A. Ridwan Licensed: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.

As researchers learn more about coronavirus and the way it impacts us all, they’ve revealed a few key differences along gendered lines. Slightly more women than men may be getting COVID-19, but more men are dying from the virus. Women, on the other hand, are more economically vulnerable from the financial fallout of the novel coronavirus. This difference takes on a new meaning as the world braces itself for an impending recession.  

The New York Times bi-weekly newsletter on gender and society recently reported a sobering fact: that the economic fallout from the coronavirus will have a “disproportionate negative effect on women.” The newsletter examines the results of a study from researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, which found that the economic downturn will result in worse economic outcomes for women than for men and that the disparity from this crisis will be even worse than in previous recessions. The differences are attributed to women’s disproportionate representation in jobs that have been most affected by the global shutdown, like those in the restaurant and travel sector, for example. In addition, because women are often responsible for childcare, those who are able to work from home will see an increase in their overall workload with reduced availability for remunerated work. 

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May 20, 2020

Human Rights and Equal Relief for Gig Economy Workers

Posted by Alicia Alvero Koski JD'20

A rideshare vehicle. Credit: Eugene E. Kim. License: CC by 2.0.

Attempts to expand U.S. unemployment benefits in the wake of COVID-19 show the pitfalls of a narrow definition of employment. International human rights treaties, in contrast, provide a more expansive approach, one that could provide assistance to a population of workers that has experienced increased difficulty obtaining relief for lost work.  

The pandemic has caused unemployment on a massive scale. Workers who live paycheck to paycheck are especially hard hit and face an uphill battle to pay for basic necessities. In response, the U.S. government has expanded its unemployment assistance programs, but many non-traditional workers may encounter challenges when trying to claim these benefits. 

According to the New York Times, gig workers like rideshare drivers struggle to claim the benefits they are owed. U.S. states, which manage unemployment payments, have not had the infrastructure in place to handle such claims, meaning gig workers across the country have had to wait longer than others before receiving assistance. 

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