Blog: Staff Reflections

June 3, 2021

Human Rights Workshops Explore Indirect Discrimination

Posted by Dana Walters

In Panama, Peru, and Colombia, gender-based quarantine schedules created a culture of fear and risk for transgender individuals. With men allowed out of the house on certain days of the week and women others, gender-diverse persons faced an increased threat of persecution and discrimination by the state and the public. Human Rights Watch and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were but some of the groups to note alarm. Just a few months after they were enacted, many of these laws were wiped from the books.   

These gendered pandemic measures were an example of the practices and laws up for discussion at a February workshop hosted by the Human Rights Program (HRP) at Harvard Law School. The event, which focused on indirect discrimination resulting from the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on sexual orientation and gender identity, was one in a series of indirect discrimination workshops HRP has convened in the last year. In spring 2020, HRP hosted a virtual convening exploring indirect discrimination on the basis of religion with several former and current members of the UN Human Rights Committee. During the 2020-2021 academic year, HRP hosted two additional workshops drawing on other categories of indirect discrimination. Convened with Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, the October 2020 workshop addressed indirect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, laying the foundation for February’s discussion on the pandemic.

“One way to think about the purpose of indirect discrimination norms,” said one expert at the October convening, “is that they compel government, or other actors subject to the norms, to actively think about or know about the lives of people who are not like themselves.”

Indirect discrimination is a term that encompasses rules or laws whose intent may not be to discriminate against one group “on the face of it” but has the effect of doing so. In the workplace, for instance, a policy that requires employees to work on Saturdays may have severe effects for those of the Jewish faith, who observe Saturday as a holy day of rest. Indirect discrimination affects a range of protected groups on the basis of race, religion, and other factors.

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May 25, 2021

Goodbye HLS Class of 2021

To the Class of 2021:

Congratulations! You are now law school graduates—always a tremendous accomplishment, but even more so in the midst of this ongoing pandemic. The last fourteen months have tested you in ways none of us could have anticipated. You persisted with compassion and commitment, through unprecedented challenges, to reach this milestone.

After you pause to celebrate the moment, we urge you to continue to look ahead. The pandemic has both laid bare and exacerbated many preexisting divides. Hundreds of millions of lives have been turned upside down, not only through the loss of loved ones but through lost health, lost education, lost opportunities, lost support networks, lost jobs, and lost income. The brunt of the pandemic has been borne by those already living at the margins or in dire circumstances. The elderly, people with disabilities, women, girls, racial and ethnic minorities, frontline workers, and those who rely on the informal economy have been especially hard hit. In less than a year, progress on gender equality was rolled back decades. Extreme poverty is on the rise for the first time in a generation. Young people are struggling, not only to access education but also to access the connections and the community needed to thrive. In some countries, the pandemic has provided pretext to crush opposition, subvert electoral processes, and crack down on human rights defenders, journalists, and activists. Worldwide vaccination efforts to date have been woefully unequal, and the virus continues to rampage across the global south.

While all of this was unfolding, we have watched in awe as you excelled in our clinic, supporting each other and persevering with extraordinary determination, intelligence, resilience, and courage. Now, as you venture out to launch your careers, you will face a new and challenging world. Solidarity and collaboration will be necessary not only to overcome the pandemic, but to meet the many human rights challenges of our time—from poverty and inequality, to climate change, to the resurgence of authoritarianism, extremism, and nationalism. Your creativity, leadership, and dedication to social justice are urgently needed.

It is daunting, but you are ready. You know how to build to community, how to lead with kindness and empathy, and how to create space for diverse voices and perspectives. We have seen you do it in our clinic, and we look forward to seeing what you will do throughout your careers. As we send you off to continue this important work, remember that you will always have a home here. We look forward to welcoming you back to the clinic, in person, one day soon.

For today, we extended our heartfelt congratulations to you, Harvard Law School’s Class of 2021!

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April 27, 2021

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

Posted by Emily Ray JD'21 and Tyler Giannini

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

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

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

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

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

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April 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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