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May 4, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Don’t Ignore the Religious Dimensions

Posted by Susan Hayward

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post first appeared on Just Security on May 3, 2021). 

The 2007 democratic uprising in Myanmar looked a lot different from the current anti-coup resistance. Sparked by a rise in fuel prices that created further economic burden on an already struggling population, thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns across the country took to the streets in defiance of the military. In a country in which religious actors, institutions, practices, and ideas are deeply influential, the so-called Saffron Revolution, the most recent mass mobilization prior to the current one, had seismic consequences – contributing to the military’s decision to shift to quasi-democratic rule the following year.

This time around, it’s not Buddhist monastics but young lay people who are at the forefront of Myanmar’s mass protest, with clergy from all faiths following their lead. While religious actors and symbols may be less visible than in 2007, they are still very present. This will surprise no one familiar with how deeply entrenched religion is in Myanmar’s social, political, and economic life. And indeed, precisely because of this, exploring the religious dimensions of the current protests provide critical insights on the coup and its aftermath. Among other things, the changing nature of how religion is intersecting with and influencing the protests tells us something about how the country as a whole is changing, and what its future might be.

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April 29, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: “In Accordance with the Law” – How the Military Perverts Rule of Law to Oppress Civilians

Posted by Pwint Htun

Women hold a sign that says, "rule of law," while a hand reaches in a box to vote. Blood is spattered across the scene.
Original art of Maung Maung Tinn, refugee from Myanmar, from “Born Free and Equal” (with permission by artist).

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This post was published on the Just Security blog on April 28, 2021.)

“When protestors refuse to listen to our orders to disperse, we shoot at the protestors in accordance with the law.”

These are the chilling words of a Tatmadaw soldier. Unfortunately, they are not isolated ones, and they show how the idea of “law” has been perverted to justify both the Feb. 1, 2021 military coup and the deplorable violence that has followed. The word “law” (or “upaday” in Burmese) has long been a tenuous concept in Myanmar. After decades living under a military dictatorship, in which laws were used as tools of oppression and could change at the whim of those in power, the people of Myanmar have, understandably, little trust in law. The recent actions of Min Aung Hlaing and the current junta have only further affirmed this perception. The concept of law and the related idea of the rule of law have been warped and manipulated by soldiers and police officers, many of whom believe they are enforcing the “law” to uphold order when they crack down on protests against the coup.

At a recent military tribunal, the “law” was weaponized as a tool to instill fear by issuing unappealable death penalty sentences to 19 young protestors for one soldier’s death even though there were no eye witnesses to the alleged crime. In telling contrast, since early February, nearly 800 unarmed civilians have been killed at the hands of Tatmadaw. It is difficult to imagine a version of Myanmar further away from rule of law than this one. There instead needs to be an all-out effort to strengthen the true meaning of the rule of law in Myanmar by both returning the country to civilian rule and undertaking constitutional reforms to enshrine democratic rights instead of using the military-drafted 2008 Constitution as a tool protecting military might.

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April 27, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Echoes of the Past, Crises of the Moment, Visions of the Future

Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This article introduces a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series will brings together local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. The article first appeared on Just Security on April 26, 2021). 

On Feb. 1, 2021, the Myanmar military – the Tatmadaw – shattered the all too brief effort to transition to democracy in Myanmar. Over the past two and a half months, the Tatmadaw has continued its illegitimate effort to undermine the democratic elections from last year and prevent the elected government from taking power. In the face of mass popular opposition and international condemnation, the military has only escalated its use of violence against its own population – systematically stripping away rights and violently attacking protestors and dissidents, reportedly killing over 700 civilians as of Apr. 20, 2021, and detaining more than 3,000.

Despite the continued threats and extreme violence, the people of Myanmar have stood their ground and refused to be silenced. On Apr. 16, opponents of the coup from across the political spectrum announced the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) to resist the military. Just as importantly, the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a grassroots movement aimed at disrupting state functions and crippling the economy in order to undermine the military’s attempt to rule, has been hugely successful in galvanizing collective action since early February. In addition to the tens of thousands of CDM participants walking out of their private and public sector positions, protests across the country have seen massive youth engagement on a scale not seen in a generation. The organizing power has been impressive. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok have been used to spread awareness and coordinate protests, strikes, and other forms of peaceful resistance. The military has taken notice of the CDM’s power, issuing threats against young people protesting and shooting indiscriminately at protestors of all ages, including children. Parallel movements have arisen in areas like neighboring Thailand, with Thai youth protesting their own authoritarian government in solidarity with activists from Myanmar.

