Blog: Indigenous Rights

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October 7, 2020

Myanmar Must Tackle Hate Speech Ahead of 2020 General Elections

One month ahead of Myanmar’s general elections, a new report deep dives into root causes of hate speech and its effect on civil society space in Myanmar

For Immediate Release

(Yangon, 8 October 2020) — Myanmar must tackle the root causes of hate speech and address impunity of perpetrators, while ensuring that measures to combat hate speech is in line with international human rights standards with robust and inclusive participation of civil society, said 19 organizations in a report published today. The immediate implementation of these calls is vital ahead of the November 2020 general elections, which has already seen the erosion of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities throughout Myanmar.

“Institutionalized hate speech in Myanmar has long been systematically disseminated by powerful actors including the military, government, ultranationalists and other maligned actors. They benefit from the constructed narratives of hate and from the division and conflict it creates in society. Hate speech also contributes to a climate where impunity for human rights violations goes unaddressed. Hate speech is already being deployed as part of campaign strategies leading up to the November 2020 general elections. Such campaigns must immediately be denounced and countered by the government and the Union Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election,” said Moe Thway, President of Generation Wave

The new joint report, “Hate Speech Ignited: Understanding Hate Speech in Myanmar, documents and extensively analyzes the role that hate speech, rampant misinformation campaigns, and ultranationalism have played in the resurgence of oppression and human rights violations in Myanmar and highlights the new alignment of the government and military in the proliferation of hate speech. In analyzing the trends and patterns of hate speech in Myanmar, the report identifies a number of mutually reinforcing constructed narratives aimed at advancing Buddhist-Burman dominance at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.

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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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July 27, 2020

Summary executions and widespread repression under Bolivia’s interim government reports rights advocates from Harvard and University Network for Human Rights


Advocates call for a stop to state repression and violence, a turn to accountability, and a clear path to free and fair elections

Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. She cries over a casket while others look on tearing up.
Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. Photo Credit: Thomas Becker 2019.


(Cambridge, MA, July 27, 2020) –­­– Four days after the Interim Bolivian Government suspended elections again, Harvard Law School’s (HLS) International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) released a report on the gross human rights abuses carried out under Bolivia’s interim President, Jeanine Áñez. The report documents one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in the past several decades in Bolivia as well as the growing fear of indigenous peoples and government critics that their lives and safety are in danger. 

“We have identified very troubling patterns of human rights violations since the Interim Government took power. These abuses create a climate where the possibility of free and fair elections is seriously undermined,” said Thomas Becker, an international human rights attorney with UNHR and a 2018-2020 clinical instructor in HLS’s International Human Rights Clinic.

Áñez assumed power on November 12, 2019 with the mandate of calling new elections by January 2020. Under her administration, Bolivia has endured a surge of human rights violations. Shortly after Áñez took power, state forces carried out operations that killed at least 23 Bolivian civilians, all indigenous, and injured over 230. These casualties make November 2019 the second-deadliest month in terms of civilian deaths committed by state forces since Bolivia became a democracy nearly 40 years ago.

Since November, the interim government has continued to persecute people that it perceives to be outspoken opponents of the Áñez administration. The government has intimidated the press, shutting down critical news outlets and arresting “seditious” journalists. Áñez’s forces have arrested or detained hundreds of former politicians for vague crimes such as “sedition” and “terrorism.”

The HLS and UNHR report offers recommendations to the interim government to enforce its domestic and international obligations. First among these recommendations is that the interim government fulfill its commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as quickly as possible.

“We are spiraling deeper into authoritarianism,” warned Felipa López Apaza, whose brother Juan was killed in Black November. “We need elections as soon as possible or they will keep coming after us.”

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May 6, 2020

Advocating for human rights in Myanmar during COVID-19

Posted by Dana Walters

Yee Htun speaks about respecting refugee rights in the midst of a global pandemic

Landscape of Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp, filled with makeshift houses and roofs that are crumbling.
The refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh houses hundreds of thousands of refugees. Credit: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council

Across southeast Asia, hundreds of thousands of persecuted ethnic minorities in poverty face a new threat: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence. Since August 2017, more than 745,000 ethnic Rohingya have escaped oppression and violence in Myanmar and live in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In November 2019, a case was filed against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice alleging that the crimes committed against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, violate the Genocide Convention.

Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic was one of 50 organizations to send a joint letter to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh urging the government to uphold refugee rights as the world faces and fights the novel coronavirus. Still, ongoing violence in Myanmar means individuals continue to flee, this time facing border restrictions and lockdowns. Most recently, boats of escaping Rohingya were turned away at Malaysia’s border, a move that sparked condemnation from human rights groups.

The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Yee Htun, clinical instructor and lecturer on law in the International Human Rights Clinic, to learn more about how Myanmar and those who have fled the state are confronting this crisis. Htun was born in Myanmar and fled the country after the pro-democratic uprising in 1988.

