Blog: Student Perspectives
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November 1, 2022
We are pleased to present HRP’s 2021-2022 Annual Report. The report showcases the global reach and impact of the Human Rights Program in its 38th year, featuring work on queer rights, indirect discrimination, and Covid-19. It spotlights the impact of visiting scholars and fieldwork undertaken by students and alumni, and details the rich assortment of HRP events.
We thank all of the partners and alumni who made the year so strong.
May 13, 2022
Metwally spent summer 2021 at Social Media Exchange in Beirut, Lebanon
In a time of dim prospects for democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere, defending and advancing digital rights has long become a crucial frontier for human rights advocates. The Beirut-based Social Media Exchange (SMEX) is one of the few locally rooted NGOs to have made it their mission to advocate for digital rights in the Arab world. From July to August 2021, SMEX was supported by HRP summer fellow Amre Metwally JD’22 in pursuing that mission.
For Amre, SMEX had “long been a dream organization” of his to work with. He joined the NGO’s legal unit, which had only been established shortly before his fellowship. As an Egyptian-American, Amre was able to employ his language skills to seamlessly join forces with his colleagues on projects in Arabic. He says the following on his two main projects:
“The first was a project called “Muhal” which is a database that tracks freedom of expression infringements and arrests across the Arab world. I tracked incidents in Jordan and Tunisia. Additionally, my colleague and I drafted a report that analyzed how provisions in Tunisian, Jordanian, and Lebanese civil and criminal code can be used as pretexts or justifications behind freedom of speech violations. In particular, I was interested in looking at blasphemy, defamation, and cybercrime provisions in Jordanian law that served as the basis for violations.
The second project was a multi-person project that is actually funded by Privacy International. We wanted to better understand biometric and digital identification programs in the Gulf region in the Middle East. I was responsible for first researching the technical, legal, and economic underpinnings of national ID programs for Bahrain and Qatar. From there, I worked with my colleagues to find common trends, identify important differences, and flesh out a template for country-specific analyses. I then finished by writing my country analyses for Bahrain and Qatar.”
Amre brought extensive knowledge and a refined understanding of the tension between free speech and the regulation of online hate speech thanks to years of working for the content policy team at YouTube. Personal connections from his professional past also proved beneficial when Amre was able to liaise between the SMEX team and former YouTube colleagues now employed at TikTok to resolve a burgeoning crisis.
On the idea of “international human rights work”, Amre’s views evolved regarding the feasibility of cross-border coordination between human rights organizations:
“One project for SMEX was to create an Arab Alliance for Digital Rights. At first I assumed that, despite geographic diversity, it should be somewhat easy to get alignment. I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it was! Even when everyone was aligned for the need for strong “human rights” protections and advocacy work when it comes to the digital space, there was so much that changed based on, for example, a specific country’s reality compared to a different country. It made me realize just how much “international” human rights work is still ultimately shaped by, and influenced by, domestic or national human rights ideas and priorities.”
The internship at SMEX has only cemented the path Amre was on already. Advocating for digital rights was the reason he joined Harvard Law School, and his writing on the issue has been published on Slate.
May 11, 2022
HRP is pleased to announce its 2022 summer fellowship cohort: Madeleine Rogers JD’22, Andrew Santana JD’23, Ishita Petkar JD’24, Zoe Shamis JD’24 and Julia Lee JD’24.
Summer fellowships for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School human rights experience and provide rich professional, personal, and intellectual opportunities. Many students and alumni/ae who are committed to human rights were introduced to the field through an internship. Interns work for at least eight weeks with nongovernmental or intergovernmental organizations advancing human rights with an international focus.
You can find the student bios below.
Andrew Santana will intern with International Rights Advocates, working on class action litigation on behalf of the survivors of human rights abuses in Latin America. He graduated from Cornell in 2013 with a B.A. in government and received a M.P.P. from the University of Oxford in 2020, where his research focused on application of international human rights law to freedom of expression online. Professionally, Andrew has worked in various communications and political roles for Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris, and Robert Reich. Last summer, he worked with International Rights Advocates on a wide range of human rights matters before federal courts.
