Blog: Staff Reflections

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 5, 2021

In Memoriam: Christof Heyns


Christof Heyns, a towering figure in the human rights community, passed away on March 28, 2021. Professor Heyns was Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria. In 2012, he was one year into his term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, when he came to HRP as a Visiting Fellow. He focused his research on the legal framework concerning the death penalty, the use of force by the police during demonstrations, and armed drones; he contributed immensely to the intellectual life of the university.

Professor Heyns touched many lives — at HLS and beyond. Past and current members of HRP who knew or worked closely with him pay tribute below.

As a Human Rights Program Visiting Fellow in 2012, Christof Heyns helped organize and spoke at, “The Death Penalty: Hanging by a Thread?” Heyns, who was U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions at the time, center, speaks as Lloyd Barnett, Member of the Inter-American Inst. on Human Rights, left, and Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, right, look on. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer
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March 23, 2021

Condemning Anti-Asian and Pacific Islander Violence and Discrimination

Posted by International Human Rights Clinic Staff

Silence in the face of anti-Asian violence and discrimination is unacceptable. We in the International Human Rights Clinic are horrified by the killings, attacks, and harassment against Asians and Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent that have only multiplied during the pandemic. We condemn the escalation of violence and hate speech against Asian and AAPI people in our country, community, and the world.

The scapegoating, dehumanization, and stigmatization must stop, from our leaders on down. As human rights lawyers, we know that there is much work to be done to dismantle the systemic racism and impunity that undergirds acts of hate against Asian and AAPI people. We commit to doing our part to seeing change through, starting with employing contextual and intersectional approaches to human rights lawyering and teaching, as well as supporting our students as they experience or confront systemic inequity and racism.

Count us among those demanding racial justice. Acknowledging the role that each of us must play to make justice and equality a reality, we urge our community to join in action.

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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 10, 2021

In Memoriam: Gustave Hauser JD ’53


Gustave Hauser JD ’53 passed away on February 14, 2021. Along with his spouse, renowned international lawyer Rita E. Hauser JD ’58, he has been a constant friend of the Human Rights Program. Gustave Hauser was a pioneer in the communications industry, particularly cable television. Rita Hauser served as US Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, and she currently chairs the Advisory Board of the International Crisis Group. Together, they have been dedicated supporters of the Law School and the University, and their generous philanthropy has been fundamental to HRP. In sadness, and with deep appreciation we are grateful for being part of their extraordinary life together.

Read HLS’s tribute to Gustave Hauser at Harvard Law Today.

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January 27, 2021

Banning Nuclear Weapons: Milestones and Memories

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

At the stroke of midnight on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was transformed from words on paper to binding law. States parties — countries that have have agreed to be bound by the treaty — are now obliged to uphold a ban on nuclear weapons, take measures to ensure the weapons’ elimination, and address the harm caused by past use and testing. Signatory states may not violate its object and purpose.

The TPNW’s entry into force, triggered last October when Honduras became the 50th state to ratify, is a milestone for humanitarian disarmament, a crucial step toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and an uplifting moment in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

This landmark moment also offers an opportunity to look back on negotiations at the United Nations in New York in 2017. The hard work, determination, and collaboration of hundreds of individuals made the TPNW a reality.

My colleague Anna Crowe LLM’12 and I participated in the negotiations with a four-person team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. The students included Carina Bentata JD’18, Molly Doggett JD’17, Lan Mei JD’17, and Alice Osman LLM’17.

At a reunion celebration last week, our team reflected on the experience and shared memories that will likely resonate with our fellow campaigners. “Witnessing the treaty’s adoption was overwhelming,” Mei said. “It felt like a key moment in my life. Even though it wouldn’t affect me personally, it was monumental.”

During the four weeks of negotiations, we partnered with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which later received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. We engaged in advocacy and offered legal advice on a range of topics.

