Blog: Scholarship

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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December 2, 2020

Incendiary Weapons Through a Humanitarian Disarmament Lens

Posted by Erin Shortell JD'21

On August 26, 2013, 18-year-old Muhammed Assi stood in the courtyard of a Syrian school talking with five classmates. Suddenly, an incendiary bomb landed in the middle of the group of students, immediately killing all but Muhammed.

“The intensity of the explosion threw me a distance of about three to four meters from where the missile struck,” Muhammed said. “We were surrounded by the fire. I used my hands to hit my head to try to snuff out the fire.” Other students screamed in horror, many badly burned and calling out for help, and dead bodies lay in the schoolyard. Muhammed recalled, “Time seems to stop when these things happen to you… [W]ords can’t describe my feelings, but I saw the fire completely surrounding me from everywhere, and when the breeze blew, it fed oxygen into the incendiary substance and made it burn even stronger.”

In a new report entitled, “They Burn Through Everything”: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) detail the human suffering inflicted by incendiary weapons. These weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it has failed to adequately protect civilians like Muhammed. While CCW states parties have expressed concerns about the use of incendiary weapons for years, the report urges them to formalize these discussions at their Review Conference next year and to strengthen Protocol III.

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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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October 13, 2020

Building Momentum: IHRC and ASP Launch Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Posted by Zac Smith JD'21

Sexual violence is all too common in conflict and post-conflict settings, causing horrific physical and psychological damage and preventing peace building efforts. As recognized in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019), all individuals are at risk of sexual violence in conflict, and detention settings are a particular context of risk, especially for men and boys. 

Taking up Resolution 2467’s call to increase international attention and coordination on the issue, the All Survivors Project and the International Human Rights Clinic partnered to author the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings. Drawing from existing sources of international law and authoritative guidance, the document’s ten principles and accompanying commentary outline the international community’s responsibility to prevent and respond to CRSV. 

A red cover with a yellow block illustrating a cage with humans sitting on bars.

On Wednesday October 7, academic experts, policy makers, and diplomats came together at a virtual side event to the UN Human Rights Council to officially launch the Principles and highlight their significance. (Watch a recording of the event here.) Moderator Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs and Director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA School of Law, prefaced the conversation by underlining the driving motivation for the All Survivors Project’s work — including these principles — that “human rights protections must be afforded to all people, regardless of their individual characteristics.” Panelists included Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, who supervised the Clinic’s work on the project; HE Premila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict; Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and  leader of a recently completed global study of children in detention; and Sophie Sutrich, Head of Addressing Sexual Violence for the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The event began with opening remarks from representatives of three states that have championed CRSV prevention. Situating the place of the Principles in wider efforts to cultivate international peace and prosperity,Ambassador Jürg Lauber of Switzerland and Ambassador Peter C. Matt of Liechtenstein underlined their importance and timeliness. As Ambassador Lauber observed, “the Principles are clearly intended to be of practical use, as they contain specific recommendations for implementation.”Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith of Norway explained that “the physical hurt suffered from conflict related sexual violence does not discriminate between male and female victims.”She committed that CRSV prevention, including a focus on men and boys, would be a priority when Norway takes its seat as a non-permanent Security Council member in 2021.

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October 13, 2020

Godfrey Odongo Joins HRP As Visiting Fellow

The Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School is pleased to welcome Godfrey Odongo, Senior Program Officer with the Human Rights Program at the Wellspring Philanthropic Fund, a US-based private foundation, to join HRP as a Visiting Fellow this fall. With Harvard Law School continuing to operate remotely this year, Odongo will engage with the human rights community at Harvard Law School virtually. He will use his time as a visiting fellow to research the new frontiers of human rights advocacy and activism in the age of populism, the covid-19 pandemic and contemporary challenges to the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights.

In his current role, Odongo manages funding portfolios for an ecosystem of key civil society and institutions advancing human rights norms in multiple contexts. He has previously served as a regional research expert on East Africa with Amnesty International; in a program advisory role with Save the Children-Sweden; and as a research fellow with the Dullah Omar Institute for Constitutional Law, Governance and Human Rights at the University of the Western Cape and at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. An advocate of the High Court of Kenya, he holds a doctorate in international human rights law from the University of the Western Cape, a master’s in law in human rights from the University of Pretoria, and a bachelor’s law degree from Moi University.

Odongo spoke with HRP about his work and what he hopes to achieve this semester as a Visiting Fellow.

A man wearing a gray suit and tie smiles against a gray background.

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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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October 7, 2020

Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Red report cover with heading, "Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary." There is a picture of a yellow illustrated prison and the report is by IHRC and All Survivors Project.

October 7, 2020 — Today, the International Human Rights Clinic and the All Survivors Project launched, “Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary.” The Principles draw from existing international law – primarily international human rights law and international humanitarian law – as well as authoritative guidance to bring together in a single instrument ten key international principles to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence, applicable to all persons deprived of their liberty in armed conflict. Each principle is accompanied by commentary on its sources and content.