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November 19, 2019

Mamani Plaintiff Teófilo Baltazar Cerro Pens Op-Ed Urging 11th Circuit to Reinstate $10 Million Verdict

Teófilo Baltazar places flowers on the tomb of his wife, Teodosia, who was shot and killed during Black October.
Teófilo Baltazar places flowers on the tomb of his wife, Teodosia, who was shot and killed during Black October. Photo Credit: Thomas Becker.

This story originally ran in NACLA Reports (North American Congress on Latin America) under the title, “Survivors Fight for Justice for 2003 Bolivian Military Massacre.”

Teófilo is one of the nine plaintiffs in Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, a U.S. federal lawsuit against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister. 

On November 19, surviving family members of a 2003 massacre in El Alto are urging the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate a $10 million judgement against Bolivia’s former president and defense minister. 


Last week in Bolivia, a president resigned under military pressure as civilian supporters of different political parties clashed in the streets. Bolivia is in turmoil today, and not for the first time. Sixteen years ago, at a time of political protests against the government’s plan to export Bolivian gas through Chilean ports, the army opened fire on civilians in the city of El Alto, killing over 70 people, including my wife and our unborn child.

One way to stop such violence is to provide justice for past acts: to hold accountable those in command of the forces that shoot at unarmed civilians. That is why I am in Miami today. Together with eight fellow plaintiffs who also lost loved ones in the massacre, I will continue to appeal the decision to overturn a ruling that held the masterminds of these killings responsible.

When the Eleventh Circuit hears the appeal in what is known as the Mamani case today, it will be an important test. Can the legal system deliver justice for people like me? From a young age, as an Indigenous Aymara person growing up in Bolivia, I was taught that the answer was “no.” Although my country has the largest population of Indigenous peoples in South America—about 60 percent—we have always been treated as second class citizens. We did not have political or economic power. We did not have a voice. And our lives did not have much value.

In 2003, during what has become known as “Black October,” a soldier shot my pregnant wife, Teodosia, while she praying in her sister’s home. Over a period of several weeks, Bolivian soldiers, acting under the command of former president Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada and his defense minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, massacred Indigenous Bolivians. Soldiers injured over 550 people and killed more than 70, including my wife and our unborn child.

Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.After my wife was murdered, I did not know what to do. The love of my life was gone, and I was left alone to raise our seven children. Rather than simply mourn, though, I joined with others who had survived Black October. We decided to make the system work for us.

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October 27, 2015

Defenders of the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Environment: Comment on Recent Hearing At IACHR

Posted by Kiri Toki, LLM '16

This piece was originally posted on the blog for EarthRights International

 

Last week, a panel of Ecuadorian indigenous and mestiza women spoke at a Thematic Hearing in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) about their struggles protecting the Amazon Rainforest. They spoke about the longstanding and continuing extractive projects that have operated in the area, and the subsequent (and escalating) abuse they have faced at the hands of the Ecuadorian Government.

When speaking about the extractive projects, one woman, Gloria Ushigua, a Sapara woman, highlighted that there had been no consultation with the local people. “There has been no consultation” she said in an answer to one of the IACHR’s questions. “We don’t know how [the Ecuadorian land acquisition process] works.”

The Ecuadorian delegation (from left to right) Ivonne Ramos, Esperanza Martinez, Paty Gualinga, Gloria Ushigua, Alicia Huetica and Margoth Escobar with IACHR Chair Rose-Marie Belle Antoine

The Ecuadorian delegation (from left to right) Ivonne Ramos, Esperanza Martinez, Paty Gualinga, Gloria Ushigua, Alicia Huetica and Margoth Escobar with IACHR Chair Rose-Marie Belle Antoine

 

Other women also bravely recounted the criminalization and abuse that they have suffered in the wake of the recent Quito protests. Esperanza Martinez, who works with Acción Ecológica, explained that her emails had been hacked and that she has been stigmatized. Similarly, Margoth Escobar, a defender of the Amazon for over three decades, detailed how she had been arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, and beaten while in police custody. She in fact left Ecuador illegally to attend the hearing. She felt compelled to tell the IACHR what has been taking place, even though she believed that prison awaited her upon her return to Ecuador.

Sadly, the women’s struggle to protect their environment from extractive mining practices is a familiar story for many indigenous peoples. For instance, my own people, the Maori people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, have recently protested against government proposals to allow deep-sea oil drilling to take place off New Zealand’s coasts. Like many indigenous peoples, Maori view deep-sea oil drilling to be too intrusive, and the associated environmental risks to be too great.

Gloria Ushigua tells her story at an Amazon Watch/CIEL lunch event. Next to her are Waorani leaders from Brazil- one of the most dangerous places for defenders.

