Blog: Gerald L. Neuman

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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 9, 2020

Coming to grips with populism after Trump


Gerald L. Neuman, Human Rights Program Co-Director, reflected on populism and human rights in a post-Trump landscape for Open Global Rights today, Dec. 9, 2020. Neuman, who is also and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School, describes some of the ideas first presented in his recent edited collection, Human Rights in a Time of Populism (Cambridge University Press, 2020) while expounding on what comes next for the U.S. government to overcome the damage the outgoing Trump administration has done domestically and internationally.

Neuman writes:

“Returning to the rule of law and fortifying democracy in the United States will best be accomplished by reemphasizing the country’s own democratic and egalitarian values, and by vindicating truthfulness after four years of Trumpian fraud. The U.S. needs both candor going forward and full disclosure of the actions of the prior regime and their consequences. Although there may be some benefit in showing how regression has undermined U.S. respect and influence in the world, international human rights discourse and external criticism are unlikely to reclaim the opinions of voters under the sway of aggressive nationalism.”

Neuman’s post comes on the heels of a Nov. 18 panel with the Harvard Law School Library further reflecting on the book’s themes. At that event, Neuman was joined by panelists: César Rodríguez-Garavito, Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law; Richard Javad Heydarian, an academic, columnist, and policy adviser in the Philippines; and Ruth Okediji. Jeremiah Smith. Jr, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of the Berkman Klein Center. You can watch the HLS Library book talk below:

Learn more about Human Rights in a Time of Populism in a Q&A from Harvard Law Today.

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October 5, 2020

WATCH: Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights”: Shrinking U.S. Human Rights Policy


In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created a highly controversial “Commission on Unalienable Rights” to reexamine the basis of U.S. human rights policy. In August, the Commission published its formal report, arguing for a narrower and more selective approach to human rights. The State Department promoted the report at the UN General Assembly two weeks ago.

On September 17, 2020, the Human Rights Program hosted experts to discuss the report and its implications for U.S. human rights policy and the international human rights system. HRP was joined by:

  • Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University;

  • Gerald Neuman, J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School;

  • Mathias Risse, Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Philosophy and Public Administration and Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University;

  • Katharine Young, Professor of Law at Boston College Law School;

The event was moderated by Sushma Raman, Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

You can now watch a captioned video of the event below or at this link:

Thanks to our co-sponsors by the Harvard Human Rights Journal, the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School, and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

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September 21, 2020

Mourning the Passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by Gerald Neuman

Photo Credit: Tony Rinaldo.

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the nation and the world have lost a champion of human equality. At the Human Rights Program, we must mourn and remember while we persist.

Justice Ginsburg was a tireless defender of universal human rights. She initially gained fame as the strategist of constitutional reform for women’s equality, fighting legalized stereotypes and making clear the harm they imposed on everyone. As a judge of the D.C. Circuit (where I first met her) and as a Supreme Court Justice she kept attention on the rights of all – including women, racial minorities, religious minorities, LGBT persons, immigrants, the poor, prisoners. She sought to ensure the efficacy of antidiscrimination law and to preserve access to the courts. 

Justice Ginsburg expressed her openness to the world in such ways as her refusal to confine constitutional rights within the nation’s formal borders, her willingness to learn from foreign constitutional experience, and her acceptance of self-executing treaty provisions.  

Alas, as the Supreme Court shifted during her decades of service, her fidelity to a better constitutional understanding was increasingly shown in her eloquent dissenting opinions. Throughout her career, Justice Ginsburg’s dedication, skill and fortitude offered, and continue to offer, an inspiring example to all good lawyers, and especially so to human rights lawyers.

Gerald L. Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and the Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at HLS. He teaches human rights, constitutional law, and immigration and nationality law.

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August 27, 2020

The Supreme Court’s Attack on Habeas Corpus in DHS v. Thuraissigiam


Gerald L. Neuman, Human Rights Program Co-Director and J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, contributed a piece to the Just Security blog this week to discuss the recent Supreme Court decision in DHS v. Thuraissigiam. Neuman previously filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the case, which involves a Tamil individual who tried to claim asylum in the United States after fleeing Sri Lanka in fear of persecution.

Neuman writes:

“At a time when the rule of law is under threat and xenophobic incitement has become a central government policy, a five-Justice majority of the Supreme Court has called into question the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee against executive detention. Refugees are the primary target of the Court’s decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Thuraissigiam, but the immediate implications of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion are much wider, and the opinion endangers everyone – U.S. citizens included – by reopening settled questions about the Habeas Corpus Suspension Clause of the Constitution.

