Blog: Staff Reflections

September 21, 2020

Mourning the Passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by Gerald Neuman

Photo Credit: Tony Rinaldo.

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the nation and the world have lost a champion of human equality. At the Human Rights Program, we must mourn and remember while we persist.

Justice Ginsburg was a tireless defender of universal human rights. She initially gained fame as the strategist of constitutional reform for women’s equality, fighting legalized stereotypes and making clear the harm they imposed on everyone. As a judge of the D.C. Circuit (where I first met her) and as a Supreme Court Justice she kept attention on the rights of all – including women, racial minorities, religious minorities, LGBT persons, immigrants, the poor, prisoners. She sought to ensure the efficacy of antidiscrimination law and to preserve access to the courts. 

Justice Ginsburg expressed her openness to the world in such ways as her refusal to confine constitutional rights within the nation’s formal borders, her willingness to learn from foreign constitutional experience, and her acceptance of self-executing treaty provisions.  

Alas, as the Supreme Court shifted during her decades of service, her fidelity to a better constitutional understanding was increasingly shown in her eloquent dissenting opinions. Throughout her career, Justice Ginsburg’s dedication, skill and fortitude offered, and continue to offer, an inspiring example to all good lawyers, and especially so to human rights lawyers.

Gerald L. Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and the Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at HLS. He teaches human rights, constitutional law, and immigration and nationality law.

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August 27, 2020

The Supreme Court’s Attack on Habeas Corpus in DHS v. Thuraissigiam


Gerald L. Neuman, Human Rights Program Co-Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, contributed a piece to the Just Security blog this week to discuss the recent Supreme Court decision in DHS v. Thuraissigiam. Neuman previously filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the case, which involves a Tamil individual who tried to claim asylum in the United States after fleeing Sri Lanka in fear of persecution.

Neuman writes:

“At a time when the rule of law is under threat and xenophobic incitement has become a central government policy, a five-Justice majority of the Supreme Court has called into question the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee against executive detention. Refugees are the primary target of the Court’s decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam, but the immediate implications of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion are much wider, and the opinion endangers everyone – U.S. citizens included – by reopening settled questions about the Habeas Corpus Suspension Clause of the Constitution.

This important case has gotten less public attention than it deserves.   The opinions may be hard for non-experts to follow, because they arise in a technically complex area of immigration law, and because Alito mischaracterizes some of the issues. The case arose when Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam fled Sri Lanka in the hope of being protected by the United States and was arrested by immigration officials in 2017 at a short distance from the southern border. He was placed in rudimentary “expedited removal” proceedings, where his claims for protection were quickly rejected. The statutory provisions on expedited removal clearly preclude anyone in his position from obtaining judicial review, including by habeas corpus, of the legality of the removal decision. The central issue raised by the case was whether this total preclusion of habeas corpus for a refugee within the United States violated the Suspension Clause.

Once the Supreme Court granted certiorari, it was likely that five Justices would rule against the refugee’s right to have his particular claims reviewed; the more urgent question was how broadly they would uphold preclusion of judicial review.”

Read the full article at Just Security.

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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 31, 2020

Convention on Cluster Munitions Celebrates 10th Anniversary: A Living Legacy

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

Ten years ago tonight, I watched my laptop intently as the minutes, then seconds, ticked closer to midnight. A countdown clock on the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) website marked the time until the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force.

I held my breath as the clock read … 3-2-1 and cheered when it finally reached 0. At the stroke of 12 a.m., the treaty, for which I had advocated since 2001, became binding law on the 38 states that had already joined it. I celebrated the moment by emailing friends and former students with whom I had campaigned for the convention. Around the world that day, representatives of CMC, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than 100 countries, held celebrations with the theme “beat the drum to ban cluster munitions.”

The anniversary of this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty, which now has 108 states parties and 17 signatories, has saved civilian lives through its prohibitions and remedial measures. It has spawned other humanitarian disarmament campaigns to reduce arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm. And it has created a new generation of disarmament and human rights advocates.

Cluster munitions, large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, inflict unacceptable harm during attacks and after. Because they cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, they cause significant civilian casualties when used in populated areas, as they often are. In addition, many submunitions fail to explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that continue to kill and injure civilians for months and years to come.

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July 16, 2020

Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Blog Series

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Amelia Evans

Ten years ago, our Clinic was asked to figure out a way to evaluate whether multi-stakeholder initiatives—or MSIs for short—were helping to advance human rights or whether in fact they were doing precisely the opposite.