Today we launch a Just Security series that will take a deep dive into the situation in Myanmar. The series will provide insights that put the coup and civilian response into historical and modern context, deepen unexplored angles on the current crises, and survey possibilities and ways forward over the next six months to a year. This series also aims to elevate policy discussions on a number of issues, ranging from peace and accountability to religion and democracy, asking: What is happening now and why?

Within the series, contributions from authors from Myanmar and others working closely on the situation will explore topics such as youth leadership in the CDM and protests, domestic and international solidarity, environmental concerns, the dissolution of rule of law in Myanmar, and what the coup means for ongoing international accountability efforts. Below, we offer an overview of the major themes of the series, along with a timeline of the struggle for democracy in Myanmar. The current uprising against military rule must be understood in the context of these decades-long struggles for peace, democracy, accountability, and justice.

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April 22, 2021

Report Finds Haitian Government Complicit in Crimes Against Humanity


Haitian human rights coalition, Harvard clinic release new analysis of state-sanctioned massacres


(April 22, 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Cambridge, MA)
— Three deadly massacres targeting impoverished neighborhoods in Haiti were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH). The report points to evidence that the gang-led attacks were resourced and supported by state actors, ranging from high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration to the Haitian National Police.

Report cover shows the image of Haitian citizens marching in the streets protesting.

The report, “Killing with Impunity: State-Sanctioned Massacres in Haiti,” analyzes three attacks that took place between 2018-2020, which have together killed at least 240 civilians. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air, and Cité Soleil, which have played a leading role in organizing protests demanding government accountability for corruption and other human rights violations.

“Moïse’s government has been pushing the story that the attacks are merely gang infighting, but the evidence demonstrates high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up of the attacks,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a member organization of OHCCH.

The report relies on investigations by Haitian and international human rights experts that show that senior Moïse administration officials planned the attacks or otherwise assisted by providing the gangs with money, weapons, or vehicles. Off-duty police officers and resources were utilized to carry out the attacks. The Haitian National Police repeatedly failed to intervene to protect civilians despite the sites of the attacks being in close proximity to multiple police stations. In each attack, gangs arrived in the targeted neighborhood, shot at residents indiscriminately, raped women, and burnt and looted houses. The massacres repeatedly involved gangs affiliated with the G9 alliance led by Jimmy Chérizier, which reportedly enjoys government connections.

“We found that Moïse’s failure to stop or respond to attacks initiated by his subordinates may make the President himself liable for crimes against humanity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Clinic who supervised the research and drafting of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to stand up for human rights, fully investigate allegations of serious abuses, and do its part to hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.

The report comes amidst a deepening crisis for democracy and human rights in Haiti. Widespread demonstrations have gripped the nation, with large swaths of the population protesting government corruption, rising insecurity, and Moise’s increasingly authoritarian conduct. Notably, to repress dissent, Moise has criminalized common forms of protest and created an intelligence agency to provide surveillance of the political opposition. Attacks against civilians, including the assassination of prominent government critics, have largely been carried out with impunity. Although most experts and much of civil society agree that President Moïse’s constitutional mandate ended on February 7, 2021, he has refused to step down, insisting that an illegal constitutional referendum take place before elections for his replacement.   

The finding that the attacks amount to crimes against humanity strengthens the prospects for accountability. In addition to imposing an international obligation on the Haitian government to prosecute the people responsible, it opens the door to prosecutions in national and international courts outside of Haiti. It also means that perpetrators can be pursued indefinitely as no statutes of limitations apply.

“Just like Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eventually had to stand trial for his brutal repression decades after he left office, the perpetrators of today’s massacres can no longer escape justice by relying on statutes of limitations,” Joseph added.

The UN has raised alarm that the ongoing lack of accountability for massacres has fostered an enabling environment for further carnage. Yet another attack on Bel-Air earlier this month bore striking similarities to the massacres analysed in the report.

