Blog: Student Perspectives

May 28, 2020

COVID-19 Response Can Help Reimagine Climate Change Response

Posted by Ayoung Kim JD'20

For the past three years, my peers and I at HLS have worked towards earning our law degrees in the hopes of contributing to a more equitable society.  As the Class of 2020 graduates this month, I realize that the path toward justice has become more urgent and increasingly challenging. Our class will spend some of our most formative years navigating the enormous human and economic consequences of the pandemic. We must also prepare for a crisis that we already know will be more disruptive, painful, and irrevocable than COVID-19—climate change. Which lessons we take away from this pandemic will determine whether we are able to prevent human suffering of an equivalent—or even larger—scale.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that inequality kills. During COVID-19, low-wage workers have been exposed to disproportionate risk of death without commensurate pay, protections, or status. We can expect the same of those that will work on the frontlines of climate change. These climate essential workers will work in construction, landscaping, delivery, commercial kitchens, bakeries, factories, and manufacturing—under punishing heat waves, lethal air pollution, and increased disease. Others will include incarcerated individuals whose labor is often used to combat extreme weather events for pay as low as $1 an hour plus $2 a day. Scholars fear the rise of “green gig workers”—volunteer laborers who will be tasked with responding to extreme weather events but whose precarious labor would not be acknowledged or as socially protected as those in formal employment.

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May 26, 2020

HLS Advocates Co-Presidents Reflect on 2019-2020

Posted by Emma Broches JD'20 and Samantha Lint JD'20

Two students standing at a table advertising HLS Advocates for Human Rights
Emma Broches (left) and Samantha Lint (right) are 2019-2020 co-presidents of HLS Advocates for Human Rights.

On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted a discussion on the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang China. As murmurs about classes moving online circulated, and US leadership continued to doubt the threat of COVID-19, we held what turned out to be our final Advocates lunch talk of the year. 

If we had known this would be our final “big event”, it might have felt bittersweet. As Co-Presidents, Advocates has been the most significant part of our 3L year and our entire HLS experience. Since we joined the organization in our first year, it has served as a place of refuge, community, inspiration, and learning. That week, as information about the law school’s operations changed each day, we focused on the task at hand. We felt proud to have played a role in facilitating such a critical discussion. One of the speakers Rayhan Asat LLM’16, has now shared her story beyond HLS as well. 

Although the spring semester changed substantially in March, this event, fortunately, was just one of many of Advocates’ accomplishments. With over 70 members supporting 11 projects with NGOs around the world; seven events; four trainings; and a special anniversary project, Advocates had a productive — even if abbreviated — year!

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May 24, 2020

At Harvard, Niku Jafarnia J.D. / M.P.P. ’20 found a wealth of ways to advocate for refugees

Posted by Dana Walters

Niku Jafarnia sits on the steps of HLS
Credit: Kathleen Dooher

“I have always felt very strongly that I need to work against inequality and the forces that make it possible,” says Niku Jafarnia J.D./M.P.P. ’20. For her, draconian and difficult immigration systems that favor certain populations are key sources of the disparities she hopes to eliminate.

When President Donald Trump instituted the first of many travel bans that targeted Muslim-majority countries in 2017, Jafarnia was a first-year law student and she was furious. She had not yet entered the legal clinics that would become like a home to her at Harvard Law School. Still, she emailed Sabrineh Ardalan ’02 and Phil Torrey of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, asking how she could fight back.

“Had I not been in law school when this happened, I would have felt at a loss with what to do,” she says.

At the airport, she stood with Ardalan and Torrey holding a sign offering legal assistance and translation services in Persian. No one took her up on the offer, but the moment stands out to her from the last four years of graduate school. From the energetic and welcoming response of HLS’s clinical faculty to finding a way to act, she had found a community and a path towards countering what she sees as oppression.

Jafarnia believes that she has been lucky. A constellation of factors, such as being born in the U.S., has provided her with a great amount of opportunity, she said. She is constantly tuned in to how she can use her privilege to dismantle the inequitable structures that cause harm to others. When her parents emigrated from Iran in 1977 to pursue graduate education, they did not necessarily expect to stay, she said, but the combination of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War kept them in the U.S. Throughout law school, she has focused on issues related to migration, driven by a deep connection to people whose stories feel so familiar.

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May 20, 2020

Blog Series Highlights Workers’ Rights During COVID-19


Clinical Students Ask How Human Rights Norms Can Aid Relief for Informal Workers 


Over the course of the semester, Aminta Ossom JD’09, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has led a team in examining workers’ rights and the informal economy. When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading globally earlier this year, Ossom’s team pivoted to raising awareness on how shutdowns and virus transmission was exacerbating conditions for those, such as street vendors and ride-share drivers, whose vocations do not meet traditional models of employment. This week, HRP is posting blogs by Ossom’s clinical students, Tara Boghosian JD’20, Sienna Liu JD’21, Jessica Sawadogo JD’21, and Alicia Alvero Koski JD’20, who each explore what human rights can contribute as informal workers contend with this crisis. 

