Blog: Susan Farbstein
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January 18, 2022
Special session offers reassurance and guidance to 3Ls whose law school experience was impacted by the pandemic
By Sarah Foote
COVID-19 reshaped the Class of 2022’s time at Harvard Law School. For students planning careers in human rights, the pandemic jettisoned international summer internships, J-term placements, and opportunities to travel and study abroad. Professor Susan Farbstein wanted to respond to this sense of loss in her advanced clinical seminar and to connect her current 3Ls to networks and mentors that can support them on their paths—particularly as they launch careers in unprecedented circumstances.
So at the end of the fall term, Farbstein convened a Zoom session with 13 clinical alumni, spanning the Classes of 2009 through 2020, and advanced 3Ls in the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). Over two hours that felt like both a family reunion and a high-level panel, alumni shared lessons learned from their often-circuitous career paths. They also offered sage advice about the importance of working for good leaders, practicing self-care, and the challenges and fulfillment they’ve found tackling human rights issues around the world.
The Clinic As A Launching Pad and Ongoing Source of Support
Many alumni drew a connection between their time as students in the International Human Rights Clinic and their ability to enter the human rights field.
For Yonina Alexander, JD ‘12, Regional Program Director at Partners for Justice, her first position out of law school was a direct outgrowth of her projects and training in the Clinic. “My first job was with the Center for Justice & Accountability. I went there to work on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation and Torture Victim Protection Act cases, and that was directly because I’d been working on ATS litigation in the Clinic. I loved it and wanted to continue,” she said.
Jason Gelbort, JD ‘13, Founder of Upland Advisors, also drew “a direct thread between a moment at the Clinic and everything I’ve done since graduating.” As a student, he participated in a clinical fact-finding trip to the Thai-Burma border. “After spending a week in a refugee camp talking to people about their horrible experiences, it was definitely very formative and made me decide this was a situation I wanted to focus on. After that trip, I knew I wanted to work in that field. It was directly tied to my experience at the Clinic,” Gelbort said.
Other alumni noted that the Clinic had been instrumental to their career transitions, and recounted reaching out to former clinical supervisors to talk through their options and decision-making process when moving between jobs later on in their careers.
Good Mentors and Workplace Culture Make All the Difference
The alumni also emphasized the importance of working with and for people who will be good colleagues and foster a healthy workplace environment. “When interviewing for jobs, think about who you are going to work for and how you are going to be treated,” advised Jillian Rafferty, JD ’20, Managing Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross. “Try to figure out what works for you. The people that are around you at work make a really big difference in your ability to find your work sustainable—not just fulfilling in the tasks or the mission of the job, but in your ability to be content.”
New human rights practitioners should challenge themselves to find mentors and to consider the type and quality of supervision they prefer, advised Ben Hoffman, JD ‘11, a Supervising Attorney at EarthRights International. “When you’re interviewing it’s important to ask about supervision—especially now with so much remote work. You’re not necessarily going to be infrequent meetings with your supervisor or even going to be in the same office or location as your supervisor. It’s important to do some self-reflection and figure out how important it is to you when interviewing and ask about this,” Hoffman said.
Matt Wells, JD ‘09, Deputy Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, noted that in his experience, “You need to be prepared to construct some of that workplace culture [you want] for yourself. It can come from finding the right boss, which has been a very intentional part of how I’ve chosen career transitions at this stage.”Continue Reading…
December 9, 2020
Posted by Dana Walterrs
Over the last semester, Laura Soundy ’22 and Rehab Abdelwahab ’21 have learned how critical it is to talk about subjects other than law. As the two team members on their project in the International Human Rights Clinic, they made space to share both their commitment to eradicating injustice as well as the fears and frustrations that come with living life, and attending law school remotely, during a pandemic. And when they learned they were both quarantining in Texas—albeit on opposite sides of the state—the two quickly formed a plan to meet in the middle (after two weeks of isolation and in as safe a manner as possible).
