Blog: Staff Reflections

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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March 13, 2020

Supporting our community and responding to COVID-19


We know it has been a difficult week, as the situation related to the COVID-19 virus changes by the minute. As decision-making around the virus evolves, we are thinking of the safety, health, and well-being of our community on campus and affected communities around the world. This is our top priority right now. We have always sought to build a supportive and inclusive space for our students, partners, and staff, and we realize that this has been an emotional and difficult time for many. We also recognize that responses to the outbreak, such as quarantines and containment, can provide undue social, emotional, and economic hardship to already vulnerable populations. We urge local and national governments to consider the human rights implications of their actions and the distribution of resources as they seek to contain the virus and mitigate its effects. 

Following the guidance of Harvard University and to lower the risk of transmission, the Human Rights Program (HRP) is cancelling all public events for the remainder of the semester. We are sad to postpone these conversations, and we look forward to finding ways of engaging virtually on critical topics during this time. In line with guidance from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, the International Human Rights Clinic has transitioned to conduct classes and clinical work online for the remainder of the term. We are also postponing the application deadline to our postgraduate fellowships from March 15 to March 31. Any graduating student or recent alumni who may face obstacles submitting materials by this date should contact Dana Walters (dwalters@law.harvard.edu). Last, HRP faculty and staff will be transitioning to remote work over the course of the next week. Our offices will be mostly empty as we adjust to this new mode of work.

To our students, we recognize that this is not how you wanted or expected to conduct your semester and that these changes will cause serious disruptions. We understand that many of you are upset and anxious at the prospect of abruptly leaving your community at the law school. We will continue to work with you to mitigate the impact of the disruptions, and to ease potential burdens, stress, and other challenges associated with the evolving public health situation. We want to remain a resource for you. We also encourage anyone at Harvard who is facing hardship to make use of the resources that the University has made available. For more information and to find more resources, please visit Harvard Law School’s COVID-19 FAQ page and Harvard University’s COVID-19 FAQ page

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January 23, 2020

International Court of Justice Orders Myanmar to Prevent Further Acts of Genocide

Posted by Yee Htun

Today is a momentous day for many of us who have longed for justice in Myanmar. The International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) unanimously imposed provisional measures on Myanmar asking that it take “all measures within its power to prevent further acts of genocide against the Rohingya and preserve all evidence related to the allegations” of genocide.

The Gambia first brought the ICJ case against Myanmar in November 2019. They are seeking to prove that Myanmar is carrying out an ongoing genocide against the Rohingya. Both states addressed the ICJ in early December with regards to the provisional measures. As a result of today’s order, Myanmar is obligated to submit a report to the Court on all measures it has taken within four months and thereafter every six months, until a final decision on the case is rendered by the Court.

For the Myanmar military, which has operated for decades with impunity while persecuting ethnic and religious minorities, this degree of scrutiny is a first. Even though the road ahead for both this ICJ case and the International Criminal Court (“ICC”) case around deportation will be a long journey, today’s decision offers a glimmer of hope for the Rohingya.

I, along with three students in the International Human Rights Clinic—Disha Chaudhari LLM ‘20, Lucy Chen JD ’21, and Emily Ray JD ‘21 —spent this Winter Term in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, working alongside our Rohingya refugee partners. We conducted a series of workshops with women survivors, youth leaders, and activists in the camps, addressing the issues of international accountability, women’s rights, and best practices to ensure voluntary, safe, and dignified repatriation. In almost every meeting, we were asked repeatedly about the possibility of securing provisional measures. Our team always said that we should hope for the best, but not give up should the Court fail to grant the requested provisional measures.

These resilient women and men were on my mind as I waited for the ICJ’s decision this morning. For them, and countless other ethnic communities in Myanmar who have long languished under Myanmar military’s campaigns, today’s order is historic.

Read ICJ’s full order on their website.

Yee Htun is a Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic. She is a Burmese Canadian lawyer who has been working on human rights issues in Myanmar for over 20 years.

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December 20, 2019

HRP Looks Back On A Busy Semester: Fall 2019

By Dana Walters

It was another productive and busy semester at HRP. Before we sign off for Harvard’s winter break, we wanted to share some highlights from the fall.

HRP hosted dozens of events, including standing room-only talks with Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW, and Ben Saul, Challis Chair of International Law at the University of Sydney and the Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Harvard University.

The Academic Program was thrilled to welcome UN Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Victor Madrigal-Borloz to HRP, as he began his 18 month residency at HLS. In addition to working with research assistants and engaging with the human rights community on campus, Madrigal-Borloz gave one public lecture this semester previewing his 2019 report to the United Nations General Assembly.

The Clinic’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative hosted Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons in 2018. Thurlow spoke to a rapt crowd about her experiences following the explosion, and why it is important to continue to advocate against such weapons. A photo exhibition accompanied the event, documenting the historical consequences of nuclear weapons and the humanitarian reasons they should be banned.

In project news, the long-awaited Mamani appeal was argued before the 11th Circuit in Miami, Florida. Mamani et al v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín is a federal lawsuit seeking accountability against the former Bolivian president and defense minister for extrajudicial killings committed in 2003. Students, supervisors, and plaintiffs traveled to Miami for the oral argument, which HLS highlighted on Instagram stories throughout the day of November 19, in a feature called #HLSClinicsInAction. You can view IHRC’s contributions on our Instagram profile page under the highlight section, “ClinicsInAction.” 

Plaintiffs, students, and staff stand around kindling on the beach to give thanks prior to the appeal.
Prior to the Mamani hearing, plaintiffs Eloy and Etelvina Mamani led IHRC students and supervisors in a traditional pachamama ceremony on the beach in Miami, Florida.

