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June 9, 2021

Harvard Human Rights Journal on Indirect Discrimination and Religion

Grounded in an April 2020 symposium hosted by the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, the latest issue of the Harvard Human Rights Journal focuses on indirect discrimination on the basis of religion. HHRJ’s Volume 34, Issue 2 (Summer 2021) invited scholars who attended the private workshop to explore the concept in more detail, exploring issues in a comparative and international manner. The April event was hosted by Gerald Neuman, HRP Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, who also contributed an essay to the journal on the “normative background to prohibitions on indirect discrimination” and “the current state of indirect discrimination law domestically and internationally.”

Other essays in the series explore the nuances between indirect discrimination and reasonable accommodation, the inclusion of religion in public education to promote tolerance, and the difference between the right to freedom of religion and the right against religious discrimination. Expert contributors included Tarun Khaitan, Professor of Public Law and Legal Theory at Wadham College, Oxford University; Rashad Ibadov, Assistant Professor of Law at the School of Public and International Affairs, ADA University, and a former HRP Visiting Fellow; and Sarah Cleveland, Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights at Columbia Law School; among others.

Two commentaries round out the issue. Victor Madrigal-Borloz, Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher and Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, spoke to how the theory of indirect discrimination might be applied to the lived realities of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and other gender diverse (LGBT) persons; and Yuval Shany, Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at Hebrew University, wrote about the choices made by national and international human rights bodies in employing guarantees of religious freedom and prohibitions of indirect discrimination as alternative bases of protection.

Read the full issue on the HHRJ website.

For the last two years, HRP has hosted three private workshops focused on indirect discrimination and other factors. Most recently, workshops explored indirect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) and indirect discrimination arising from the pandemic, with a discrete focus on SOGI.

Learn more about the 2020-2021 workshops here.

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May 19, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: A Crisis Born from Impunity

Posted by Grant Shubin and Akila Radhakrishnan

(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert 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. This article was first published to Just Security on May 18, 2021). 

In his first speech since illegally attempting a coup d’etat, Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing told the people of Myanmar that, “no one is above the law.” He went on, “no one or no organization is above the national interest in state-building and nation-building.” But in reality, Min Aung Hlaing and indeed all of the military (Tatmadaw) are very much above the law in Myanmar.

Of the coup’s many potential causes, perhaps the most overt is that military leadership thought they could get away with it. The military’s constitutional insulation from civilian oversight and control, the failure thus far to hold them accountable for human rights abuses and international crimes, and even periodic cheerleading from the international community for a “democratic transition” emboldened the military into thinking that subverting the will of the people could be done without major consequence. To quote the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “This crisis was born of impunity.”

After all, the military has been getting away with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, so why not a coup?

In the aftermath of Feb. 1, a great many novel and knotted international legal questions have arisen. Chief among them is a question about the status of the constitutional order in Myanmar: the military has strained to claim that it is upholding the 2008 Constitution, while the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH)/National Unity Government (NUG) have abolished the 2008 Constitution and issued a new Federal Democratic Charter that envisions a different system entirely. Rather than getting into the merits of these claims, this piece looks at the related – and in many ways inseparable – issue of how military impunity is an essential part of the narrative of the ongoing crisis and how accountability must be part of the solution moving forward. In doing so we analyze the major areas of concern in Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, the lack of concerted international action to address the military’s grave crimes, how those collective failings created an environment of impunity that paved the way for the coup, and why this path must be avoided going forward.

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January 13, 2021

Impeachment Can Vindicate Human Rights

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

Impeachment is an extraordinary procedure for responding to abuse of power by government. Is legislative trial of elected officials consistent with human rights? It depends. Groundless political trial, or arbitrary and irregular proceedings, may violate the rights of the officials, and more importantly the political rights of the voters who elected them. But procedurally regular and substantively justified impeachments, with appropriate sanctions, may be consistent with the rights of the officials and essential for preventing future violations of the rights of others and protecting democracy.

We are facing such a moment in the United States. The U.S. Constitution provides that, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” (Article II, sec. 4.) It gives the House sole power to impeach, and it gives the Senate sole power to try impeachments. (Article I, sec 2, cl. 5; sec. 3, cl. 6.) The Constitution provides that the consequences of impeachment and conviction “shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States,” while leaving the person impeached subject to other ordinary legal proceedings. (Article I, sec. 3, cl. 7.) Although impeachment uses some of the vocabulary of criminal law, the only sanctions that the Senate may impose are job-related – removal and future disqualification, not imprisonment, and not even a fine.

The UN Human Rights Committee, the treaty body that oversees compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, examined the consequences of impeachment from a human rights perspective in 2014. (Paksas v. Lithuania, UN Doc. CCPR/C/110/D/2155/2012 (2014).)  The impeached Lithuanian president Rolandas Paksas, who had been impeached after conferring Lithuanian citizenship on a suspicious Russian donor to his campaign, complained that barring him from future re-election violated his rights of political participation under article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The majority of the Human Rights Committee concluded that under the particular circumstances of the case, in which the consequences of impeachment were not clearly specified by law and the Constitutional Court developed its interpretation as an outgrowth of the Paksas proceedings, permanent disqualification from being President, Prime Minister or Minister “lacked the necessary foreseeability and objectivity and thus amount[ed] to an unreasonable restriction” violating article 25. (Id. para. 8.4.)