Soundy and Abdelwahab first met this September while working under the supervision of Clinical Professor Susan Farbstein ’04, who was running a project with a community in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Despite the right to water being enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution, the community has long gone without consistent access to potable drinking water. Over the last eight weeks, Soundy and Abdelwahab have become not only trusted colleagues and collaborators, but also close friends. Building a connection in the virtual world is difficult, but the two students were eager and intentional about doing the legwork to make their team a success.
Originally from South Dakota and a transfer student to Harvard Law School, Soundy knew the odds of making it into the International Human Rights Clinic were slim. Students filled the clinic’s spots for the following year just as she was admitted to HLS last spring. At the last minute, however, she won the lottery for the final seat and rearranged her entire schedule to make it work. Soundy, who majored in sociology at Baylor University, was first drawn to law school because of her interest in human rights.
Abdelwahab grew up in Qatar and later attended Yale University. Focused on global health and international affairs, she wanted to be a doctor. Still, after completing all the prerequisites and taking the MCAT, she realized medicine would never give her the opportunity to make a difference on a macro scale the way law might.
After obtaining spots in the International Human Rights Clinic, both were instantly drawn to Farbstein’s project.
“A lot of the ways human rights issues are addressed are reactive and about retribution. This project was framed from a lens of sustainability and cooperation. Instead of solely focusing on who is at fault, we were also interested in building up infrastructure so that it actually served the people,” said Abdelwahab.
Working in close collaboration with the Equality Collective, an innovative new South African NGO that builds capacity and structures for collective participation, with a focus on rural and marginalized communities, the clinical team spent the semester laying a foundation for a major regional campaign around access to water. Because the project was new, outcomes were less defined.
“We really had the opportunity to shape the project,” Abdelwahab said. “It was exciting but also challenging. Laura and I were both really invested in understanding the interaction between the local, municipal, and national laws governing the right to water in South Africa, but we had no background in the issue and we were thrust into the deep end.”Continue Reading…
September 28, 2020
The most recent print edition of the Harvard International Law Journal, published today, features an article by Susan Farbstein, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director and Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School, about the long-running Apartheid suit. Entitled “Perspectives from a Practitioner: Lessons Learned From The Apartheid Litigation,” the piece draws on her work as co-counsel in the Alien Tort Statute case that sought to hold corporations accountable for their role facilitating human rights abuse in apartheid South Africa.
“The article really represents my attempt, as a human rights practitioner, to analyze the experience of litigating the Apartheid suit,” Farbstein explains. “While lawsuits alone can’t fundamentally improve human rights, the article contends that litigation can be a powerful option for individuals or communities that have survived human rights abuse, and that it played an important role for many stakeholders involved in this particular case. I try to honestly consider the challenges that we faced over the years, and acknowledge the ways that we fell short of our ambitions. But I also suggest that critiques of human rights litigation often miss the mark because they demand too much of litigation—which is, of course, just one of the many tools available to the human rights movement—and because the critiques fail to understand the multiple goals of this kind of effort.”Continue Reading…
June 3, 2016
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
Last week, the International Human Rights Clinic and co-counsel filed our reply brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, responding to Ford and IBM’s opposition to the petition for a writ of certiorari in the in re South African Apartheid Litigation. The reply brief points out the clear circuit splits that require the Supreme Court’s attention, flatly rejecting Defendants’ claim to the contrary.Continue Reading…
February 17, 2016
Posted by Susan Farbstein
Last week in South Africa, there was an important—and surprising—development related to the 1983 torture and murder of Nokuthula Simelane. I previously wrote about the case as an egregious example of the lack of accountability for apartheid-era crimes, as well as the apparent political obstruction that effectively blocked the investigation and prosecution of nearly 300 post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) cases.
But perhaps the tide is turning. On February 8th, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) announced that it will charge four former apartheid security policemen with Simelane’s kidnapping and murder. This represents the first prosecution of apartheid-era perpetrators since a 2007 plea agreement with five senior police officers, among them Adriaan Vlock, who served as Minister of Law and Order.
Former TRC Chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the breakthrough as a “most significant and historic decision,” but also questioned why the NPA delayed for decades and proceeded only after Simelane’s family launched a High Court case to compel the NPA into action. The NPA has said that it is moving ahead now because of the strength of the evidence and merits of the case, which create reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution.