Beyond its litigation efforts, the Clinic got to work on a typically wide range of issues. We welcomed two new clinical instructors, Beatrice Lindstrom and Aminta Ossom, and welcomed back a third, Thomas Becker. Together, our team oversaw sixteen projects reaching all corners of the globe, including one project examining rights in an era of climate change, and another focused on securing remedies for those affected by the cholera outbreak caused by the UN in Haiti in 2010.

As is often the case, clinicians traveled around the world this semester, often bringing students with them. Anna Crowe, Clinic Assistant Director, traveled with a clinical student to Namibia to run a training on implementing the Arms Trade Treaty, with special consideration for preventing gender-based violence. Yee Htun, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, traveled with a team of students to Myanmar, where she worked with 18 law schools on strengthening their human rights curriculum. Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection in the Clinic, traveled to Geneva (among other places), where she and her clinical team released three publications — on explosive weapons in populated areas, incendiary weapons, and killer robots — in one week.

In addition to enrolling nearly 50 students this term, IHRC staff and faculty taught three clinical seminars, three reading groups, and one first-year seminar in the College. One of those clinical seminars, Human Rights Careers: Strategic Leadership Workshop, led by Susan Farbstein, Clinical Professor and IHRC Co-Director, explored barriers to women’s leadership broadly and encouraged students to cultivate their own personal leadership styles. Tyler Giannini, Clinical Professor and HRP and IHRC Co-Director, taught two seminars, including an intensive Business & Human Rights Litigation Workshop.

Beyond the Clinic, Gerald Neuman, HRP Co-Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, taught Human Rights and International Law and a seminar on Human Rights in the UN Treaty Bodies. Neuman also joined with other law professors in filing an amicus curiae brief to the US Supreme Court in a pair of cases involving the standards for judicial review of deportation decisions.

HRP also further enhanced the community of human rights scholars on campus and hosted two visiting fellows, Sandra Fahy, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Sophia University, Tokyo, and Adejoké Babington-Ashaye, Senior Counsel at the World Bank, both of whom will continue on through the spring.

HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the student practice organization housed within our Clinic, continued a strong run as they prepared to enter their 15th year in 2020. With 73 active members, they partnered with international NGOs to work on eight different projects. This fall, for example, students supported the Global Legal Action Network to conduct international humanitarian law analyses of selected airstrikes conducted in Yemen and completed initial assessments using open source evidence analysis.

With bittersweet feelings, HRP also said goodbye to our beloved program assistant, Emma Golding, who departs for Emory University in the winter to begin an accelerated nursing program. The community won’t be the same without her.

HRP’s offices will be closed from December 24, 2019 through January 1, 2020. We wish everyone a happy new year and look forward to getting back to work in January!

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December 18, 2019

Emma Golding Leaves International Human Rights Clinic, Embarks on Nursing School

By Dana Walters

Headshot of Emma Golding

After making her mark on the International Human Rights Clinic, Program Assistant Emma Golding left her position in early December. She begins nursing school at Emory University in January. As her colleague and friend, I will miss her generous spirit, compassionate nature, and perceptive intellect. However, I could not imagine a person more suited to enter the healthcare field.

Emma was constantly a surprise, with wide-ranging interests and skills. She could take professional headshots and design websites, while simultaneously conversing about food anthropology and solving crossword puzzles. At only 24 years old, she had been an editorial assistant, faculty assistant, legal secretary, bartender, waitress, hostess, busser, catering manager, circus performer, au pair, natural history and ecology educator, and Audubon Society counselor. She graduated from UMass Amherst in three years with a double major. She was one of the most self-sufficient people I knew. Every task she approached, she did so wholeheartedly.

In the Clinic, Emma was often the first individual students and staff interacted with as they entered our wing. She generated an easy positivity and warmth, qualities that were instrumental in establishing a community-oriented spirit over the past couple years. Students were often found milling about her desk, asking for advice on schoolwork and life. She presented everyone with a friendly face, even while juggling the demands of assisting eight clinicians, three classes, and multiple reading groups. A people-person with savvy judgment, she always stayed focused and easygoing in an atmosphere punctuated by a thousand interruptions. As my collaborator in communications, she showed an intuitive and creative approach to design and editorial. Her ability to parse complicated ideas and grasp difficult concepts will serve her well as she mediates between patients, healthcare professionals, and insurance companies.

Working with Emma has been a joy and a privilege, and while we are sad to say goodbye, we at the Clinic are thrilled to see her take this next step in her professional life. There is no doubt that she will be an excellent nurse and add tremendous value to the field.

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October 10, 2019

In Q&A, Bonnie Docherty discusses humanitarian disarmament

Docherty reflects on the impact of a Hiroshima survivor’s visit to Harvard Law, and her vision for HLS’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Reducing the civilian impact of arms and armed conflict has been the focus of Bonnie Docherty’s career since she was a student at Harvard Law School.

Since 2005, Docherty JD ’01, an international expert on civilian protection in armed conflict, has served as a lecturer on law at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. She participated in the negotiations of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and has promoted strong implementation of the convention since its adoption. She recently played a key role in the negotiations of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, successfully advocating for specific provisions and providing legal advice to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the civil society coalition that received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2018, Docherty launched the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) at Harvard Law School, where she serves as associate director.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Docherty hosted an event with Hiroshima bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN. Accompanying the event, HLS also showcased a photo exhibit, “From the Atomic Bomb to the Nobel Peace Prize”, which illustrates the history of nuclear disarmament.

Over the course of her career, Docherty has mentored scores of clinical students, from field researchers in conflict zones to advocates inside the halls of the U.N. in Geneva. Daniel Moubayed JD’20, a student in the International Human Rights Clinic who works closely with the Initiative, sat down with Docherty prior to the talk to discuss the exhibition, Thurlow’s presentation, and the ACCPI.

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