Last week, Ossom moderated a panel, “Rethinking Essential: Business, Work, and Human Rights in the Covid-19 Pandemic,” for the COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice during a Pandemic series. The panel, which featured  Anita Ramasastry (UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights), Alison Kiehl Friedman (ICAR), Kim Cordova (UFCW), and Janhavi Dave (Homenet South Asia), sought to examine how vulnerable workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic whilst providing essential services. The group also discussed whether or not the pandemic presents opportunities to address market failures and position workers’ rights as central to a more sustainable, just, and resilient economy. The series was convened by Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Duke Law’s International Human Rights Clinic, Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, and Just Security. You can still watch the “Rethinking Essential” panel, which will be available soon on the series website.

Read all the blog posts below:

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May 20, 2020

Excluding marginalized workers from COVID-19 relief is bad policy—is it also a human rights violation?

Posted by Tara Boghosian JD ’20

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is the most expansive COVID-19 relief package in the world, so why does it still exclude many vulnerable workers and small business owners?  

Mehrsa Baradaran begins to answer these questions in her April 9 article, “The U.S. Should Just Send Checks—But Won’t” in The Atlantic. Baradaran describes how the CARES Act excludes several vulnerable groups of individuals and businesses. Most expressly, the U.S. government’s Small Business Administration categorically refuses aid to all sex-related businesses (even legal ones, like strip clubs) and businesses run by anyone with a criminal record. In turn, these business’ employees are left out, too. Further, even though the CARES Act seems to provide for generous individual aid, lots of workers will struggle to meet the practical requirements for receiving the aid, including all undocumented immigrants. Baradaran argues that these policies are rooted in the longstanding American belief that the poor are inherently undeserving and must prove their moral uprightness in order to receive aid. And, as Baradaran notes, shaping economic policy around this belief is not only cruel but counterproductive. Being generous with aid during the crisis would do more to keep the economy afloat.  

What is also clear, but not discussed by the article, is that in addition to being bad policy, these exclusions also raise human rights concerns. The international treaty on economic, social and cultural rights provides for the right to work in Articles 6 and 7, which can be fulfilled in part by governments putting in place social protection systems that prevent unemployment. This right is not contingent on the type of work that a person does. In addition, Article 9 of the treaty recognizes the right of everyone to social security, which the treaty’s monitoring body has interpreted to include non-contributory unemployment insurance. That body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has also specified that these benefits must be both accessible to all workers—including part-time, casual, seasonal, self-employed, undocumented, and informal economy workers—and adequate to cover their basic needs. Finally, the treaty states that individuals’ enjoyment of economic and social rights should improve progressively, so governments are also expected to increase rather than decrease access to social security over time.  

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May 20, 2020

Lockdown Policies in African Countries Often Clash with Economic Reality

Posted by Sienna Liu JD'20

A woman buys bananas in bulk for resale. Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

While there may be a middle-class bias in policies such as “social distancing” in the U.S., countries around the world that rely on cash-based commerce and thriving informal economies are facing a different kind of hardship.  

A recent news article published by Quartz Africa depicts the current situation for informal workers in African countries under lockdown: informal workers, particularly street vendors, small-scale business owners, and traders, are attempting to do business despite the dual threats posed to their health and physical safety. In addition to the health risks that accompany continued contact with customers, these workers are also facing incidents of police brutality as patrolling officers harshly enforce lockdowns and curfews in various countries. 

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May 20, 2020

The Role of Women’s Equality in Economic Recovery

Posted by Jessica Sawadogo JD ’21

A woman makes a bed and prepares laundry in Indonesia.
A domestic worker in Jakarta, Indonesia. Copyright: ILO/A. Ridwan Licensed: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0.

As researchers learn more about coronavirus and the way it impacts us all, they’ve revealed a few key differences along gendered lines. Slightly more women than men may be getting COVID-19, but more men are dying from the virus. Women, on the other hand, are more economically vulnerable from the financial fallout of the novel coronavirus. This difference takes on a new meaning as the world braces itself for an impending recession.  

The New York Times bi-weekly newsletter on gender and society recently reported a sobering fact: that the economic fallout from the coronavirus will have a “disproportionate negative effect on women.” The newsletter examines the results of a study from researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Mannheim in Germany and the University of California, San Diego, which found that the economic downturn will result in worse economic outcomes for women than for men and that the disparity from this crisis will be even worse than in previous recessions. The differences are attributed to women’s disproportionate representation in jobs that have been most affected by the global shutdown, like those in the restaurant and travel sector, for example. In addition, because women are often responsible for childcare, those who are able to work from home will see an increase in their overall workload with reduced availability for remunerated work. 

