Blog: Amnesty International

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January 4, 2021

Trusted to listen: Nicolette Waldman ’13 dedicates her career to documenting human rights violations

Posted by Dana Walters

After her first interview in Afghanistan, Nicolette Waldman ’13 realized she had found the career she was meant to pursue. It was the summer after her first year at Harvard Law School, and Waldman had a fellowship with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to research torture of conflict-related detainees. The man she was meeting had escaped from an Afghan prison. He had never been interviewed before, and she could tell he was nervous. A newly minted law student, she was nervous too.

“As the questions went on, he realized that he could lead and all I wanted to do was listen,” she said. “I had thought that interviewing was going to be more adversarial. But this was a shared process where we were both trying to get at what had happened to him. I felt like my role was to be a partner.”

Since graduating from HLS less than a decade ago, Waldman has, by now, interviewed hundreds of people. Some have survived the horrific abuses. Others have committed such abuses themselves. From death camps in Syria to conflicts in Gaza and Somalia, she has documented some of the worst moments of the last few decades. Still, she vividly recalls that first interview in Afghanistan, and how it set a course for her future trajectory.

“There’s something instinctual about knowing when your rights have been violated. It’s incredibly meaningful to sit across from someone and bear witness to their story and to have that individual trust you to tell that story to the world,” she said. “Human rights interviewing is a very niche type of documentation, but I think if it’s done right it can make survivors feel like they’re not alone,” she added.

Waldman (née Boehland) grew up in rural, northern Minnesota and studied English Literature and International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College. After college, she worked for Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. She realized that law school might give her the right tools to make the impact she sought, although it would be deeply difficult to take a step back from the world in which she had already immersed herself. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped bridge that gap, allowing Waldman to work in the field, in post-conflict zones and under close supervision, as part of her legal education.

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December 17, 2014

Clinic and Partners Call on Myanmar Officials to Drop Charges against Fateher Complaining of Rights Violations

Posted by Matthew Bugher, Global Justice Fellow

In a letter to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein on December 8, the International Human Rights Clinic and five leading international human rights organizations called for criminal charges to be immediately and unconditionally dropped against Shayam Brang Shawng, a resident of Kachin State in northern Myanmar. Brang Shawng is accused of making “false charges” in a complaint to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission about the alleged killing of his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing, by Myanmar Army soldiers. A Myanmar Army officer initiated the case against Brang Shawng, and the action appears to be retaliatory in nature. The Myanmar government has not responded to a letter, reposted below, which the Clinic and its partners published today.

December 08, 2014

President Thein Sein
President’s Office
Nay Pyi Taw
Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Re: Prosecution of Shayam Brang Shawng

Dear President Thein Sein,

We write to you to express our concerns about the criminal prosecution of Shayam Brang Shawng (hereinafter Brang Shawng), an ethnic Kachin resident of Sut Ngai Yang village, Hpakant Township, Kachin State, who has been charged under Article 211 of the Myanmar Penal Code.

Brang Shawng is accused of making “false charges” against the Myanmar Army in a letter he sent to the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on October 1, 2012. In the letter, Brang Shawng alleged that Myanmar Army soldiers from Infantry Battalion (IB) 389 shot and killed his 14-year-old daughter, Ja Seng Ing, in Sut Ngai Yang village on September 13, 2012.

The criminal prosecution of Brang Shawng appears to be in retaliation for the complaint to the MNHRC and runs contrary to Myanmar’s obligations under domestic and international law. The case also calls into question the ability of the MNHRC and other state institutions to protect persons filing complaints with the commission. We therefore request that you take action to ensure that the charges against Brang Shawng are immediately and unconditionally dropped and that similar cases do not occur in the future.

Death of Ja Seng Ing and prosecution of Brang Shawng

On December 6, 2014, the Truth Finding Committee of Ja Seng Ing’s Death (the Committee)—an independent group of ten civil society organizations from Kachin State—published a 42-page report concerning the death of Ja Seng Ing. The Committee conducted interviews with 16 individuals who had knowledge relevant to Ja Seng Ing’s death. The report includes numerous accounts indicating that Myanmar Army soldiers shot and killed Ja Seng Ing in Sut Ngai Yang village on September 13, 2012.

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July 16, 2014

The Satter Human Rights Fellowship: A Call for Applications

Here’s some good news for recent grads committed to doing human rights work: we’re re-opening the application process for our Satter Fellowship!

The Satter Human Rights Fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocity or widespread and severe patterns of rights abuse.