This important case has gotten less public attention than it deserves.   The opinions may be hard for non-experts to follow, because they arise in a technically complex area of immigration law, and because Alito mischaracterizes some of the issues. The case arose when Vijayakumar Thuraissigiam fled Sri Lanka in the hope of being protected by the United States and was arrested by immigration officials in 2017 at a short distance from the southern border. He was placed in rudimentary “expedited removal” proceedings, where his claims for protection were quickly rejected. The statutory provisions on expedited removal clearly preclude anyone in his position from obtaining judicial review, including by habeas corpus, of the legality of the removal decision. The central issue raised by the case was whether this total preclusion of habeas corpus for a refugee within the United States violated the Suspension Clause.

Once the Supreme Court granted certiorari, it was likely that five Justices would rule against the refugee’s right to have his particular claims reviewed; the more urgent question was how broadly they would uphold preclusion of judicial review.”

Read the full article at Just Security.

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July 6, 2020

Amicus brief challenges public health asylum limits


Gerald L. Neuman, Co-Director of the Human Rights Program, joined immigration and refugee scholars during June in an amicus brief challenging the Trump Administration’s restriction of asylum procedures during the COVID-19 crisis. The brief supports plaintiffs’ emergency motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the removal of a child fleeing targeted violence in his home country of Honduras.

The Trump administration’s order relies on a broad interpretation of the Public Health Service Act, which allows the CDC to limit the “introduction” of individuals and goods to the U.S. In reality, the CDC order is a thinly-veiled attempt to further curb immigration, only applying to noncitizens (including unaccompanied children) who arrive at the southern and northern borders without documentation. Health experts have decried the order, citing the numerous exemptions as demonstrating that its purpose is to target a disfavored category rather than to protect public health.

“The administration is abusing the CDC to create a shadow deportation system that circumvents all legal limitations on deportation,” said Neuman.

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July 1, 2020

Human Rights in a Time of Populism & COVID-19

Posted by Dana Walters

Book cover of Human Rights in a Time of Populism
Cambridge University Press, 2020.

A new volume “Human Rights in a Time of Populism” edited by Gerald L. Neuman ’80 brings together reflections from a range of experts on a growing trend in international politics since 2016, the electoral successes of right-wing populists. The Human Rights Program recently spoke with Professor Neuman about the book and how he sees the landscape changing for countries with populist leaders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neuman is the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and a Co-Director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School. From 2011 to 2014, he was a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The new volume is based on a 2018 HRP conference of the same name.


Human Rights Program: In 2018, you talked about the conference as providing a forum to discuss the rise of populism and its implications for international human rights. At the time, you defined populism as “a kind of politics that employs an exclusionary notion of the people—the ‘real people’—as opposed to disfavored groups that are unworthy, and whose will should not be constrained.” Does this definition still seem right to you in 2020?

Gerald L. Neuman: This “ideational” definition of populism (or exclusionary populism) still provides a useful guide to the current wave of populist threats to human rights. It comes from political science, which also offers other approaches to populism, but I find this definition identifies the salient category today. To me it has the benefit of distinguishing politicians who reject constraints from other politicians sometimes labeled populist who respect human rights, like Elizabeth Warren. However, a chapter in the book, by Douglas Johnson, [lecturer in public policy, Harvard Kennedy School], criticizes my choice and the negative view of populism that it involves. That disagreement illustrates the multifaceted character of the book.

HRP: At the conference, Peter Hall [Knapp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard] spoke of how populist leaders in Western Europe preyed on an economic insecurity and a middle class fear of “being left behind.” How is this addressed in the book? Given the global economic downturn we are facing, are you worried that we may see another increase in populism across the world?

Gerald Neuman speaks into a mic seated at a panelist table with a tent card displaying his name.
(R-L) At the 2018 Human Rights in a Time of Populism conference at Harvard Law School, Gerald L. Neuman, the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, and a co-director of the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School, with Laurence Helfer, the Harry R. Chadwick, Sr. Professor of Law at Duke Law. Credit: Heratch Photography.
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May 14, 2020

How do you protect against indirect discrimination?

Posted by Dana Walters

HLS’s Human Rights Program convenes experts to explore the concept of indirect discrimination on the basis of religion


In 2010, France adopted a law banning full-face coverings in public. Opposed by several human rights organizations, the law was challenged quickly in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and later before the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC).

In bringing the cases, the applicants charged that the law discriminated against them indirectly. On the face of it, the law treated everyone the same, but it had disproportionate effects for Muslim women who wore niqabs. Notably, the ECtHr upheld the law, while the HRC found it to be a violation of human rights.

Cases like these, and differences between approaches, occupied much of the conversation at a recent Harvard Law School Human Rights Program (HRP) workshop focusing on indirect discrimination on the basis of religion.

Gerald Neuman ’80, the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law, convened the workshop on Saturday, April 18. HRP hosted the workshop in cooperation with the Harvard Law School Project on Disability, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Read the full story about the workshop on the Harvard Law Today website.

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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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