Blog: Staff Reflections
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January 27, 2021
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.Continue Reading…
January 22, 2021
Posted by Dana Walters
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.Continue Reading…
January 13, 2021
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.Continue Reading…
December 16, 2020
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.Continue Reading…
December 9, 2020
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.Continue Reading…
December 9, 2020
Gerald L. Neuman, Human Rights Program Co-Director, reflected on populism and human rights in a post-Trump landscape for Open Global Rights today, Dec. 9, 2020. Neuman, who is also and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, describes some of the ideas first presented in his recent edited collection, Human Rights in a Time of Populism (Cambridge University Press, 2020) while expounding on what comes next for the U.S. government to overcome the damage the outgoing Trump administration has done domestically and internationally.
Neuman’s post comes on the heels of a Nov. 18 panel with the Harvard Law School Library further reflecting on the book’s themes. At that event, Neuman was joined by panelists: César Rodríguez-Garavito, Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law; Richard Javad Heydarian, an academic, columnist, and policy adviser in the Philippines; and Ruth Okediji. Jeremiah Smith. Jr, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center. You can watch the HLS Library book talk below:
October 7, 2020
Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has spent almost a decade working with communities in Haiti affected by a 2010 cholera epidemic caused by a sewage leak from a U.N. peacekeeper base. Coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the epidemic, Lindstrom spoke with Liz Mineo of the Harvard Gazette about her pursuit for justice on behalf of cholera victims and the U.N.’s failure to properly provide remedy and reparations after 10,000 died from the disease.
As Lindstrom says in the interview, which you can read in full on the Gazette website:
“If you had told me in October of 2010 that I would still be doing this work 10 years later, I think I would have felt both exasperated and heartbroken that the U.N. still has not responded justly to victims of the epidemic. At the same time, this has been a very long struggle that has been led by victims and affected communities in Haiti. As long as they are pushing for justice for their families, it’s a privilege to be able to stand alongside them.”Beatrice Lindstrom
Learn more from Lindstrom and other experts at the Human Rights Program webinar “10 Years On: Lessons from the Cholera Epidemic from Haiti” on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. ET.
September 23, 2020
During the 2020-2021 academic year, the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School is organizing a series of virtual events on racial justice and human rights. Convened by Aminta Ossom JD’09, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, the series aims to foster dialogue between students, scholars, and practitioners on the role that race plays both in the practice and substance of international human rights work. The first event, “Advocating While Black: Navigating Black Identity in the Human Rights Field,” will take place on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 12 pm. Register on Zoom here.
HRP spoke with Ossom about the series and what she hopes to unpack throughout the year.Continue Reading…
September 21, 2020
Posted by Gerald Neuman
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.
August 27, 2020
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.
“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.”
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