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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.Continue Reading…
August 20, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
As Communications Coordinator, I’ve always been partial to advocacy. Media advocacy, to be more precise. This summer, our alumni are putting it to great use in outlets all over the world.
On Monday, The Huffington Post ran a column by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, a Satter fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documenting the devastating toll the conflict in Gaza is taking on civilians. For the column, Nicolette spoke by phone with Gazans she met last year while researching civilian perspectives on involvement, status, and risk in armed conflict, including in Libya, Bosnia, and Somalia.
In “No Safe Place in Gaza,” she writes:
A young woman described the crippling fear she had experienced over the last four weeks: “The worst of all is the night time,” she said. “There is no power, no electricity, and there are tens of drones in the sky. Whenever you hear a rocket, you think it’s targeting your house. You are running from one room to another. I know this is silly — if your house is hit, it won’t matter which room you were in.”
Each night, her family of six gathered on mattresses that they had pulled together in the middle of the living room, “far away from the windows, so that they don’t break,” she said. This way, if their house was hit, the whole family would be killed together. “We don’t want one of the family to survive and then have to grieve for the rest of us,” she said.
At the end of the column, Nicolette lists several strategies the Israeli government and Hamas could use to limit civilian suffering.
Closer to home, as police in combat gear clashed last week with protesters in Ferguson, MO, Sara Zampierin, JD ’11, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was quoted in a New Yorker article, “The Economics of Police Militarization.” The article attributed some of the tension in Ferguson to the underlying problem of “criminal justice debt,” which can often pit law enforcement against residents.
Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees…What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.
From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free.
And earlier this summer, Clara Long, JD ’12, an immigration and border policy researcher with Human Rights Watch, waded into the heated debate over the surge of migration at the southeastern US border. In an Op-Ed she co-authored for The Guardian, Clara railed against the Obama administration’s plans to open more family detention centers. The headline read: “Obama pledged to limit the practice of detaining minors. What happened?”
It appears that the White House has come to view being “thoughtful and humane” as a political liability. The new move to ramp up family detention comes in response to criticism that the administration’s lax immigration enforcement “created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally”, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it last week.
Obama’s move is all the more disappointing because effective alternatives to detention exist and are used in countries facing similar migration surges. Countries like Italy and Malta, prime entrances for migrants to the EU, have open reception facilities where migrant and asylum-seeking families can come and go at will – and Malta pledged to end immigration detention of children altogether in 2014. Though neither country has a spotless record – Italy summarily returns to Greece some unaccompanied migrant children and Malta sometimes detains unaccompanied migrant kids while authorities try to figure out their ages – their examples show that detaining kids with families is a choice, not a necessity.
Clara wrote another column for The Guardian on border removals in April.
In response to this flurry of activity, we at HRP have just two things to say: Thank you. And well done.
August 2, 2012
Report finds Qaddafi’s weapons pose threat to civilians
Abandoned arms stockpiles must be immediately secured or destroyed
August 2, 2012, Tripoli, Libya—Abandoned weapons that were once part of Muammar Qaddafi’s vast arsenal threaten civilian lives in Libya, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), in partnership with CIVIC and the Center for American Progress.
Explosive Situation: Qaddafi’s Abandoned Weapons and the Threat to Libya’s Civilians documents the risks posed to civilians from the extensive stockpiling and spread of the former dictator’s munitions following the 2011 armed conflict. Based on in-country investigations, the report calls on Libya to immediately secure or destroy unstable stockpiles of weapons, and with international support, set out to clear munitions, educate the population about risks, and assist victims.
“These weapons may have been abandoned, but their ability to harm civilians remains intact,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at IHRC and leader of the research team. “We’ve seen firsthand the risks they pose to ordinary Libyans and how they urgently need to be secured or destroyed before they can harm another civilian.”
While previous reporting has focused on the problems of international proliferation, Explosive Situation examines how abandoned weapons endanger civilians within Libya. Qaddafi left an arsenal of tens of thousands of tons of weapons, ranging from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles. The report focuses on four major challenges for the transitional government of Libya: stockpile management, clearance of munitions, risk education, and victim assistance.
International deminers told the team that the scale of the problem overshadows what they have seen in other conflict and post-conflict zones.
“Arms are spilling out of hundreds of inadequately secured bunkers,” said Nicolette Boehland, a fellow with CIVIC who previously researched the use of weapons in Libya with the Clinic. “Other weapons have spread across the country to militia stockpiles in urban centers, museums, fields, and even homes.”
The report identified several specific areas of risk, including:
- Civilians displaying weapons as mementos of war or harvesting explosive materials for marketable parts;
- Children playing with weapons;
- Clearance of munitions by untrained community members; and
- Mismanagement of potentially unstable stockpiles by Libyan militias in populated areas.