“The attacks covered in the report are particularly severe and well-documented, but they are part of a widespread, systematic campaign of violence and intimidation of political dissidents,” said Pierre Esperance, Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), an OHCCH member that has led independent investigations into repeated attacks on impoverished neighborhoods. RNDDH has documented at least 11 massacres over the course of Moise’s presidency.

The report relies on evidence collected by a range of Haitian and international actors over the last few years and analyzes it under international criminal law. Harvard Law School students Joey Bui JD’21 and Nathalie Gunasekera JD’21 led the research and drafting of the report under Lindstrom’s supervision.

Read the report in English, French, and Haitian Creole.

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April 22, 2021

Un rapport révèle la complicité du gouvernement haïtien dans des crimes contre l’humanité


Une coalition haïtienne de défense des droits humains et la Clinique de droit de Harvard publient une nouvelle analyse des massacres perpétrés contre les résidents des quartiers défavorisés avec l’appui de l’État haïtien 


(22 avril 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haïti; Cambridge, Massachusetts) — Trois massacres sanglants ayant pris pour cible les résidents des quartiers défavorisés ont été perpétrés avec l’appui du gouvernement haïtien et constituent des crimes contre l’humanité, révèle un rapport publié aujourd’hui par la Clinique internationale de défense des droits humains de la Faculté de droit de Harvard et l’Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes Contre l’Humanité (OHCCH). Le rapport met en évidence des attaques lancées par des gangs lourdement armés qui ont obtenu des ressources et l’approbation d’acteurs étatiques, allant des hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse à des agents de la Police nationale d’Haïti.  

Image of Haitian citizens marching in protest.

Le rapport, intitulé Massacres cautionnés par l’Etat : regne de l’impunite en Haïti, présente une analyse de trois attaques qui ont été exécutées entre 2018 et 2020 et qui ont coûté la vie à au moins 240 civils. Les massacres ont pris pour cible les quartiers populaires de Port-au-Prince La Saline, Bel-Air et Cité Soleil, des quartiers qui ont tous joué un rôle de premier plan dans l’organisation des manifestations réclamant que le gouvernement rende des comptes sur la dilapidation du fonds petro-caribe et d’autres violations des droits humains qui affligent le pays.  

« L’administration Moïse maintient que ces attaques ne sont que des querelles internes entre gangs armés, mais des preuves indéniables établissent que des représentants du gouvernement de haut niveau ont joué un rôle important dans la planification et l’exécution des attaques, ainsi que pour les dissimuler », affirme Mario Joseph, avocat responsable du Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, l’un des membres de l’OHCCH.  

Le rapport s’appuie sur des enquêtes menées par des experts haïtiens et internationaux en droits humains qui établissent que de hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse ont soit planifié les attaques, soit offert leur assistance en fournissant aux gangs de l’argent, des armes et des véhicules. Des policiers en civil et des ressources policières ont été utilisés pour exécuter les attaques, au cours desquelles la Police nationale d’Haïti n’est pas du tout intervenue. Lors de chaque attaque, des gangs sont arrivés dans le quartier visé et ont ouvert le feu sur des civils, violé des femmes, incendié et pillé des maisons. Les massacres ont tous été perpétrés par la fédération des gangs armés sanguinaires dénommée G9 en Famille et alliés, dirigée par Jimmy Chérizier qui entretiendrait des liens étroits avec le gouvernement. 

« Nous avons conclu qu’en n’ayant pris aucune mesure pour freiner les attaques initiées par ses subordonnés, ou pour y réagir, le président Moïse se rend responsable de crimes contre l’humanité », déclare Beatrice Lindstrom, l’enseignante clinique de Harvard qui a supervisé la recherche et la rédaction du rapport. « Nous espérons que cette conclusion lance à la communauté internationale un signal d’alarme pour se porter à la défense des droits humains et réévaluer le soutien qu’elle accorde à Jovenel Moïse », ajoute-t-elle.  