While negotiators devoted much of their attention to the TPNW’s prohibitions on future actions, we focused on the treaty’s positive obligations, affirmative requirements to mitigate the harm already inflicted by nuclear weapons. In partnership with campaigners from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, we argued successfully for obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation. This group became known as ICAN’s “pos obs team,” after the positive obligations for which we were calling.

Eight individuals smile after the treaty passed. They wear badges and formal clothes.
The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.
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January 22, 2021

Clinic Celebrates Nuclear Ban Entering into Force

Posted by Dana Walters

Members of the team that supported the 2017 negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons met virtually this week to raise a glass to the treaty entering into force. Pictured: (top, left to right) Bonnie Docherty (Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection at Harvard Law School), Anna Crowe (International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School), Elizabeth Minor (Article 36); (bottom, left to right) Molly Doggett JD’17, Erin Hunt (Mines Action Canada), Lan Mei JD’17.

Today, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons enters into force. What exactly does this mean? All of the treaty’s obligations, from providing assistance to victims of use and testing to banning possession, transfer, use, and other activities related to nuclear weapons, become law. Campaigners around the world, including some of our own at Harvard Law School, put in a monumental effort to make this day happen.

In 2017, the International Human Rights Clinic played a significant role in negotiations that brought the treaty from imagination to reality. Working with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Article 36, Bonnie Docherty JD’01 and Anna Crowe LLM’12 led a team of students to ensure that the treaty held fast to humanitarian disarmament principles.

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January 13, 2021

Impeachment Can Vindicate Human Rights

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

Impeachment is an extraordinary procedure for responding to abuse of power by government. Is legislative trial of elected officials consistent with human rights? It depends. Groundless political trial, or arbitrary and irregular proceedings, may violate the rights of the officials, and more importantly the political rights of the voters who elected them. But procedurally regular and substantively justified impeachments, with appropriate sanctions, may be consistent with the rights of the officials and essential for preventing future violations of the rights of others and protecting democracy.

We are facing such a moment in the United States. The U.S. Constitution provides that, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (Article II, sec. 4.) It gives the House sole power to impeach, and it gives the Senate sole power to try impeachments. (Article I, sec 2, cl. 5; sec. 3, cl. 6.) The Constitution provides that the consequences of impeachment and conviction “shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States,” while leaving the person impeached subject to other ordinary legal proceedings. (Article I, sec. 3, cl. 7.) Although impeachment uses some of the vocabulary of criminal law, the only sanctions that the Senate may impose are job-related – removal and future disqualification, not imprisonment, and not even a fine.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the treaty body that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, examined the consequences of impeachment from a human rights perspective in 2014. (Paksas v. Lithuania, UN Doc. CCPR/C/110/D/2155/2012 (2014).)  The impeached Lithuanian president Rolandas Paksas, who had been impeached after conferring Lithuanian citizenship on a suspicious Russian donor to his campaign, complained that barring him from future re-election violated his rights of political participation under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The majority of the Human Rights Committee concluded that under the particular circumstances of the case, in which the consequences of impeachment were not clearly specified by law and the Constitutional Court developed its interpretation as an outgrowth of the Paksas proceedings, permanent disqualification from being President, Prime Minister or Minister “lacked the necessary foreseeability and objectivity and thus amount[ed] to an unreasonable restriction” violating article 25. (Id. para. 8.4.)

I wrote a partly dissenting opinion in that case, emphasizing that presidential impeachments are rare and difficult.  (Id. p. 17.)  They are not merely a vote of no confidence, as in a parliamentary system that contemplates renewed elections to test a leader’s political support, but a more severe recognition of abuse of power.   Some democracies limit the number of times that a president who has served honorably can be reelected, in order to ensure a healthy and competitive political system.  It is foreseeable and appropriate that a president who corrupts or attacks the democratic system should be permanently barred from seeking additional opportunities to do so again.  That sanction does more to protect political rights than it does to limit them.