The four former members of the Soweto Special Branch—Willem Helm Johannes Coetzee, Anton Pretorius, Frederick Barnard Mong, and Msebenzi Radebe—are due to appear in court on February 26th. Although three of the accused applied to and received amnesty from the TRC for Simelane’s abduction, none applied for her murder. Because of this failure to make a full disclosure, the case was referred to the NPA and now appears set to proceed.
November 10, 2015
Posted by Susan Farbstein
Twenty years ago today, Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other members of the Ogoni Nine were hanged in Port Haurcourt, Nigeria. Saro-Wiwa was a writer, environmental activist, and outspoken critic of Shell’s destruction of Ogoniland. He accused Shell of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni, co-founding the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) to protect their rights and protest the devastating effects of Shell’s oil exploitation on their land.
In response, Nigeria’s military junta falsely accused him of murder and then created a special tribunal — which violated international due process standards — to prosecute and sentence him to death. In 2009, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million to settle a case in which it was accused of collaborating with the Nigerian government in Saro-Wiwa’s execution.
On this anniversary, it would be nice to document how much has changed in the Niger Delta over the last two decades — how pollution from oil extraction has been reduced, how Shell has cleaned up past spills, how the Ogoni no longer suffer from poisoned waterways, fishing areas, and surface soil. Unfortunately that article can’t be written, because the devastation continues.
Although Shell was forced out of Ogoniland in 1993, it remains responsible for leakages, gas flaring, and oil blow-outs from approximately 5,000 kilometers of its pipelines that still run through the area. Hundreds of spills occur annually across this old and poorly maintained pipeline network, ruining drinking wells, agricultural fields, forests, and fisheries that the Ogoni depend on for their food and their livelihood. Shell acknowledges spills leading to more than 55 million liters of oil leaked in the Delta in recent years — and these numbers likely understate the true scale of the damage. (By comparison, on average there were 10 spills annually across the whole of Europe from 1971 to 2011; the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska accounted for approximately 41 million liters lost.)
The most comprehensive study on the impact of oil pollution in Niger Delta, produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011, documented appalling levels of ongoing contamination. The UNEP also found that Shell had failed to properly clean up spills at more than 60 locations across Ogoniland. In response, Shell assured its critics that, since 2011, it has addressed the pollution identified in the UNEP report.
But a recent study by Amnesty International (AI) and the Centre for the Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) flatly contradicts Shell’s claims. In locations where Shell asserts it has cleaned up and remediated past spills — and where Nigerian government regulators have certified sites as clean — AI and CEHRD found water-logged areas with an oily sheen, land that was black and oil-encrusted, and soil that was soaked and visibly contaminated with crude. They conclude that Shell has not improved its methodology for addressing oil spills and still fails to adequately clean up its pollution.
To truly commemorate Saro-Wiwa, the struggle for social and environmental justice and a clean Niger Delta must continue. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent pledge to fast-track implementation of the UNEP’s recommendations is commendable but insufficient. Shell must improve its approach to oil spill remediation, properly clean up the Delta, and compensate communities for past harms. And the Nigerian government must create an effective oversight, regulation, and accountability process for the oil industry, one that addresses the underlying causes of pollution in the Delta, including the maintenance of oil infrastructure and a re-examination of the spill investigation process.
Shell’s unapologetic attitude and unchanged behavior are an insult to human rights and all that Ken Saro-Wiwa represents. The Nigerian state and Shell might have hoped that killing Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues would end the struggle. We owe it to him to prove them wrong.
Susan and a team of clinical students participated in litigating Wiwa v. Shell, which charged Shell with complicity in the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other non-violent Nigerian activists, and successfully settled in 2009.
August 19, 2015
Posted by Tyler Giannini and Susan Farbstein
Last week, the Clinic and co-counsel filed a petition for rehearing en banc, asking the Second Circuit to allow Plaintiffs’ claims to go forward against Defendants Ford and IBM in In re South African Apartheid Litigation. The petition responds to a Second Circuit panel decision that denied Plaintiffs the ability to proceed. The panel ruling found the allegations were not sufficient to show that Ford and IBM had “purposefully” aided and abetted the South African state in committing international law violations.