The report finds the weak and transitional Libyan government has taken a limited, at times non-existent, role in the management and clearance of abandoned ordnance; there is no national strategy and confusion within the government about which agency has jurisdiction over the problem. In addition, the transitional government has provided virtually no support to UN and non-profit organizations that have done most of the work on the issue. According to legal principles and international standards, however, Libya bears primary responsibility for addressing the abandoned ordnance problem and should put in place a national plan to reduce the threat to civilians.
“The recent election of a new government provides Libya an opportunity for a fresh start,” said Docherty. “The ordnance problem is not an easy one to fix, but with assistance from other countries, the new government can respond to the abandoned weapons situation and better protect its people.”Continue Reading…
May 17, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
Note: This story was originally published on the Harvard Law School homepage.
There she stood, in northern Libya, a spread of explosive weapons before her: mortars and rockets and surface-to-air missiles almost 20 feet long. For all her work in post-conflict zones, senior clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty ’01 had never seen anything like it. The weapons stretched on for miles.
It was March, five months after the revolution had ended, and Docherty was supervising a team from the International Human Rights Clinic on a trip to assess the humanitarian risks of abandoned weapons. As the team traveled from city to city, the scale of the problem was startling.
“We saw huge quantities of weapons—particularly in bombed-out bunkers—many of which were inadequately secured,” said Docherty, a lecturer on law, as well as a senior researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “In our view, these weapons represent a real threat to the safety and stability of Libyans.”
Over the course of eight days, the team traveled to Misrata, the focus of Col. Gaddafi’s bombing campaign; Sirte, where rebels finally defeated the dictator; and Zintan, where NATO bombing had destroyed a complex of more than 70 bunkers full of weapons. Their research will feed into a larger body of work on Libya by the nongovernmental organization CIVIC and the Center for American Progress.
The students prepared for weeks for the trip, researching the scattering of Gaddafi’s abandoned stockpiles, the efforts underway to deal with the weapons, and the relevant legal frameworks. Still, being there, post-revolution, was something else entirely.
“It felt momentous,” said Nicolette Boehland ’13, who is returning to Libya this summer with CIVIC, which promotes assistance for civilians victims of armed conflict. “It definitely felt like a place that was changing by the day.”
In their conversations with locals, the students said they sensed tremendous pride and enthusiasm for what had been accomplished in the revolution; the energy was palpable in the streets. But from the team’s perspective, there were also serious risks for civilians.Continue Reading…
February 16, 2012
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The International Human Rights Clinic’s newest publication—on the legal foundations for “making amends”—has its origins in a friendship formed 10 years ago on the dusty streets of Kabul.
In early 2002, just out of Harvard Law School, I traveled to Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch to investigate civilian casualties from the U.S. air campaign. There I met Marla Ruzicka, an idealistic young activist who seemed to know every civilian victim in the capital city. She served as our guide, taking us to mud house after mud house to interview the families of survivors, each of whom she treated with compassion and respect.
Marla would go on to found the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to advocating for civilian victims of war. In my capacity as a researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, I continued to work with Marla at home and in Iraq, until she was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in 2005.
In the year that followed, I joined the Clinic at Harvard, and Sarah Holewinski took the helm at CIVIC, upholding and expanding its mission admirably. We initiated a partnership shortly thereafter. While I had previously investigated why civilians are killed during war, this work allowed me to deal with what can be done to help victims afterward.
CIVIC pioneered the concept of “making amends,” which calls on warring parties to recognize and provide assistance to civilian victims for harm caused by their lawful conduct. In the Clinic’s first project with the organization, a team of students contributed to designing and drafting the organization’s “Making Amends Guiding Principles.”
Since then, the Clinic-CIVIC collaboration has generated a series of projects and helped inspire several of our students to pursue careers in the field of international humanitarian law. To date, 10 clinical students have done work produced with CIVIC or related to its mandate.
The publication released today—“Legal Foundations for ‘Making Amends’ to Civilians Harmed by Armed Conflict”—builds on CIVIC’s idea and exemplifies the Clinic’s legal advocacy. Because making amends fills a gap in international law, there is no direct precedent for it; in this paper, however, we argue that individual elements of the concept are grounded in established practice and precepts. Clinical students Andrew Childers, J.D. ’11, and Anna Lamut, J.D. ’10, researched and co-wrote the paper.
In addition to legal advocacy, the Clinic has done fieldwork in association with CIVIC. In 2010, I led a team of three students on a fact-finding mission to Nepal to investigate the needs of civilian victims of the country’s decade-long armed conflict and how those needs are—or are not—being addressed.
We interviewed dozens of individuals who had experienced or witnessed horrific events. A man described how Maoist rebels broke his legs over a log and beat him to the point his mother thought he was dead. A woman told us in tears how government forces inexplicably executed her husband, a state-employed postman, and left him on the side of the road. This trip made us better appreciate Marla’s close, on-the-ground engagement with victims of war.Continue Reading…
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