In the United States, unlike Lithuania, it has been clear for centuries that a foreseeable outcome of impeachment is permanent disqualification.  When attempts to subvert the electoral process by baseless allegations and intimidation culminate in incitement to interfere by force with the congressional confirmation of the election results, disqualification would be a vindication of human rights.

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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 9, 2020

Pursuing U.S. accountability for child slavery abroad


HLS student clinical team submits Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of legal historians


On Dec. 1, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in Nestlé v. Doe and Cargill v. Doe—a pair of corporate human rights cases against U.S.-based chocolate companies for their role in aiding and abetting child slavery in West Africa. Despite repeated promises from chocolate companies to curtail the practice, the problem remains far from fixed, with some estimates finding as many as 1.56 million children aged five to seventeen forced to harvest cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in 2018 and 2019 alone. The plaintiffs are six former child slaves who allege they were trafficked from Mali and forced to work in Côte d’Ivoire cocoa farms. The plaintiffs make use of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), a provision of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 that has allowed foreign nationals to pursue accountability for human rights violations in U.S. courts over the past several decades.

In October, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of legal historians in the consolidated cases against the chocolate companies. A student clinical team—Emily Ray ’21, Jasmine Shin ’21, Allison Beeman ’22, and Zarka Shabir ’22—under the supervision of Tyler Giannini, clinic co-director, worked with the amici on the brief. Amici were Professors Barbara Aronstein Black, Columbia Law School, Nikolas Bowie ’14, Harvard Law School, William R. Casto, Texas Tech University School of Law, Martin S. Flaherty, Fordham School of Law, David Golove, New York University Law School, Eliga H. Gould, University of New Hampshire, Stanley N. Katz, Princeton University, Samuel Moyn ’01, Yale Law School, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’85, Princeton University and CEO of New America.

The Human Rights Program (HRP) at HLS spoke with the team about the ATS, their brief, and why the SCOTUS argument matters for human rights and corporate accountability.


Human Rights Program: What is at stake in the case?

Emily Ray: The ATS has been a key tool for many survivors of human rights abuses who have been unable to find justice in domestic court systems in their own countries or through international bodies like the International Criminal Court. For years, the ATS was groundbreaking because it allowed foreign plaintiffs to bring civil claims in U.S. courts for torts that violate the law of nations. The Supreme Court has placed restrictions in recent years on the statute, and this case decides, among other issues, whether the ATS can be used to bring cases against American corporations who have perpetrated or assisted in the perpetration of human rights abuses around the world. What the Supreme Court decides will have far reaching effects on that question.

Zarka Shabir: For me, what’s at stake is the idea that a U.S. corporation can be held liable in the United States for its involvement in rights violations regardless of where it commits them. It’s the idea that a corporation cannot, simply by virtue of being a corporation, violate accepted international law with impunity. One of the questions in the case is whether the ATS should permit claims against natural persons but not corporate entities, as Nestlé and Cargill have argued. During oral arguments, several Justices pressing counsel for the companies and the U.S. government on that point. Across the globe, an increasing number of countries have recognized that corporations cannot be left immune and without scrutiny. This case presents an opportunity for the United States to stay on track with this global trend.

Tyler Giannini: One of the reasons the First Congress passed the ATS was to send a signal to other nations that the United States would uphold the rule of law and that it could be trusted as part of the international community. This was especially true as a young nation at the time. While it’s no longer a new nation, the question of whether the U.S. will uphold basic principles of law and human rights has come under scrutiny again in recent years. As we said in the brief, it’s well established that a nation should hold its own citizens to account and not let action on its territory offend other countries and accepted international norms. The Court has the chance to affirm this idea in this case and to make clear that U.S. corporations can’t aid abuses like child slavery.

Jasmine Shin: Simply put, what’s at stake in this case is justice for the six plaintiffs who were trafficked and forced to endure unimaginable conditions. This case was first filed fifteen years ago, and these plaintiffs, who are now in their thirties, have not been able to have their day in court.

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