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Blog: Student Perspectives

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

Posted by Dana Walters

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.

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March 31, 2020

Recapping Discussion on Repression in Xinjiang

Posted by Jasmine Shin JD'21 & Samantha Lint JD'20

HLS Advocates for Human Rights Hosts Event Highlighting Atrocities Against Uyghurs


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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January 31, 2020

2019 HRP Summer Fellow Reflection: Emily Ray JD’21


Ray spent summer 2019 at the Forest Peoples Programme in Guyana


Summer fellowships for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School human rights experience. During the summer of 2019, HRP funded five HLS students to intern abroad at nongovernmental organizations for 8-12 weeks. At the conclusion of their internships, students returned to HRP with a deeper appreciation for the type of work required of human rights practitioners. While our 2020 summer fellowship application is open this month, we’ll be excerpting portions from their fellowship reports to provide a glimpse into the kinds of experiences open to human rights students at Harvard Law. 


When Emily Ray JD’21 departed for the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) in June 2019, she was lucky to be joining International Human Rights Clinic alum, Lan Mei JD’17. Mei had been with the FPP for two years, first as a Henigson Fellow in Human Rights and then as a full-time staff attorney. As the only permanent staff member living in Guyana, Lan directly supervised Emily over the course of her internship.

FPP is a human rights organization committed to working with indigenous communities across the globe to secure their rights to their lands and their livelihood. They employ a partnership model and collaborate intensively with local organizations on their mission. At FPP in Guyana, Emily spent the bulk of her time working with the Wapichan people in partnership with the Amerindian People’s Association (APA). The Wapichan have a collective organization, the South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), through which villages can discuss shared issues and make decisions on governance and unified goals. 

Over the summer, Emily focused on producing a training for members of the SRDC’s villages on mining in the Wapichan territory. As she describes it:

“The SRDC already had an established community program intended to monitor mining in the territory and record information for community awareness and potential use in later legal actions. However, the monitoring program needed to be revamped and updated in line with the community’s concerns and with Guyana’s mining laws. The 3-day training that we prepared and delivered served a number of functions; it allowed us to get a better sense of which mining issues the community cared most about and how to redesign the monitoring forms/program to address those issues; it also acted as a sort of know-your-rights training that educated community members about relevant Guyanese and international law. My personal role in this training consisted of preemptive research about applicable laws, working with Lan to plan and later adjust the training curriculum, generating handouts for participants to take home to their villages to disseminate information, leading several different elements of the training, and assisting in facilitating group work. After the 3-day primary workshop, we spent a fourth day working with the community monitors on fine-tuning the actual form that they complete on monitoring trips.” 

Emily’s summer with the FPP was her first experience doing grassroots human rights work. She originally came to HRP’s summer fellowship program wanting to think more about the intersection between environmental conservation and indigenous rights. FPP’s small in-country base meant Emily was able to try her hand at a variety of projects, from drafting communications between villages and government officials to interpreting the language in the Guyanese constitution and mining regulations. 

Emily described Lan as conscientious mentor. She learned a great deal from Lan through Lan modeling what an effective human rights advocate does. Emily noted she particularly admired Lan’s flexible demeanor and perceptive intellect.

“When we met with community stakeholders, Lan showed an acute ability to know exactly what was needed at any moment. If someone needed expert legal analysis on their rights, she would jump in. If we were at a community meeting and she noticed no one was taking notes, she would grab a pencil. She understood how doing international human rights work might require you to wear many ‘hats.’”

After working directly with clients on the ground, Emily saw first-hand how direct legal representation can be constrained by larger systemic forces. She hopes to gain a more holistic picture of the “entire human rights ecosystem” by studying policy in her 2L summer. During the fall semester, she worked on an International Human Rights Clinic team on women’s rights among refugees from Myanmar. She is also a dedicated member of HLS Advocates for Human Rights.


Interested in learning more about HRP Summer Fellowships? Schedule an advising appointment with Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, and apply to join our 2020 cohort today! Please note that you do not need to have a confirmed placement organization before you apply for the 2020 HRP summer fellowship pool. Applications are due TOMORROW, February 1, 2020!

