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Blog: Student Perspectives

March 18, 2021

When War Criminals Run the Government: Not Too Late for the International Community to Vet Sri Lankan Officials

Posted by Sondra Anton JD'22 and Tyler Giannini

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the February 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s deliberations over yet another resolution on Sri Lanka this month has cast renewed attention on repeated failures to achieve any semblance of accountability for past atrocities, and on the deteriorating human rights situation over the past year following the return to power of accused war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The lack of accountability and concerns about future violations have rightfully received the bulk of the attention. But there is another question worth bringing to the fore – namely, how did an alleged war criminal return to power – and relatedly, should the human rights system have done more to prevent such individuals from taking official power again?

These inquiries are centered around the legal concepts known as “vetting” and “lustration,” and they deserve increased attention. It is not just the election of Rajapaksa. Since his return to power, after having served as the defense minister who commanded the violent final phase of the country’s decades-long war that killed countless civilians, he has appointed a slew of other compromised individuals who face “credible allegations” of international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Rajapaksa, for example, immediately appointed his brother, former wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, and named other relatives and family associates to top cabinet positions. The large number of individuals with credible allegations against them who now occupy top positions in the government raises concerns about militarization of the government. It also all but eliminates any chance that those who suffered violations will obtain justice in the near term for the crimes committed against them.

The appointments involve so many high-level positions that they have even been described by Yasmin Sooka from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) as “amount[ing] to a coup by stealth.” And had efforts to vet or ban alleged war criminals from public service been robustly in place, Sri Lanka would likely look very different today.

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March 11, 2021

Rayhan Asat LLM’16: Her Brother’s Keeper


HLS Advocates for Human Rights is proud to present the Spotlight Series, a forum for essays and opinion pieces written by Harvard Law School students and alumni calling attention to pressing domestic and international human rights issues. If you are a Harvard Law student or alumnus/a and would like to contribute a piece to Spotlights, please contact Sondra Anton ([email protected]) or Ikram Ais ([email protected]). 

The views and opinions expressed in Spotlight pieces are those of the authors or interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HLS Advocates for Human Rights, the International Human Rights Clinic, or the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School.


On March 9, 2020, HLS Advocates for Human Rights hosted “Surveilled, Detained, Disappeared: Repression in Xinjiang,” a panel discussion on the oppression of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region.  At the event, Rayhan Asat (LLM ‘16), the first Harvard Law School graduate of Uyghur origin, shared publicly for the first time that her brother, Ekpar Asat, had been forcibly disappeared after returning to China from a U.S. State Department-sponsored trip to Washington, D.C as part of the International Visiting Leaders Program (IVLP).

Rayhan was in the final weeks of her LLM program at HLS when Ekpar came to the United States to participate in the IVLP.  Ekpar visited her during this trip and promised her that he’d be back in a few months’ time to attend her graduation ceremony with their parents.  Unfortunately, that was the last time that Rayhan saw her brother.  Her parents canceled their trip to the U.S., and she never heard from Ekpar again. Nearly four years later, Rayhan learned that her brother had been sentenced by the Chinese government to fifteen years in prison for “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination,” despite Ekpar’s track record of “continuous effort in cultivating ethnic harmony, and greater understanding between the Han and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang Province of China.”

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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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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

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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December 7, 2020

The UN must take action and compensate victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo

Posted by Nathalie Gunasekera JD'21

“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated refugee camps.

In September 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics Dr. Marcos Orellana presented his predecessor’s report on lead poisoning in Kosovo. He delivered a clear message: inaction must end, and justice must be delivered.

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December 2, 2020

Incendiary Weapons Through a Humanitarian Disarmament Lens

Posted by Erin Shortell JD'21

On August 26, 2013, 18-year-old Muhammed Assi stood in the courtyard of a Syrian school talking with five classmates. Suddenly, an incendiary bomb landed in the middle of the group of students, immediately killing all but Muhammed.

“The intensity of the explosion threw me a distance of about three to four meters from where the missile struck,” Muhammed said. “We were surrounded by the fire. I used my hands to hit my head to try to snuff out the fire.” Other students screamed in horror, many badly burned and calling out for help, and dead bodies lay in the schoolyard. Muhammed recalled, “Time seems to stop when these things happen to you… [W]ords can’t describe my feelings, but I saw the fire completely surrounding me from everywhere, and when the breeze blew, it fed oxygen into the incendiary substance and made it burn even stronger.”

In a new report entitled, “They Burn Through Everything”: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) detail the human suffering inflicted by incendiary weapons. These weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it has failed to adequately protect civilians like Muhammed. While CCW states parties have expressed concerns about the use of incendiary weapons for years, the report urges them to formalize these discussions at their Review Conference next year and to strengthen Protocol III.

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October 16, 2020

“Deep Shame Within the Ranks of UN Staff”

Posted by Joey Bui JD'21

Assessing the UN’s Haiti Cholera Response 10 Years On

In 2010, a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission caused an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Haitians. On Oct 8, 2020, ten years after the outbreak began and amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, key experts joined the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School for a webinar to discuss the ongoing failure of the UN to adequately answer to Haitian victims and what lessons the rights organization should learn moving forward.

It was a rare occasion in which a UN official spoke publicly with Haitian and foreign advocates who have been extremely critical of the UN’s response. During the event, former UN officials provided an inside look at the UN’s failures in Haiti, and expressed shame about the UN’s response. The panel also identified key takeaways for the UN to adopt in order to prevent a repeat in the future.

The virtual panel, which was a part of Harvard Worldwide Week and was co-sponsored by seven different Harvard centers and groups, included Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer at Bureau des Avocats Internationaux who has led efforts to seek justice for victims, as well as Haitian doctors who have worked on the frontlines of the outbreak, Dr. Inobert Pierre of St. Boniface Hospital and Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps of GHESKIO. Presenting perspectives from the UN were Josette Sheeran, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti; Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; and Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights.

Eight individuals on zoom during a webinar.
From left to right, top: Beatrice Lindstrom, Philip Alston, Louise Ivers; Middle: Marie Deschamps, Mario Joseph, Andrew Gilmour; Bottom: Inobert Pierre, Josette Sheeran.
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