The petition, however, argues:
The ramifications of the panel’s decision are brought into stark relief when measured against the Nuremberg tribunal. If the Nazi industrialists convicted at Nuremburg had operated in the United States, rather than Germany, when they sold Zyklon B gas to support and facilitate the Holocaust, the panel’s opinion would foreclose claims against them.
The brief argues that goes further than the Supreme Court intended with its decision in Kiobel vs. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. in 2013, which requires that claims must “touch and concern” the United States to proceed. In addition to being at odds with Kiobel, the panel decision raises fundamental questions about aiding and abetting standards as well as corporate liability under the ATS. Indeed, the petition asserts that “the panel has essentially re-written the terms of the ATS, and asks whether this entire Second Circuit “endorses the wholesale reversal of this Court’s ATS jurisprudence” dating to the landmark Filártiga v. Peña-Irala decision in 1980.
August 17, 2015
Posted by Cara Solomon
We have some pretty fantastic news to report today: Susan Farbstein has been named to Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s “Top Women of Law” list for 2015.
It’s no surprise to us, given the criteria for making the list. The honor goes to “women who have made tremendous professional strides and demonstrated great accomplishments in the legal field, which includes: pro bono, social justice, advocacy, and business. The awards highlight women who are pioneers, educators, trailblazers, and role models.”
We are thrilled to see Susan honored in this way, and look forward to celebrating with her at the official ceremony in October.
August 10, 2015
Posted by Susan Farbstein
Back in 2009, when our Clinic published a book about the prosecution of apartheid-era crimes in South Africa, we knew that state prosecutors had brought shockingly few charges since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) concluded its work—but we didn’t know why. Now, thanks to a recently-filed case in the Pretoria High Court, we’re starting to get an answer. And it isn’t pretty. The new case alleges that South Africa’s ruling ANC government sought to protect apartheid-era security forces from prosecution, in order to protect itself.
The case was filed by the family of Nokuthula Simelane, who was 23 years old in 1983 when, while acting as a courier for the armed wing of the ANC, she was abducted, tortured, and disappeared by the Security Branch of the former South African Police. Her remains were never found. Although the TRC granted amnesty to some of the perpetrators in Simelane’s case in 2001, it also recommended that the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) investigate further with an eye towards prosecuting those not granted amnesty. No such investigation or prosecution occurred.
The lack of progress in Simelane’s case is representative of numerous others. Under the terms of the TRC, any perpetrator who did not apply for and receive amnesty could be prosecuted. In its final report, the TRC recommended that the state pursue a bold prosecution policy, and in 2003 referred approximately 300 cases to the NPA for investigation and potential prosecution (as well as an additional 500 missing persons cases). The prosecutions never materialized.
New court filings now allege that the South African state “put in place measures to manipulate, control or obstruct prosecutorial decisions dealing with political cases of the past.” In particular, supporting affidavits—from extremely important public figures including the former director of the NPA and the head of its Priority Crimes Litigation Unit (PCLU)—provide detailed accounts of high-level interference by ministers and senior government officials to block post-TRC prosecutions.
It appears that those efforts were grounded in fears that cases against security forces perpetrators would open the door to charges against ANC leaders and members as well. The result, as explained by Anton Ackermann, the former head of the PCLU, was that the NPA was “effectively stopped from pursuing the investigation and prosecution of the so-called political cases arising from South Africa’s past.”
On the day in 2004 when three policeman were to be arrested for the attempted murder of Frank Chikane, the former head of the South African Council of Churches, Ackermann received a call from an official in the Ministry of Justice stating that “a decision had been taken that the Chikane matter should be put on hold pending the development of guidelines to deal with the TRC cases.” After Ackermann responded that only Vusi Pikoli, the NPA’s director, could give such an instruction, he was told by Pikoli not to proceed. Ackermann concludes “that it can safely be assumed that [Pikoli] was instructed at a political level to suspend these cases.” Investigations and prosecutions of TRC cases were placed on hold until new guidelines could be formulated.