Gloria Ushigua tells her story at an Amazon Watch/CIEL lunch event. Next to her are Waorani leaders from Brazil- one of the most dangerous places for defenders.

 

As it happens, the IACHR is currently preparing a report on extractive industries and indigenous peoples. During the hearing, the IACHR noted that it is seeing a pattern throughout the Americas of threats against indigenous defenders and was particularly interested in the events in Ecuador for this reason. After thanking the women for their time, the IACHR explained that it would continue to monitor the situation in Ecuador.

While we can only speculate on what that report will entail, the IACHR’s report will be of interest to indigenous peoples worldwide. We await the release of the IACHR’s report and acknowledge those who, like these women, come forward and speak to the injustices that they continue face.

(From left to right) Esperanza Martinez, Margoth Escobar, Alicia Huetica, Gloria Ushigua speak in front of the IACHR.

From left to right: Esperanza Martinez, Margoth Escobar, Alicia Huetica, Gloria Ushigua speak in front of the IACHR.

 

This blog post was written by Kiri Toki, who is a young, indigenous woman, of Maori descent (Ngati Wai/Ngapuhi) from Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is currently an LLM student at Harvard Law School, where she is focusing on indigenous rights and international law

March 10, 2015

Plaintiffs’ Victory Against Former Somali Prime Minister Allowed to Stand

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein

After 11 long years of litigation, plaintiffs from Somalia learned yesterday that their $21 million judgment for damages for torture and war crimes would stand. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the appeal of the defendant, General Mohamed Ali Samantar, a former Somali Prime Minister and Minister of Defense who was implicated in the abuses. Samantar, who now lives in Virginia, can make no additional appeals.

Beyond the victory for the plaintiffs, counsel from the Center for Justice & Accountability noted this ruling is critically important because it preserves a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found egregious rights violations cannot be considered “official acts” shielded by sovereign immunity.

The ruling comes amidst ongoing debate about how the United States should treat high-ranking former foreign government officials who are accused of human rights abuses and are now living in the United States. The International Human Rights Clinic and its partners have been involved since 2007 in one such case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, which brings Alien Tort Statute claims against the former President and the former Defense Minister of Bolivia for their role in extrajudicial killings in 2003. Last Friday, the Mamani plaintiffs filed a brief with the Eleventh Circuit opposing the defendants’ appeal, which is considering the issues of exhaustion of remedies and command responsibility.

Like Samantar, the defendants in Mamani came to the United States after leaving power, and have remained in the country ever since.

September 9, 2013

Clinic and Partners Release Book Criticizing Chile for Failure to Meet International Obligations Towards Indigenous Peoples

Posted by Daniel Saver, JD '12, Skadden Fellow, Community Legal Services, East Palo Alto

Jointly with Stanford Law School, the Universidad Diego Portales, and the Universidad de Los Andes, the International Human Rights Clinic released a book today about the consultation rights of indigenous peoples in Chile. The book critiques the Chilean government’s failure to guarantee indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, an international legal obligation Chile agreed to when it ratified International Labor Organization Convention 169 in 2008. See below for the full press release in English, then in Spanish:

 

PRESS RELEASE

Chile Fails to Meet International Obligations Towards Indigenous Peoples, Human Rights Experts Find

Book by international team of human rights experts documents violations of indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation

 

September 9, 2013, Santiago, Chile – Nearly five years after ratifying the International Labor Organization Convention 169 (“ILO 169”), Chile continues to violate indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, according to a book released today by human rights experts in the Consorcio Norte-Sur. The Consorcio is a partnership between Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School, the Universidad Diego Portales (Chile), and the Universidad de Los Andes (Colombia).

chilecoverThe Spanish-language book, titled “No Nos Toman en Cuenta” (“They Don’t Consider Us”), provides the most comprehensive review of the consultation rights of Chile’s indigenous people to date. The book examines several ways that the Chilean government has failed to guarantee indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation, including the government’s failure to implement international norms within its domestic legal system. The book also features in-depth case studies that document specific rights violations caused by salmon farming projects in indigenous territory in the south of the country.

“Indigenous peoples’ right to free, prior, and informed consultation guaranteed by ILO 169 is intended to ensure that these historically marginalized groups are able to participate in a meaningful way in decisions that directly affect them,” said Jorge Contesse, former director of Universidad Diego Portales’ Human Rights Center, now a law professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “The failure to implement this right not only violates Chile’s international legal obligations, but also perpetuates distrust between indigenous peoples and the Chilean government, fueling conflict between the two.”

The case of the salmon hatcheries studied in the book highlights this dynamic. Researchers found that often the only consultation-like procedures were conducted by private investors, who provided special benefits for select members of indigenous communities in return for their support. Community members told investigators that this impermissible abdication of the state’s obligation to consult created conflict and upset traditional leadership structures and decision-making processes.

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