Aminta Ossom, JD ’09, worked for Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa.
Aminta Ossom, JD ’09, worked for Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa.

Past fellows have worked with Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa; with Public International Law & Policy Group in Libya providing legal advice on issues related to constitution making, transitional justice and accountability, and access to justice; and with Fortify Rights International in Thailand on monitoring, advocacy, and training to protect and promote human rights in several different regions in Myanmar.

To apply for the Satter, you must have graduated from Harvard Law School within the last three years. Applications will be accepted until the fellowship is filled.


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April 2, 2012

Interview with Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International: On Respecting Human Rights, from Bahrain to Guantanamo Bay

Posted by Cara Solomon

A man wearing a white shirt and a black blazer gestures in front of a podium.
Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, spoke last month at Harvard Law School.

Last month, Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, drew more than 100 students for a fascinating lecture entitled “Ending Double Standards: Human Rights in the World Today.”  

Clinical student James Tager, JD ’13, later followed up with Shetty in an interview about everything from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to the need for strong human rights advocacy in the United States. Below is an edited version of that interview, which is also posted in the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

JT: In your lecture, you said that “the clear cut division that the purists sometimes like to make in the human rights world—between civil and political rights on the one hand and economic social and cultural rights, on the other—was exposed as meaningless” by the Arab Awakening. Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?

SS: Let’s take Tunisia, for example, and look at the case of Mohamed Bouazizi.  Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest, an action which then set Tunisia on fire, which set Egypt on fire.  If you were to ask: Was he unhappy about his unemployed status, and the fact that he didn’t have a livelihood?  Or was he protesting against the fact that he couldn’t express himself freely, and he had no way of getting any redress?  And the answer, obviously, is both.  Bouazizi’s actions were a graphic illustration of that.

There are other graphic illustrations.  In Egypt, 40% of the population in Cairo lives in slums, with very uncertain tenure.  I visited many of the slums in Cairo—Manshiyat Naser and others—where people are forcibly evicted.  Then, when they go to the government to complain, they are further repressed, and there is massive corruption.  So there is really a combination of factors at play here.

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February 24, 2012

Interview with Amnesty International’s Law and Policy Director: On Juvenile Life without Parole

Posted by Cara Solomon

Last week, we were privileged to host Mike Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International, for a series of fascinating discussions.  Mike, who is based in London, flew in to Boston from Los Angeles, where he met with colleagues who work on juvenile justice issues; before that, he was in Strasbourg, attending a strategy meeting with Amnesty’s European lobbyists; before that, in Vienna at a UN Office on Drugs and Crime meeting reviewing the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; and before that, he was in Geneva to meet with Human Rights Watch colleagues.  All in the space of two weeks.

He came to HRP last week primarily to talk to Fernando’s “Human Rights Advocacy and the Criminal Justice System” seminar about his work on juvenile justice issues, and the implementation of Amnesty’s Demand Dignity campaign, which frames anti-poverty advocacy as a human rights issue.  But he also—no  surprise here—managed  to squeeze in a career talk on human rights, plus two student interviews.

Below, Zainab Qureshi, LLM ’12, interviews Mike about the amicus brief Amnesty International recently filed in two juvenile life without parole cases joined before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Zainab: What is the status of juvenile life sentencing without parole under international law?

Mike: Well, the amicus brief is arguing there’s an emerging consensus against it. We think the brief has made the argument that the United States is effectively the only country that’s doing it; that there are a few isolated exceptions, but there is the overall conclusion that this is no longer a sentence that is really effectively used anywhere in the world except the United States.  There are some countries that still use detention “at her majesty’s pleasure,” and so on, but limitations have been placed on those kinds of sentences in practice.

Zainab: How is the amicus brief arguing against the constitutionality of juvenile life sentencing without parole, based on what you said about international law?

Mike: It’s an interesting approach, precisely because U.S. courts have not been particularly welcoming to the idea that international treaty obligations, or customary international law, applies directly to issues in the U.S.—with some limited exceptions about things like torture and piracy.  And then there’s the approach in U.S. law that most treaties aren’t self-executing—even though the constitution declares that all treaties are part of the “supreme law of the land”—meaning that Congress has to pass implementing legislation before those treaties can be invoked.  So the brief isn’t addressing the direct applicability of specific treaty obligations.  What it’s saying instead is that the United States has, in fact, a long tradition of looking at international practice to inform the way it interprets the domestic law.  There’s a scholarly approach that calls for the infusion of international law and practice into domestic law.  It’s essentially an infusionist approach that says: when you look in particular at things that relate to fundamental rights, international practice is a relevant consideration.