Ishita Petkar will intern at EarthRights International in Washington D.C. She will work with their litigation and legal advocacy team to further corporate accountability for environmental and human rights violations. Prior to law school, Ishita directed policy advocacy at the International Accountability Project, an NGO dedicated to furthering community-led development and holding development banks accountable for the human rights impacts of their investments. Her masters thesis interrogated the varying definitions of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) held by Indigenous and corporate stakeholders in the international development process. Ishita holds a B.A. from the University of Toronto in English Literature and Indigenous Studies, and an M.A. in Human Rights from Columbia University.
Julia Lee will intern with Corporate Accountability Lab in Chicago, working on their combating forced labor, transitional justice, and ethical intellectual property projects. Julia is interested in international human rights and criminal law, and she hopes to work in Southeast Asia one day. Prior to law school, she spent a summer researching immigrant access to health care and social services in the Bom Retiro neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil. She also worked in venture capital, education, and public relations in South Korea. She graduated summa cum laude from Emory University with a B.A. in English and minor in Global Health.
Madeleine Rogers will be interning with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on their Constitution Building Project. Working with the IDEA, Madeleine will focus in particular on constitutional formation processes in post-conflict zones, and analyzing strategies to ensure institutions capable of safeguarding human rights. She hopes to use this research to build on her interest in the role of governmental institutions and the rule of law on transnational human rights issues such as human trafficking and corporate accountability. Madeleine holds a BFA from the Juilliard School; she hails originally from Portland, Oregon.
Zoe Shamis will intern with the Clooney Foundation for Justice, working in their TrialWatch division, which monitors global criminal trials for human rights violations. At HLS, she has worked on the International Law Journal and been an active member of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. She holds a B.A. from Bowdoin College in Government & Legal Studies and Russian.
Congratulations to all of our summer fellows and best of luck to all the HLS students interning abroad this summer!
March 25, 2022
International Human Rights Clinic Files Supreme Court Amicus Brief on Behalf of International Scholars in Jam v. IFC
This week, Olivia Klein from the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs published a feature on the IHRC clinicians and students that worked during the January term on the amicus brief submitted behalf of international scholars to the Supreme Court in Jam v. International Finance Corporation (IFC). Read about their intensive collaboration in the drafting and submission process and their hopes for what happens next: https://clinics.law.harvard.edu/blog/2022/03/international-human-rights-clinic-files-supreme-court-amicus-brief-on-behalf-of-international-scholars-in-jam-v-ifc/.
February 16, 2022
By Sarah Foote
On December 8, 2021, Sondra Anton, JD ’22, testified in front of members of the United States House of Representatives at a congressional hearing held by the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission focused on human rights in Sri Lanka. Anton’s testimony focused on efforts to hold state security forces accountable for international law violations against the Tamil population during the final stages of the country’s internal armed conflict in 2008-2009.
Anton relayed information on the crimes and human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan government and military forces in the last months of the 26-year-long war that ended in May 2009. She recounted how tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed during this period in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Anton also stressed how survivors of these atrocities are still displaced and family members are often met with opposition and threats from the government there while searching for their missing relatives. Her testimony also observed that the same officials accused of orchestrating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during this period are back in power today.
Anton first joined the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) in Fall 2020. “I came to law school with the specific purpose of pursuing a career focused on seeking justice and accountability in conflict and post-conflict societies. I chose Harvard in large part because of the amazing work that the Clinic had done in this area on behalf of survivors of mass atrocity,” Anton said, specifically citing the IHRC’s involvement in the historic Mamani vs. Sanchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case, a case that came to the Clinic at the initiative of then student Thomas Becker.
“The Clinic encourages students to take initiative and build expertise in areas that they are passionate about,” said Professor Tyler Giannini, a Director of the IHRC. “Since bringing the Sri Lanka work to the Clinic, Sondra has made a tremendous contribution and driven our efforts forward in this space.”