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January 27, 2020

2019 HRP Summer Fellow Reflection: Julian Morimoto JD’21


Morimoto spent summer 2019 in the Philippines documenting Duterte’s war on drugs


Summer fellowships
for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School human rights experience. During the summer of 2019, HRP funded five HLS students to intern abroad at nongovernmental organizations for up to eight weeks. At the conclusion of their internships, students returned to HRP with a deeper appreciation for the type of field work required of human rights practitioners. Throughout January, we’ll be excerpting portions from the 2019 HRP Summer Fellowship cohorts’ final reports to provide a glimpse into the kinds of experiences open to human rights students at Harvard Law.


Last summer, Morimoto spent 12 weeks at Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services (IDEALS) in the Philippines, where he contributed to the organization’s analysis on the Philippines’ war on drugs and human rights law. In July, Amnesty International called President Rodrigo Duterte’s tactics over the last three years a “large-scale murdering enterprise” and called on the United Nations to investigate for “crimes against humanity.” As an NGO committed to providing legal advocacy on behalf of “marginalized, disempowered, and vulnerable groups,” IDEALS has been working on documenting the human rights violations occurring in the war on drugs for years.

As a Filipino-American, Morimoto was personally invested in and impacted by the work. Over the course of the summer, he read through transcripts of interviews of individuals alleging to be victims or relatives of victims of human rights violations, either extrajudicial killings or arbitrary arrests. Looking for trends in the data given to him, Morimoto found “evidence that the war on drugs campaign is in tension with international and domestic human rights law,” he said.

Morimoto described the experience as eye-opening, challenging his preconceived notions of human rights lawyering. Having expected international human rights bodies like the United Nations to more centrally figure in the organization’s strategy, he learned that “more of the important mechanisms for vindicating rights were domestic in nature,” he said. He was also surprised by how much IDEALS staff encouraged him to explore economic, social, and cultural rights, though he had come from a U.S.-education system where civil and political rights were more heavily emphasized.  

In his internship, Morimoto also had the opportunity to draw on his mathematics background, discovering how integral statistics became for the organization’s documentation efforts. 

“I initially thought the report was going to be most helpful as a case-by-case analysis of how the war on drugs violated the rights of people in the Philippines,” he said. “Through this approach, I was going to go through the each documentation of human rights violations and point to which portions of international and domestic human rights law they violated. However, staff encouraged me to look at trends in the data: how many of the victims had their homes broken into, how many of the victims were falsely labeled as nanlaban or ‘resisters’ after police had killed them, how many victims were uneducated, etc. This helped me learn that these trends can also be useful for human rights lawyering (in contrast to an individual, case-by-case analysis of each documentation), because it helps show that the human rights violations aren’t just isolated incidents: there is a government policy that systematically violates human rights.”

IDEALS staff encouraged Morimoto to take both a wide-eyed view of the trends and dive deeper into individual stories. Over the summer, he was exposed to heartbreaking descriptions and pictures of violence. The research made him see “how difficult human rights work can be.”

“In spite of all this,” he said, “it taught me that human rights is not just some lofty ideal discussed by people in iron towers. It is a tool that many people would like to use to find relief for injustice. Furthermore, it taught me that while the international human rights regime may have many, many flaws (particularly from the lens of developing countries, against whom human rights law appears to be disproportionately enforced compared to rich, Western countries), the fact remained that the people I was trying to help wanted to rely on this system to obtain justice, and that being an advocate sometimes meant setting aside your own views about a system to better fulfill the wishes of your clients.”

Morimoto described IDEALS staff as a family. They gave him the independence and autonomy to design his own project and methodology, while providing him with feedback and direction when he asked for it. At HLS, he hopes to continue to study armed conflict and public international law.


Interested in learning more about HRP Summer Fellowships? Schedule an advising appointment with Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, and apply to join our 2020 cohort today! Please note that you do not need to have a confirmed placement organization before you apply for the 2020 HRP summer fellowship pool. Applications are due February 1, 2020!

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