Blog: Staff

February 24, 2021

WATCH: Human Rights, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Racial Justice


From documenting historical incidents of mass racial violence to taking protests against police brutality to international forums, social justice lawyers have long turned to human rights law and strategies to advocate for racial justice in the United States. At the same time, US legacies of exceptionalism, isolationism and nationalism pose challenges for what is a fundamentally universalist human rights project. On February 4, 2021, the Human Rights Program hosted the second webinar in a series of events exploring racial justice and human rights. This event explored how international human rights approaches are being used in conjunction with domestic civil rights advocacy to push for law and policy change in the United States. Panelists spoke about their work raising awareness of, and seeking accountability for, racial injustice, while reflecting on circumstances in which the international human rights framework presents an imperfect vehicle for mobilizing change.The event, “Human Rights, Civil Rights, and the Struggle for Racial Justice, featured:

– Gay McDougall, Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School;

– Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch;

– Maryum Jordan, Counsel for the Special Litigation and Advocacy Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

The event was moderated by Aminta Ossom, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law in the International Human Rights Clinic at HLS.

Thanks to our co-sponsors: the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the Harvard Human Rights Journal, and the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

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February 22, 2021

Joint Statement to UN Security Council on the Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have issued a letter in advance of the United Nations Security Council session on Haiti today. The letter is reprinted in full below.

The three U.S. based law school clinics also released a statement last week calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

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January 29, 2021

Lockdown and Shutdown: New White Paper Exposes the Impacts of Recent Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh

A group of Rohingya refugees stand in a circle, some with mouths agape as they crowd around a photo watching something.
Rohingya refugees watching the reporting on the International Court of
Justice genocide case. Photo by Khin Maung (Kutupalong Camp)


The Cyberlaw Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School were proud to co-author a new white paper, Lockdown and Shutdown: Exposing the Impacts of Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in collaboration with Athan, the Kintha Peace and Development Initiative, and Rohingya Youth Association. The report exposes the impacts of internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the voices of ethnic minority internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who describe the shutdowns’ impacts in their own words. The co-authors joined to present a webinar to launch the report on January 19, 2021, which you can watch below or on the HRP YouTube channel.

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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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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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December 9, 2020

Teaming up to promote access to water

Posted by Dana Walterrs

Two young female students in their 20s meet on Zoom with their Professor, who is a woman in her late 30s/early 40s.
Rehab Abdelwahab ’21 (top left) and Laura Soundy ’22 (bottom) with IHRC Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein. The two students first met in September while working under the supervision of Farbstein, who was running a project with a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Over the last semester, Laura Soundy ’22 and Rehab Abdelwahab ’21 have learned how critical it is to talk about subjects other than law. As the two team members on their project in the International Human Rights Clinic, they made space to share both their commitment to eradicating injustice as well as the fears and frustrations that come with living life, and attending law school remotely, during a pandemic. And when they learned they were both quarantining in Texas—albeit on opposite sides of the state—the two quickly formed a plan to meet in the middle (after two weeks of isolation and in as safe a manner as possible).

Soundy and Abdelwahab first met this September while working under the supervision of Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04, who was running a project with a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Despite the right to water being enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, the community has long gone without consistent access to potable drinking water. Over the last eight weeks, Soundy and Abdelwahab have become not only trusted colleagues and collaborators, but also close friends. Building a connection in the virtual world is difficult, but the two students were eager and intentional about doing the legwork to make their team a success.

Originally from South Dakota and a transfer student to Harvard Law School, Soundy knew the odds of making it into the International Human Rights Clinic were slim. Students filled the clinic’s spots for the following year just as she was admitted to HLS last spring. At the last minute, however, she won the lottery for the final seat and rearranged her entire schedule to make it work. Soundy, who majored in sociology at Baylor University, was first drawn to law school because of her interest in human rights.

Abdelwahab grew up in Qatar and later attended Yale University. Focused on global health and international affairs, she wanted to be a doctor. Still, after completing all the prerequisites and taking the MCAT, she realized medicine would never give her the opportunity to make a difference on a macro scale the way law might.

After obtaining spots in the International Human Rights Clinic, both were instantly drawn to Farbstein’s project.

“A lot of the ways human rights issues are addressed are reactive and about retribution. This project was framed from a lens of sustainability and cooperation. Instead of solely focusing on who is at fault, we were also interested in building up infrastructure so that it actually served the people,” said Abdelwahab.

Working in close collaboration with the Equality Collective, an innovative new South African NGO that builds capacity and structures for collective participation, with a focus on rural and marginalized communities, the clinical team spent the semester laying a foundation for a major regional campaign around access to water. Because the project was new, outcomes were less defined.

“We really had the opportunity to shape the project,” Abdelwahab said. “It was exciting but also challenging. Laura and I were both really invested in understanding the interaction between the local, municipal, and national laws governing the right to water in South Africa, but we had no background in the issue and we were thrust into the deep end.”

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