While providing testimony, Anton noted that the United States should play a larger role in bringing Sri Lankan perpetrators to justice. Anton also identified ways the United States could strengthen its efforts while ensuring survivors’ voices are heard and by taking steps such as collection and preservation of evidence of these crimes. She said that the United States and other international communities must work together to bring the perpetrators to justice and provide important and necessary resources for the survivors.
“There are so many issues facing Sri Lanka today that were highlighted during the panel, such as the frightening rise in anti-Muslim violence and the resurgence of extreme ethno-nationalist violence under the current regime. By specifically addressing state-sponsored impunity for 2009-era crimes from an international human rights and criminal law perspective, my testimony sought to paint a fuller picture to lawmakers and the public about how salient the past is to the present on the island,” Anton said.
Both Anton and Giannini agree that more work needs to be done to help Tamil survivors of mass atrocity in Sri Lanka.
“Law is but one tool that can help recognize the fundamental human dignity that has been repeatedly denied to Tamils by successive Sri Lankan governments since independence,” Anton said in her testimony.
Anton will graduate in May and plans to do a post-graduate fellowship related to international accountability. She says that advances in international criminal law and renewed attention on Sri Lanka at the United Nations, including an increased investigative capacity in international crimes, will hopefully make it harder for Sri Lankan war criminals to run out the clock on justice.
“Whether through platforms like congressional hearings or in a court of law, I plan to use my training as a human rights lawyer to fight to ensure survivors’ calls for truth and justice do not go unanswered,” said Anton.
To read a copy of Anton’s complete statement to Congress click here.
July 12, 2021
Testing the Water: Using ‘OPERA’ to Assess How the Right to Water in India Is Protected in a Changing Climate
Posted by Laura Bach
Editor’s Note: This blog was first published by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR). It highlights research being conducted by the Clinic and its partners using ‘OPERA’, an analytical tool developed to aid advocates monitoring progress on economic and social rights.
As a second-year law student enrolled this spring in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, I joined a team of four focused on analyzing the Indian government’s obligation under international human rights law to ensure equal enjoyment of the right to water by all. Although we were working in partnership with CESR and Nazdeek, a Delhi-based legal empowerment organization—two groups well acquainted with issues of socio-economic rights—the prospect of assessing these rights in the context of climate change felt overwhelming.
What, specifically, must a government do to meet its human rights obligations? What should be made of government inaction? Is the standard the same for all countries? A related thread followed shortly after that inquiry: Does climate change and its impact on water change this calculus? As someone who went to law school in part as a result of being, well, bad at science, this line of questioning was beyond my comfort zone!
Luckily for me, CESR’s OPERA framework served as a useful guide, shepherding my team’s research while ensuring we had the flexibility to set many of our own parameters. OPERA—which stands for Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources, and Assessment—helps answer exactly these kinds of questions. Grouping them around four dimensions, it prompts researchers to gather information corresponding with the human rights standards in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).
A team begins by assessing the human rights outcomes experienced by residents of a country. This stage asks: From the perspective of rights holders, what is wrong or problematic? In Delhi, for example, water available for domestic purposes like drinking and cooking is variable, with most populations having water for a few hours a day. Water is less available to certain communities, like those living in informal settlements, who are not connected to pipes and must rely on tanker trucks, community taps or wells, which provide an irregular supply of water that is more expensive. The effects of climate change, such as increases in temperature, high-intensity rainstorms, floods, and droughts, further reduce water availability. It is diminishing the levels of water in municipal reservoirs and contaminating surface and groundwater sources. It can also make the resource more costly, because that reduced supply meets increased demand as temperatures continue to rise.Continue Reading…
April 27, 2021
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.Continue Reading…
April 21, 2021
Posted by Cindy Wu JD'22
You may have seen images of Hindu devotees immersing themselves in large clouds of white foam floating through the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. But what may seem otherworldly belies something much more sinister: a river of deep religious and life-giving significance for millions of people, teeming with toxic industrial and residential pollutants.