I wrote a partly dissenting opinion in that case, emphasizing that presidential impeachments are rare and difficult.  (Id. p. 17.)  They are not merely a vote of no confidence, as in a parliamentary system that contemplates renewed elections to test a leader’s political support, but a more severe recognition of abuse of power.   Some democracies limit the number of times that a president who has served honorably can be reelected, in order to ensure a healthy and competitive political system.  It is foreseeable and appropriate that a president who corrupts or attacks the democratic system should be permanently barred from seeking additional opportunities to do so again.  That sanction does more to protect political rights than it does to limit them.

In the United States, unlike Lithuania, it has been clear for centuries that a foreseeable outcome of impeachment is permanent disqualification.  When attempts to subvert the electoral process by baseless allegations and intimidation culminate in incitement to interfere by force with the congressional confirmation of the election results, disqualification would be a vindication of human rights.

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December 15, 2018

Report: Australia Should Join Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Defense Alliance with US not Legal Bar to Ratifying New Treaty

Parliament House (Canberra, Australia)

(Cambridge, MA, December 14, 2018) – Australia’s alliance with the United States need not stand in the way of Australia joining the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released today.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) would require Australia to end its reliance on US nuclear arms for defense. But it would not undermine the countries’ broader collective security agreement established under the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.

“Australia has long claimed to support nuclear disarmament,” said Bonnie Docherty, lead author of the report and the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “Joining the ban treaty would advance that goal without creating insurmountable legal obstacles to ongoing military relations with the US.”

The 13-page report “Australia and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” explains why Australia can renounce its nuclear defense arrangement with the US (under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”) while maintaining military ties to its ally. The report also shows the compatibility of the treaty with Australia’s disarmament commitments under other treaties and policies.

The Labor Party is expected to discuss the TPNW at its national conference from December 16 to 18, 2018. The conference will provide a forum for Labor to develop a new party platform.  In its last platform, adopted in 2015, the Labor Party called for negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Continue Reading…

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October 29, 2015

Clinic Submits Report In Support Of Hearing On Rights Of People Affected By The CIA Rendition And Torture Program

Posted by Deborah Popowski


Last week, the International Human Rights Clinic submitted a report in support of an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights thematic hearing on the rights of people affected by the CIA rendition and torture program. The hearing was requested by the ACLU and the NYU Global Justice Clinic, who asked us to adapt our 2014 shadow report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture for this purpose.

Titled Denial of Justice: The United States’ Failure to Prosecute Senior Officials for Torture, the report documents how the Obama administration and other government entities are in violation of the law by shielding from criminal liability the senior officials, including lawyers, who were responsible for the post-9/11 U.S. torture program. It notes that the U.S. government has failed to heed calls by the Inter-American Commission and other human rights authorities to conduct an in-depth and independent investigation into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment and to prosecute and punish those responsible.

We submitted both the Inter-American Commission and the U.N. Committee reports as members of the advocacy group U.S. Advocates for Torture Prosecutions.

Thanks to Michelle Ha, JD ’16, Kelsey Jost-Creegan, JD ’17, and Marin Tollefson, JD ’17 for their work on the report, and to Fernando Delgado, Tyler Giannini, and original co-authors Ben Davis, Trudy Bond, and Curtis Doebbler, for their review.

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September 21, 2015

Tomorrow, Sept. 22: Negotiating the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities


Tuesday, September 22, 2015


“Negotiating the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities: An Insider’s Perspective”

A Talk by Ambassador Luis Gallegos

12:00- 1:00 p.m.
WCC 3008
Harvard Law School

Please join us for a brown bag discussion with Ambassador Luis Gallegos, who chaired the first half of the negotiations on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and is a current board member for the Special Olympics. He has previously served as Ecuador’s Ambassador to the United States, as Ecuador’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and as a Member of the UN Committee Against Torture.

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August 31, 2015

Has the Human Rights Committee Extended its Reach?

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

This post was originally published July 29, 2015 on Just Security

Last week the UN Human Rights Committee, the independent body created by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to monitor states’ compliance, issued its Concluding Observations (COBs) on the periodic reports of seven states, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. These most recent statements of concern and recommendations to those states may exhibit an innovation in the committee’s approach to the perennial debate over extraterritorial application of the ICCPR. They suggest a broadened understanding of the concept of “jurisdiction” that links an individual overseas to a state and triggers the state’s ICCPR obligations, although the committee has not clearly articulated or explained the change.

The COBs on France and the United Kingdom both address issues of surveillance of communication, within and outside national territory. The observations on the UK (and a March 2014 COB on the USA) seem to assume that extraterritorial communications surveillance raises privacy issues under article 17 of the Covenant, regardless of the nationality of the parties to the communication. (The COBs for France are less explicit on the latter point.) The committee therefore expresses concern about overbroad and unchecked surveillance practices, and makes a series of recommendations for reform.

If one probes the committee’s assumption that extraterritorial communications surveillance always raises privacy issues under the Covenant, the following question arises: How does the committee explain the relationship between extraterritorial surveillance of foreign nationals and the undertaking of each state party to the ICCPR “to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant,” as article 2(1) of the treaty provides? 

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