Blog: Staff Reflections

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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December 9, 2020

Coming to grips with populism after Trump


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 writes:

“Returning to the rule of law and fortifying democracy in the United States will best be accomplished by reemphasizing the country’s own democratic and egalitarian values, and by vindicating truthfulness after four years of Trumpian fraud. The U.S. needs both candor going forward and full disclosure of the actions of the prior regime and their consequences. Although there may be some benefit in showing how regression has undermined U.S. respect and influence in the world, international human rights discourse and external criticism are unlikely to reclaim the opinions of voters under the sway of aggressive nationalism.”

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:

Learn more about Human Rights in a Time of Populism in a Q&A from Harvard Law Today.

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October 7, 2020

Forcing the UN to do right by Haitian cholera victims

A woman wearing a gray blazer looks out into the distance under an arch in front of the Harvard Law library.
Beatrice Lindstrom is pictured at Harvard Law School at Harvard University. Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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.

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September 23, 2020

Event Series Explores Racial Justice and Human Rights


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.

Event poster for Advocating While Black, which will feature:
Rosebell Kagumire, Christopher Richardson, Godfrey Odongo, Cassandre Théano, and Aminta Ossom.
“Advocating While Black” is the first in an event series focused on racial justice and human rights.
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September 21, 2020

Mourning the Passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by Gerald Neuman

Photo Credit: Tony Rinaldo.

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

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

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

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

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

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August 27, 2020

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


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

Neuman writes:

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

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

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

Read the full article at Just Security.

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August 13, 2020

WATCH: Victor Madrigal-Borloz Argues for Conversion Therapy Ban


In July, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, presented his report on the practices of so-called “conversion therapy” to the UN Human Rights Council. Shortly after, he conducted two online sessions to elaborate on key findings of the report and engage in further conversation with interested stakeholders. Notably, in the report, Mr. Madrigal-Borloz called for a global ban on the practice, which, he explained, interferes with an individual’s “personal integrity and autonomy.”

The Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School hosted Mr. Madrigal-Borloz on July 10 and 14 where he discussed the harmful practice of conversion therapy in a virtual launch for the public. As discussed at the event and in the report, conversion therapy is a term used to describe a wide range of interventions, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These practices rely on the medically false idea that LGBT and other gender-diverse persons are sick, inflicting severe pain and suffering, and resulting in long-lasting psychological and physical damage.

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July 31, 2020

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

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

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

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

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

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

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July 16, 2020

Rethinking Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives Blog Series

Posted by Tyler Giannini and Amelia Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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