Once new guidelines regarding TRC cases were put into place at the end of 2005—guidelines authorizing use of the same amnesty criteria applied by the TRC while granting prosecutors wide latitude to decline to prosecute even when adequate evidence existed, and which were eventually struck down as unconstitutional—Ackermann again sought to proceed with cases previously identified for prosecution. He was prevented from doing so by a lack of investigative capacity and the unwillingness of an inter-departmental committee to meet and move the cases ahead. He was later relieved of his duties in relation to the TRC cases. Ackermann states, in his affidavit, that a political instruction came from above to remove him from these cases to thwart prosecutions. “It is no coincidence,” he asserts, “that there has not been a single further prosecution since I was relieved of my duties in this regard.”
Pikoli’s affidavit confirms that political interference effectively barred the investigation and prosecution of TRC cases, and characterizes the Chikane case as the “unraveling” of the NPA’s efforts. Pikoli describes a meeting called by the Acting Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, and attended by multiple other ministers, at which “it became clear that there was a fear that cases like the Chikane matter could open up the door to prosecutions of ANC members.” He also details how “powerful elements within government structures were determined to impose their will on my prosecutorial decisions.” Like Ackermann, Pikoli was suspended from his duties as director of the NPA and believes that the decision to pursue prosecutions of apartheid-era perpetrators contributed to his suspension and eventual dismissal.
Other affidavits speak to the impact of the absence of prosecutions on South African society and the TRC’s legacy. Alex Boraine, the Vice Chair of the TRC, states that political inference with the NPA’s mandate and the resulting abandonment of TRC cases has seriously eroded the human rights culture established by South Africa’s constitution, violated the rights of apartheid-era victims to a remedy, and allowed perpetrators to escape justice. Dumisa Ntsebeza, the head of the TRC’s Investigation Unit, asserts that the failure to prosecute those who never applied for amnesty undermined those who did, and that a tardy justice in the form of limited reparations to survivors has compromised the dignity that the TRC sought to build.
Together, the affidavits offer compelling evidence of political interference by the government into the work of the NPA, which effectively blocked the investigation of cases recommended for prosecution by the TRC. Now that the truth has come out, it’s time for the NPA to get back to work, without additional political meddling. Justice, delayed far too long, must no longer be denied.
July 30, 2015
Second Circuit Decision in Apartheid Appeal Denies Plaintiffs the Opportunity to Proceed with Their Claims
Posted by Susan Farbstein and Tyler Giannini
Earlier this week, the Second Circuit handed down its opinion in In re South African Apartheid Litigation, denying Plaintiffs an opportunity to proceed with their claims against the remaining Defendants Ford and IBM. In doing so, the appellate court affirmed the District Court’s prior decision on the grounds that Plaintiffs’ proposed amended complaints had not alleged sufficient plausible new facts to move forward.
While the outcome was disappointing, so too was the opinion of the Court itself, which failed to fully engage with new, specific, and detailed allegations in the proposed amended complaints — in particular, allegations about how both defendants, in the United States, took purposeful and repeated actions to aid and abet the South African state to commit international law violations. With respect to the allegations against Ford, the Court glanced over important facts about the U.S. parent corporation’s direct involvement in the design and approval of the sale of specialized vehicles to South African security forces, in contravention of international sanctions regimes. Instead, the Court concluded broadly that the allegations were insufficient to link Ford in the United States to the violations in South Africa.
With respect to the allegations against IBM, the Court did find sufficient U.S. domestic conduct by the parent — specifically, that it designed particular technologies that facilitated the denationalization of black South Africans. But while this conduct did “touch and concern” the United States, the standard set by the Supreme Court in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the Court held that the allegations did not plausibly allege that IBM’s conduct was “purposeful.” Because purpose (rather than knowledge) is the required standard for an aiding and abetting claim in the Second Circuit under Presbyterian Church of Sudan v. Talisman, the Court determined that Plaintiffs’ claims could not proceed.
The Plaintiffs will now seek en banc review of the panel’s decision, requesting that all active judges on the Court rehear the case because it presents questions of exceptional importance and conflicts with prior decisions of the Second Circuit as well as the U.S. Supreme Court.
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