MSIs are voluntary governance efforts that bring together corporations, civil society, academics, and in some cases governments and rights holders themselves to (privately) govern thorny human rights issues, and by 2010, they had proliferated in the business and human rights field.

The allure was (and still is) obvious. If we bring the right players together, they can learn from each other and solve a given problem by setting up a democratic institution that can prevent future abuses and sanction violators, and governments will not have to pass hard laws and unnecessary regulations. The potential flaws were (and remain) just as obvious—the power imbalances amongst the players are acute and asking industry to voluntarily give up power and self-regulate is a fool’s errand that puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Thus, we set out to look at which way the institutions had gone—had they filled their promise or had the inherent flaws gotten the better of them? Little to no systematic work on the question had been done at the time, and what started as a one-semester project turned into a non-profit—MSI Integrity—and a decade of work.

Today, MSI integrity is publishing its new report, entitled ”Not Fit for Purpose,” which compiles its experience and insights over the last decade. The report explores cross-cutting trends and lessons learned about MSIs, as a field, from a human rights perspective. MSI Integrity’s assessment is clear:

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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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June 3, 2020

Black Lives Matter

Posted by the International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School

Human dignity, equality, and freedom from discrimination are at the heart of human rights. We in the International Human Rights Clinic have been outraged by the unacceptable killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. We condemn the systemic racism, violence, and impunity that enable this tragic loss of life and violate the human rights of Black people. 

We also condemn the government’s violent repression of protestors and journalists across the country. The excessive use of force and attacks on freedom of expression must end.  

Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with those who are leading the fight for racial justice. We all have a role to play in creating a more just and equitable society, and we urge our community to take action.  

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May 28, 2020

To the Class of 2020

Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini

International Human Rights Clinic students who graduated in 2020 smiling before the law school went remote.
International Human Rights Clinic 2020 graduates with clinicians and faculty.

We celebrate you today, all that you have achieved, and all that lies ahead. Of course, none of us expected your law school careers would end this way. Each of you lost precious time on campus and long-anticipated moments of camaraderie and celebration during your last term when the coronavirus pandemic forced the law school online. While there is no substitute for the in-person ceremony that you earned and deserve, the fact that we are celebrating remotely does not detract from your accomplishments and the relationships you have built — of which there are many!

In our Clinic, you have worked to address some of the most pressing and complex human rights issues that we face: climate change, socio-economic inequality, women’s leadership, accountability for gross human rights violations in Haiti, Myanmar, Bolivia, and Colombia, and preventing harms from the arms trade, killer robots, incendiary weapons, and explosive weapons, to name but a few. You have proven yourselves to be tireless and collaborative advocates, and we have been dazzled by your talents and your dedication more times that we can count.

The coronavirus has hit close to home for many of us. Some have lost a loved one, or nursed a family member fighting the disease, or been affected by the pandemic’s severe economic impact. Others have supported family members working on the frontlines or watched as their communities have struggled to formulate a response to this crisis. We have seen you respond to these adversities — just as you have faced other challenges — with grit and grace. You have shown compassion, kindness, and empathy towards your peers and the communities that we work with; you have come together, leaning on each other and the deep bonds you have built, to seek and offer support; you have modeled flexibility and creativity in finding new ways to learn and live; you have shown resilience and courage in the face of uncertainty and adversity that many of us have not previously known. These traits will serve you well not only as we respond to this pandemic, but throughout your lives and your careers.

We feel so grateful for the time that we have spent together, and will hold close the memories of working, laughing, and learning with you. We wish you long and meaningful careers. Even more importantly, we wish you lives enriched by friendship and filled with happiness. It has been an honor to watch you grow as advocates and as people, and to serve as your teachers, mentors, and now as your colleagues. We are incredibly proud of you.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!

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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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April 22, 2020

Harvard experts discuss climate change fears


To mark Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Harvard University Gazette contacted experts on climate change, the environment, and sustainability to ask them about their global-warming fears. Tyler Giannini, clinical professor of law and co-director of the Human Rights Program and the International Human Rights Clinic, contributed an essay he co-authored with his daughters Amaya (14 years old) and Rayna (10 years old). Prior to joining the law school, Giannini co-founded EarthRights International, an NGO that works to protect human rights and the environment. Find the full article with contributions from faculty around the University on the Gazette website. Read Tyler, Amaya, and Rayna’s piece below.


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