Alongside three other Harvard Law School students and our Clinical Instructor, Aminta Ossom, I have spent this past semester studying the relationship between climate change and inequality. This Earth Day, our team is thinking about how climate change and human activities are working in tandem to degrade and deplete the Yamuna River. This environmental harm has significant impacts on the enjoyment of the right to water, as well as on other rights, like cultural rights and the rights to adequate health and livelihoods.
What is the Yamuna?
The Yamuna—a tributary of the Ganga River—is critical both in Hindu culture and as a source of livelihood. Millions of Hindus worship the river as a goddess, and many make an annual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves to wash away their sins and to bring health and prosperity. Besides its religious significance, the Yamuna supports the livelihoods of farmers, fisher-folk and boatsmen and is a crucial source of water for 57 million people, especially for those in the Delhi region.
April 21, 2021
Posted by Lavran Johnson JD'22
The United States has an environmental human rights problem. Across the country, communities of color and lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately located close to chemical processing plants, power plants, and other industrial facilities and shoulder the burden of domestic environmental contamination. Air and water quality standards frequently fail to protect these communities, leading to detrimental health impacts and continued contamination. Although the situation is improving, state and federal agencies have historically failed to reduce the cumulative burdens on these communities. Most of our environmental laws provide protective regimes based on available technology and economic feasibility. Although these regimes place limits on pollution, they reflect a presumption that industries have a general right to pollute. Industry’s right to pollute is constrained by environmental law; but we need a shift away from industrial rights and towards a human right to a clean environment.
After years working as an outdoor educator, I came to law school to focus on environmental law, committed to finding ways through policy and litigation to better protect the environments that had enriched my life. It was in the classroom — and not outside — where I started to build the connections that drive my current work. My torts class, where we studied Rob Bilott’s prosecution of DuPont for chemical pollution, helped to shift my focus towards work that would protect both the environment and the individual people who rely on it. Later, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini exposed me to some of the many ways that environmental exploitation and human exploitation are entangled, but it was working over the summer on an administrative complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency that really crystallized my understanding: environmental justice is fundamentally a human rights issue. All people should be protected from pollution that poses a serious and permanent risk to their health, and historical deprivation and prejudice should not be allowed to undermine that basic protection.
This spring, I entered the International Human Rights Clinic hopeful that I could gain a better grasp of how rights are understood and leveraged, but unsure whether I would be able to do environmental work. I’ve been very lucky to work with Bonnie Docherty and three excellent team members to prepare recommendations for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Bonnie, who is the Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, has worked for decades to highlight the detrimental effects of weapons on both humans and the environment. The TPNW, which Bonnie and previous clinical students helped to shape, reconceptualizes nuclear disarmament by shifting from a tactical focus—one in which states play their nuclear arsenals off each other to maintain geopolitical order—to a humanitarian focus—one in which states must address the ongoing human suffering caused by the use and testing of nuclear weapons. The TPNW, which requires total disarmament, also creates obligations that respond to the legacy of nuclear weapons use and testing through victim assistance and environmental remediation. In places like the Marshall Islands, where many still suffer the effects of the nuclear testing that happens over 60 years ago, these obligations are critical.Continue Reading…
March 24, 2021
Clinic, Stimson Center publication provides guidance on arms exports and preventing gender-based violence
Posted by Zarko Perovic JD'22 and Anna Crowe
Today, the Clinic launched a new publication on arms exports, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and gender-based violence (GBV) with the Stimson Center. The publication contains a questionnaire and explanatory guide that aims to help governments screen arms exports for those that could contribute to GBV, an assessment the ATT requires. The publication builds on the Clinic’s prior work in this area with the NGO Control Arms, including advocacy, trainings with export officials, and authoring interpretive guidance on human rights law, GBV, and the ATT.Continue Reading…
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