Ce rapport est publié dans le contexte d’une crise de la démocratie et des droits humains qui s’intensifie en Haïti. Tout au long de son mandat comme président, Jovenel Moïse a de plus en plus eu recours à des mesures autoritaires pour réprimer la dissidence. Notamment, il a criminalisé certaines formes de protestation populaire pacifique et a mis sur pied une agence de renseignements dans le but de surveiller l’opposition politique. Des attaques contre des civils ont été perpétrées en toute impunité, notamment l’assassinat de citoyens engagés bien connus.  Même si la majorité des experts et des membres de la société civile s’entendent pour dire que le mandat constitutionnel du président Moïse a pris fin le 7 février 2021, le président refuse de quitter son poste et insiste pour qu’un référendum constitutionnel illégal soit tenu avant l’élection de son remplaçant.     

La conclusion du rapport montrant que ces attaques correspondent à la définition de crime contre l’humanité aurait des conséquences importantes sur le plan de la responsabilité. En plus d’imposer à l’État haïtien une obligation internationale de traduire en justice les responsables, cette conclusion permettrait aux Nations Unies et aux tribunaux étrangers de veiller à ce que justice soit rendue. Cela signifie en outre que les auteurs des crimes pourraient faire l’objet de poursuites indéfiniment, puisqu’aucune prescription ne s’applique au crime contre l’humanité. 

« Comme ce fut le cas pour l’ancien dictateur Jean-Claude Duvalier qui a été traduit en justice quelques décennies après avoir quitté le pouvoir, afin d’assumer la responsabilité des terribles conséquences de la répression brutale avec laquelle il avait dirigé le pays. Les auteurs des massacres d’aujourd’hui ne peuvent plus échapper à la justice en invoquant des clauses de prescription », ajoute Mario Joseph.  

Les Nations Unies ont signalé que l’absence d’imputabilité pour les massacres a favorisé un environnement favorable à d’autres carnages. Malgré cet avertissement, une autre attaque présentant des ressemblances frappantes avec les massacres analysés dans le rapport a été perpétrée à Bel-Air au début de ce mois-ci.  

Selon Pierre Espérance, directeur exécutif du RNDDH « les attaques dont fait état ce rapport sont particulièrement brutales et bien documentées, et elles s’inscrivent dans le cadre d’une campagne de violence et d’intimidation généralisée et systématique menée contre les dissidents politiques ». Le RNDDH a documenté au moins 11 massacres au cours de la présidence de Jovenel Moïse.  

Le rapport repose sur une analyse rigoureuse des éléments de preuve qui ont été recueillis par de multiples acteurs haïtiens et internationaux au cours des dernières années, au regard du droit international pénal. Les étudiants de la Faculté de droit de Harvard Joey Bui (JD’21) et Nathalie Gunasekera (JD’21) ont dirigé les recherches et rédigé le rapport sous la supervision de la professeure Lindstrom. 

Read the report in EnglishFrench, and Haitian Creole.

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March 18, 2021

When War Criminals Run the Government: Not Too Late for the International Community to Vet Sri Lankan Officials

Posted by Sondra Anton JD'22 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the February 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s deliberations over yet another resolution on Sri Lanka this month has cast renewed attention on repeated failures to achieve any semblance of accountability for past atrocities, and on the deteriorating human rights situation over the past year following the return to power of accused war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The lack of accountability and concerns about future violations have rightfully received the bulk of the attention. But there is another question worth bringing to the fore – namely, how did an alleged war criminal return to power – and relatedly, should the human rights system have done more to prevent such individuals from taking official power again?

These inquiries are centered around the legal concepts known as “vetting” and “lustration,” and they deserve increased attention. It is not just the election of Rajapaksa. Since his return to power, after having served as the defense minister who commanded the violent final phase of the country’s decades-long war that killed countless civilians, he has appointed a slew of other compromised individuals who face “credible allegations” of international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rajapaksa, for example, immediately appointed his brother, former wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, and named other relatives and family associates to top cabinet positions. The large number of individuals with credible allegations against them who now occupy top positions in the government raises concerns about militarization of the government. It also all but eliminates any chance that those who suffered violations will obtain justice in the near term for the crimes committed against them.

The appointments involve so many high-level positions that they have even been described by Yasmin Sooka from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) as “amount[ing] to a coup by stealth.” And had efforts to vet or ban alleged war criminals from public service been robustly in place, Sri Lanka would likely look very different today.

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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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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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