The brief cites the Declaration of Independence’s invocation of a “decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” and the idea that respect for the opinions of the practice of the world is something that, we’ve argued in the brief, has always been a feature of U.S. legal thinking—of the foundation of the United States, in fact.  And should continue to be with respect to this particular issue.

So I think it’s not a departure from previous practice; there’s nothing about it that raises the flags that you sometimes hear about “we’re giving up U.S. sovereignty to allow foreign authorities to dictate the course of U.S. law”; but it appropriately takes into account what international practice is, as well as domestic practice is, to judge: is this accepted in 2012?  Or, as the brief has concluded, is it an isolated, extreme practice that only a few jurisdictions in the world actually have on the books, and that only one country actually implements?

Zainab: Are there any examples where the Supreme Court has, in fact, accepted arguments relying on international practice?

Mike: It’s historically done so—perhaps to a limited extent in recent decades, but it has looked at to a significant extent with regard to Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  There’s certainly the recent example of the Court’s decision on the juvenile death penalty [in Roper v. Simmons (2005)], which devotes a section to the arguments advanced by human rights groups in their amicus brief, that there is an international consensus against the death penalty for juvenile offenders.  The court said in the end, essentially, we don’t regard international law as dispositive, but we regard it as a relevant consideration.  (See note 1 below for more explanation.)

Similarly in the opinion on the last case on life without parole for juvenile offenders, [Graham v. Florida (2010)], the Court did the same thing.  It did look at the international legal arguments as a relevant factor in the decision, and it spent some time on the brief submitted by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.  What the majority said was: we’re not buying the argument that there’s an international legal norm prohibiting life without parole for juvenile offenders that has risen to the level of jus cogens [a peremptory norm of international law that binds all states].  We’re not going to address that argument.  It doesn’t matter, because what we’re doing is just looking at international practice as an indication of where the world is at now—rather than resolving the question of whether it rises to the level of a binding obligation, and what kind of binding obligation.  So they didn’t take on board the entire legal argument, but they certainly used the international authorities to be able to resolve the issue.  (See note 2 below for more explanation.)

And I think going farther back, there’s been a practice at the U.S. Supreme Court of looking in a limited respect to international sources of law to resolve other issues.

Zainab: Given that the U.S. Supreme Court did rule favorably in the previous cases you outlined, do you think there will be a favorable ruling in this case as well?

Mike: It’s always difficult to predict what the outcome will be.  The Court has joined two cases and presented a number of questions, some of which suggest that it would be looking for a narrow basis on which to rule, and some of which suggest that it might be prepared to consider some of the broader arguments that were raised.  It’s significant that the Court has taken on another case on life without parole so soon.  And it’s significant that it’s taken one that clearly would allow it to issue a much broader ruling.  But I can’t really say with any certainty whether it’s going to be a narrow ruling or a broad ruling; I can only express the hope that it’s a favorable ruling.

Zainab: One other question generally about children getting involved in the criminal justice system in the United States.  Why do you think it’s happening, and is it happening at an increasing rate?

Mike: I don’t know that it’s happening at an increasing rate.  We were talking in the human rights class yesterday about the extent to which there was this myth bandied about in the 90s about the “coming storm of ‘super predators.’”  How that was misused to drive public policy.  And the fact is that we haven’t had that storm; the super predators never arrived.  What we do know is that a lot of the reasons we have kids in detention have to do with the overuse of criminal approaches, as opposed to alternatives to the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.

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February 13, 2012

Coming Wednesday: “Careers in Human Rights”

Event Notice

 February 15, 2012

“Careers in Human Rights”

A Lunch Discussion with Mike Bochenek, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International

12:00- 1:30 pm

WCC 3009

Pizza Provided

In his role as Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty, Mike Bochenek participates in policymaking and programmatic review at the highest levels of the organization.  He is also an expert in children’s rights and economic, social, and cultural rights, having worked on the implementation of Amnesty’s Demand Dignity campaign, which frames anti-poverty advocacy as a human rights issue.

Previously, Bochenek was Deputy Director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, where he researched, authored, and oversaw numerous reports on issues relating to juvenile justice, education, child labor, and police abuse, among other topics.  Bochenek will speak about his start in the field of human rights, his work at Amnesty and HRW, and his current projects, which include advocacy around the upcoming US Supreme Court oral argument on the issue of life without parole (LWOP) sentences for juveniles.

This will be an informal discussion, so students are encouraged to bring questions about careers in human rights. 

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