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May 20, 2020

Human Rights and Equal Relief for Gig Economy Workers

Posted by Alicia Alvero Koski JD'20

A rideshare vehicle. Credit: Eugene E. Kim. License: CC by 2.0.

Attempts to expand U.S. unemployment benefits in the wake of COVID-19 show the pitfalls of a narrow definition of employment. International human rights treaties, in contrast, provide a more expansive approach, one that could provide assistance to a population of workers that has experienced increased difficulty obtaining relief for lost work.  

The pandemic has caused unemployment on a massive scale. Workers who live paycheck to paycheck are especially hard hit and face an uphill battle to pay for basic necessities. In response, the U.S. government has expanded its unemployment assistance programs, but many non-traditional workers may encounter challenges when trying to claim these benefits. 

According to the New York Times, gig workers like rideshare drivers struggle to claim the benefits they are owed. U.S. states, which manage unemployment payments, have not had the infrastructure in place to handle such claims, meaning gig workers across the country have had to wait longer than others before receiving assistance. 

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April 16, 2020

Sabrina Singh JD’20 draws attention to the looming COVID-19 crisis in Nepal


Sabrina Singh JD’20 has been an active member of the human rights community during her time at Harvard Law School (HLS), including leading the Harvard Human Rights and Business Student Association (HuB) for a year and taking the International Human Rights Clinic for the past two years. In addition to her human rights concentration, she has worked to be a voice for international students at Harvard Law School, co-founding the organization, Coalition for International Students and Global Affairs, with Ayoung Kim JD’20. Born and raised in Nepal, Sabrina has been speaking out about how the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate conditions in her home country. The Human Rights Program (HRP) spoke with her recently to learn more about her background, what drew her to human rights, and how she is continuing to advocate for vulnerable populations during this time of uncertainty.

HRP: Why did you decide to specialize in human rights at Harvard Law School?

Sabrina: My introduction to law school was as an undergraduate summer intern at the Office of Public Interest Advising. That summer, I had the opportunity to interview a human rights lawyer, and I asked her why she chose her career. She said that she loved to be able to fight for what she knows to be good. Her conviction and energy stuck with me as I eventually came back to HLS as a student.  

Sabrina in front of the UN headquarters.

Last November, Sabrina Singh JD’20 attended the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva.

HRP: What kind of work have you been doing in the International Human Rights Clinic?

Sabrina: I have focused on business and human rights (BHR) and economic, social and cultural (ESCR) rights. I had the opportunity to work on BHR clinical projects with [HRP and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor] Tyler Giannini and [former visiting clinical instructor] Amelia Evans LLM’11. With their clinical teams, I researched and helped write a report on multi-stakeholder initiatives, which are global governance bodies set up to create human rights standards for corporate actors; I also helped facilitate a BHR communities training for human rights practitioners in New York; most recently, I worked on a project on the cocoa industry in Ghana. Last year, I had the opportunity to attend the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva, which brings together more than a thousand participants who gather to take stock of the BHR field. The theme was ‘government as catalysts for business respect for human rights,’ but one of my principal takeaways was how underrepresented local and grassroots communities are in these spaces.

HRP: What lessons have you internalized from this work and your instructors in the Clinic that you hope to carry forward?

Sabrina: Tyler and Amelia have helped me understand how important it is to look at the human rights implications of economic growth and globalization. [International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor] Susan Farbstein was an amazing mentor for my paper titled, “Realizing Economic and Social Rights in Nepal,” which will be published in the forthcoming edition of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. That paper seeks to understand what role the judiciary can play to realize basic social and economic rights in a post-conflict context. In a poor country like my own, I often hear people ask, ‘What is the relevance of seemingly abstract human rights law when our day-to-day material needs like food and housing are not met?’ I believe human rights law can and must speak to issues such as poverty, hunger, health care, housing, and economic inequality on a global scale.   

HRP: You originally moved to the United States from Nepal for college. How have you remained connected to your community back home?

Sabrina: Co-founding HLS’s international student group and serving on the boards of Human Rights and Business as well as the Law and International Development Society have been ways to stay connected to the international issues that matter to developing countries and certainly to Nepal. I am a part of Nepal Rising, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that mobilized the Nepali diaspora for relief efforts after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in 2015. I am also a co-founder of a growing Nepali women’s collective that has expanded to four cities in the United States. Ours is the first generation of Nepali women to be receiving higher education and career opportunities at an unprecedented global scale; our collective exists to document our experiences and create solidarity among us.