In Spring 2020, Clinic students Yanitra Kumaraguru LLM ’20, Zac Smith JD ’21, and Amanda Odasz JD ’21 worked under the supervision of Anna Crowe LLM’12, the Clinic’s Assistant Director, to research and draft the principles and commentary. They were significantly aided by research conducted by Clinic students Terry Flyte LLM ’19 and Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19, who worked under the supervision of Crowe and Emily Keehn, formerly the Associate Director of the Academic Program of the Human Rights Program.

September 30, 2020

Confronting conflict pollution: new principles argue for greater assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war

Posted by Dana Walters

A woman peers behind a wall as she sees smoke billowing and fire.
A woman looks at fire and smoke from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before the fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 4, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, irreparably damaging the environment and disrupting the lives of the people who called the area home. When Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, visited the islands in March 2018, she spoke with survivors who suffered from immediate and long-term health effects and who remain displaced decades after the tests.

“Many survivors in the Marshall Islands described having no warning that the tests were going to occur. Then there was blinding light. The sky turned red and various other colors, and then white, radioactive ash fell everywhere,” Docherty said. “Eventually, the U.S. military came and evacuated the communities. For years, as some people would try to return to their home, they did not know if they were still at risk or if the land was safe. There was a remarkable lack of information distributed to those who were most affected.”

The experiences of survivors in the Marshall Islands, as well as other places where armed conflict and military activity have harmed the environment, provided an impetus for “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” a major report released today. Co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the report establishes a new framework for addressing the human harm resulting from the environmental consequences of conflict.

The report lays out 14 principles that cover a range of harm and assistance, establish a mechanism for shared responsibility, identify key implementation measures, and apply overarching human rights norms. The report also includes a detailed commentary, explaining the principles and providing precedent for them. The overarching goal of the principles is to ensure that victims’ needs are met and that they can realize their human rights.

“There have been huge advances in developing legal frameworks for protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts in the last decade,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at CEOBS. “The principles help fill a clear gap in clarifying how states and the international community should respond to the consequences of environmental degradation on communities.”

Weir and a panel of other experts joined Docherty for an online launch event on September 30.

The report adapts the concept of victim assistance, originally designed to deal with explosive weapons, to conflict-related pollution, such as that from nuclear weapon use and testing, oil well fires in Iraq, or the bombing of industrial plants in Ukraine.

Docherty began the process of drafting principles regarding toxic remnants of war with Weir and then-Clinical Fellow Rebecca Agule ’10 in fall 2016. After taking a short break to assist the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during the negotiations of the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), she returned to the project in fall 2018 with an exceptional team of clinical students: Matthew Griechen ’19, Daniel Levine-Spound ’19, and Susannah Marshall ’19. Docherty’s experiences with the TPNW, the first treaty to require assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war, informed the clinic’s principles.

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September 28, 2020

Litigating Identity Systems Guide

The cover of the report, "Litigating Identity Systems" by Privacy International. An image of the statute of justice holding the scales with a blindfold over her eyes and a sword in her hand.

Last week, Privacy International, a longstanding International Human Rights Clinic partner, published “A Guide to Litigating Identity Systems,” which draws on comparative research students Maithili Pai LLM ’20 and Spencer Bateman JD ’20 undertook with the Clinic’s Assistant Director, Anna Crowe LLM’12, last academic year on the human rights implications of national identity systems — data-intensive government programs that link each individuals’ identity with a card or number.

As the guide notes, public discussion on national identity systems has mostly focused on their perceived benefits, which “limits the extent to which groups and individuals concerned about the human rights impact of identity systems can organize around strong arguments challenging those systems, in whole or part.” The guide “seeks to fill that gap by providing a clear, centralised source of the arguments advanced in and discussed by national courts that discuss the negative implications of identity systems, particularly on human rights. It gives advocates a tool for developing arguments in any given national context challenging an identity system, informing debate from a human rights perspective, and further building the repertoire of arguments that can be advanced in the future.”

You can read the guide and learn more about it on Privacy International’s website.

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September 28, 2020

Susan Farbstein Publishes Article about Apartheid Litigation in Harvard International Law Journal


The most recent print edition of the Harvard International Law Journal, published today, features an article by Susan Farbstein, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School, about the long-running Apartheid suit.  Entitled “Perspectives from a Practitioner: Lessons Learned From The Apartheid Litigation,” the piece draws on her work as co-counsel in the Alien Tort Statute case that sought to hold corporations accountable for their role facilitating human rights abuse in apartheid South Africa.

“The article really represents my attempt, as a human rights practitioner, to analyze the experience of litigating the Apartheid suit,” Farbstein explains.  “While lawsuits alone can’t fundamentally improve human rights, the article contends that litigation can be a powerful option for individuals or communities that have survived human rights abuse, and that it played an important role for many stakeholders involved in this particular case.  I try to honestly consider the challenges that we faced over the years, and acknowledge the ways that we fell short of our ambitions.  But I also suggest that critiques of human rights litigation often miss the mark because they demand too much of litigation—which is, of course, just one of the many tools available to the human rights movement—and because the critiques fail to understand the multiple goals of this kind of effort.” 

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