Blog: United Nations

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August 19, 2020

Clinic Urges U.N. Experts to Review Bolivian Rights Violations


La Clínica insta a expertos de la ONU a que evalúen violaciones de derechos humanos en Bolivia (La versión en español está abajo).


(August 19, 2020) —United Nations (U.N.) Special Rapporteurs must urgently review the human rights situation in Bolivia, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a submission to the U.N. Special Procedure system today. Widespread rights violations have been documented in Bolivia since the disputed October 2019 election, and there are grave concerns that ongoing repression will prevent upcoming elections from being free and fair.

The submission documents events since Jeanine Áñez declared an interim government on November 12, 2019. It details the killing of civilians in Sacaba and Senkata in November of last year, failures to investigate and punish those responsible, as well as state forces’ and para-state groups’ efforts to suppress dissent. The urgent need for international scrutiny was brought home this week as protests grew in response to the government decision to postpone elections again until October. News sources have reported a growing crisis in Bolivia as protests have renewed and fears of another violent crackdown intensify. The Clinic urges the U.N. rights experts to work with the Bolivian government to uphold international obligations, restore the rights owed to its citizens, and hold the fair and free elections they have promised to the Bolivian people.

“Given what I witnessed in Sacaba last November where Indigenous civilians were shot and killed by state forces, the rhetoric of the current government in response to the resumption of mass protests is extremely worrying,” said Thomas Becker JD’08 on behalf of the International Human Rights Clinic. “The people of Bolivia have the right to protest, and the international community needs to act to do all it can to prevent a repeat of last year’s violent crackdown and those horrific killings.”

The submission is a request to the U.N. Special Procedure system, which is comprised of U.N.-appointed human rights experts who are charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide. The submission builds on a recently released report from the International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights, which identified the period since November 2019 as one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in the past several decades in Bolivia. Over a period of six months, a Clinic team interviewed over 200 victims, witnesses, journalists, and officials. It further analyzed medical reports, autopsies, photographs, and other official documents. The report, entitled “‘They Shot Us Like Animals’: Black November and Bolivia’s Interim Government,” details how the interim government has created a climate of oppression, rife with violence, fear, and misinformation. In addition, the submission to the U.N. states, “State forces have blocked attempts to investigate and prosecute the November attacks, leading to de facto impunity to date for those responsible.”

“The current atmosphere of impunity has created an environment that is dangerous to anyone who dissents,” said Celeste Kmiotek JD’20, a Harvard Law graduate who led the drafting of the submission. “It is critical that Bolivia address the human rights abuses ahead of the upcoming elections so that they are truly fair. The Special Rapporteurs should should engage with the interim government to put an end to these violations.”

Kmiotek coordinated research and writing from other clinical teams members, including Matthew Farrell JD’21, Jasmine Shin JD’21, Sabrina Singh JD’20, Mahmood Serewel LLM’20 with supervision from Becker and Tyler Giannini, Human Rights Program and International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director.

The submission comes on the heels of a recent victory against impunity for former heads of states’ crimes against Indigenous peoples in Bolivia. On August 3, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit vacated a trial court judgment that had been entered in favor of Bolivia’s former president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, for the massacre of unarmed Indigenous people in 2003 in what is known as “Black October.” The Clinic has been litigating the case, Mamani et al. v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, for over a decade.

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June 30, 2020

UN releases embargoed expert letters drawing on Clinic complaint


Rights experts call on UN to provide remedy to victims of Haitian cholera epidemic


(June 30, 2020) — The United Nations (UN) published two previously embargoed letters from fourteen UN independent rights experts on Saturday, calling on the organization to deliver overdue remedies to victims of cholera in Haiti. Addressed to Secretary-General António Guterres and the Haitian government, the letters respond to a complaint submitted by the International Human Rights Clinic, the Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) in January.  

The experts’ letters adopts the Clinic’s arguments that the UN’s approach following its public apology in 2016 amount to violations of the right to effective remedy. The experts found “glaring limitations” in the UN’s approach, including that the UN has failed to pay any compensation and that its subsequent underfunded effort has amounted to little more than a spate of symbolic development projects. They stressed that “the continued denial of effective remedies to the victims is not only a violation of their human right to an effective remedy, but also a grave breach of public confidence in the Organization’s integrity and legitimacy.” The letters conclude that a “fundamental shift in approach is necessary if the Organization is to uphold the respect for human rights and rule of law.”  

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, led a clinical student team in working on the January complaint. She was recently interviewed by Harvard Law Todaydiving into her nearly-decade long advocacy on behalf of Haitian cholera victims. The interview explores the UN’s failure to adequately respond to the epidemic and provide appropriate reparations to victims. 

As Lindstrom says in the Q&A, “In the absence of an independent mechanism to determine responsibility, the decision becomes a political one driven by the self-interests of powerful member states and officials within the UN bureaucracy. I think there have always been people within the U.N. who have wanted to see the organization do the right thing in Haiti, but without adequate leadership from the Secretary-General, the forces pushing for inaction have prevailed.” 

The rights experts released a public statement at the time the letters were sent, which generated significant attention in the media and prompted a preliminary response from the Secretary-General.

April 30, 2020

Clinic complaint prompts UN experts to urge justice for Haiti cholera epidemic


A group of fourteen United Nations independent experts released a statement today calling on Secretary-General António Guterres to fulfill the UN’s 2016 promise to take responsibility and deliver justice for the 10,000 victims of a cholera epidemic caused by UN peacekeepers in Haiti in 2010. The statement, which can be read on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website and below, indicates that the experts have also sent a formal communication to the Secretary-General. The intervention demonstrates escalating concern within the UN’s own human rights system that the organization is failing to uphold its obligations to cholera victims. The communication is remarkable for its unprecedented breadth of support from the UN’s own experts in raising allegations that the organization itself is violating human rights.

The statement and communication from the UN experts was prompted by a formal complaint filed in February from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Haiti-based human rights law firm Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), and its U.S.-based partner organization, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). The formal complaint called on the UN “Special Procedure” system, a group of UN-appointed human rights experts charged with reporting and advising on human rights issues worldwide, to investigate the violations linked to the UN’s response to introducing cholera to Haiti and a subsequent lack of reparations and fulfillment of legal obligations. Signees to the April 30, 2020 letter from UN Special Procedures included experts whose tenures as mandate holders ends today, including Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights as well as Leilani Farha, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing. This intervention marks one of the last actions by them in their capacity as mandate-holders.


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October 21, 2019

WATCH: Victor Madrigal-Borloz Previews United Nations General Assembly Report

Image of Victor Madrigal-Borloz speaking at Harvard Law School on October 17, 2019.

On October 17, 2019, Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the Eleanor Roosevelt Senior Visiting Researcher with the Human Rights Program and the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, spoke to the Harvard Law School community, previewing his October 24 address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Mr. Madrigal-Borloz shared findings from his recent report on socio-cultural and economic inclusion for LGBT individuals. The report provides an overview of LGBT access to education, employment, housing, health, public spaces, and religious and political discourse. The talk was organized by the Human Rights Program at HLS and co-sponsored by HLS Advocates for Human Rights and the Harvard Human Rights Journal.

Watch the full October 17 address above or on the Harvard Law School YouTube site.

You can read more about Mr. Madrigal Borloz’s HLS residency as a senior visiting researcher on the Harvard Law Today website.

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