HRP: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Nepal? What particular issues are important for the local and international community to know?

Sabrina: COVID-19 has laid bare the inequities happening on a global scale. My home country is a case in point. First, many people lack access to basic social and economic rights like health care and social security. There are very few hospitals where you can get tested for COVID-19 in the country. We likely have less than 500 ICU beds. Many are likely to slip back into abject poverty with the economic downturn, particularly the 70 percent of the labor force in the informal economy. We have already started to hear some anecdotes about food scarcity on the ground. Second, responses to the pandemic have often not respected basic human rights. About 1,500 Nepali migrants leave every day for wage labor in the Middle East and East Asia. Some do critical work in factories that produce medical equipment to fight COVID-19. Migrant workers are the backbone of the global supply chain. But many of them have lost their jobs in the past few weeks. At the same time, Nepal instituted a nation-wide lockdown and closed its borders, even to its own citizens. Migrant workers are now literally stuck, some sleeping on roads and others trying to swim across a river to come back home.

HRP: How are you trying to raise attention to these issues?

Sabrina: At Nepal Rising, in collaboration with local partners, we are now raising funds to help build the health care system in Nepal to prepare for COVID-19, such as by procuring PPEs [personal protection equipment] and training healthcare professionals on how to use them. Former US Ambassador to Nepal, Scott DeLisi, is one of our partners for this initiative. We are trying to keep abreast of daily developments and coordinate with other initiatives in civil society. The diaspora and the international community can play a critical role when a fragile state or LDC [least developed country] has a looming public health and economic crisis.

HRP: Finally, how are you coping from day-to-day? How is balancing the daily work of HLS, keeping abreast of the news cycle, and trying to work on behalf of Nepal Rising?

Sabrina: I am precariously fine. It feels anticlimactic to not have a physical commencement and bar exam this summer, but trying to be an advocate for my community helps me too. I got breakfast from the Hark this morning. An individual in the dining staff told me that she is a single mother with three kids and that she is extremely worried about what will happen to her kids if she contracts the virus. So, I feel a mix of anxiety, gratefulness, and solidarity.  

Sabrina is interested in economic and gender issues and human rights and international law. She has spent her law school summers at Latham & Watkins, Human Rights Watch, and EarthRights International. Sabrina graduated from Swarthmore College with Highest Honors in Political Science and Sociology & Anthropology.

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March 31, 2020

Recapping Discussion on Repression in Xinjiang


HLS Advocates for Human Rights Hosts Event Highlighting Atrocities Against Uyghurs


By Jasmine Shin JD’21 & Samantha Lint JD’20

On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted a discussion at Harvard Law School on abuses committed by the Chinese government against Uyghur minorities in the Xinjiang region. HLS Advocates is a student practice organization which conducts human rights projects in partnership with NGOs around the world; raises awareness of human rights issues; and builds students’ capacity through trainings.

Speakers for the event included Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), and Rayhan Asat LLM’16, an alumna of Harvard Law School who is of Uyghur origin. The discussion was moderated by Professor William Alford, the Director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School. The event was co-sponsored by East Asian Legal Studies at HLS, the Program on Law and Society in the Muslim World, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard, and the Harvard Muslim Law Students Association. 


The Appalling State of Oppression in Xinjiang


The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic minority group who are predominately Muslim. They are one of the two largest groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in Northwest China. Several Uyghur communities also live in neighboring countries in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

The Uyghurs have been long regarded as potential threats by the Chinese government due to their cultural and ethnic differences from the Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in China, and demands for a separate state from some members of the Uyghur community. 

Richardson emphasized the unparalleled scale of arbitrary detention of Uyghurs today, enabled by surveillance technology and driven by a misguided notion of sinicization. Over the past several years, HRW has documented the use of political re-education camps against Uyghurs by authorities in Xinjiang, where “torture, ill-treatment, denial of access to medical care, and intentional degradation” occur routinely. Richardson also highlighted the Chinese government’s surveillance of the Uyghur community – both as troubling on its own and as facilitating the detention program. For example, the Xinjiang police use an app “that gathers information about what is mostly perfectly legal behavior – how often [one] pray[s], when [one] talk[s] to [one’s] neighbors, whether [one] go[es] in the front or back door of [one’s] house.” 

The Chinese government’s abuses against the Uyghurs, Richardson noted, are driven by “[its] mistrust of ethnic minorities” hidden behind a “security claim.” The Belt and Road Initiative may also be an additional motivating factor, as Xinjiang is an important region for the initiative due to its close proximity with countries to the west of China. Overall, the oppression of Uyghurs highlights the dangers of “sinicization – a fixed idea of what a ‘good’ Chinese citizen is – and a desire to produce a dissent-free society enabled by technology and surveillance.”

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