Blog: United Nations

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December 7, 2020

The UN must take action and compensate victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo

Posted by Nathalie Gunasekera JD'21

“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated refugee camps.

In September 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics Dr. Marcos Orellana presented his predecessor’s report on lead poisoning in Kosovo. He delivered a clear message: inaction must end, and justice must be delivered.

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November 9, 2020

Incendiary Weapons: Human Cost Demands Stronger Law

Clinic, HRW Argue Legal Loopholes Must Close to Prevent Further Civilian Suffering

(Geneva) – The horrific burns and life-long suffering caused by incendiary weapons demand that governments urgently revise existing treaty standards, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report jointly published today.

The 45-page report, “‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law,” details the immediate injuries and lasting physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, used by parties to recent conflicts. Countries should revisit and strengthen the international treaty governing these weapons, which burn people and set civilian structures and property on fire, Human Rights Watch concluded.

“While victims endure the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, countries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Countries should recognize the long-term suffering of survivors by addressing the shortcomings of existing international law.”

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October 29, 2020

The impact of COVID-19 on LGBT persons: online launch

UN Independent Expert Victor Madrigal-Borloz to provide public highlights from report to UN General Assembly

Six individuals of different races and ethnicities and genders wearing different colors are presented illustratively in a circle wearing masks.

Please scroll down for translation into French, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the UN Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity (IE SOGI), presented his report on the impact of COVID-19 on LGBT persons to the UN General Assembly on Oct. 29, 2020.

On November 10 in a public webinar, he will present key findings of his report and engage in further conversation with all interested stakeholders on how to respond and recover from the pandemic. The event will take place on Zoom and be livestreamed to the IE SOGI’s Facebook page.

Check the starting time in your region and register now to attend one of the sessions:

The events will also feature UN representatives as guest speakers. After the presentations, there will be a Q&A (questions and answers) session with the audience for which participants will be able to submit questions through the moderator during the event.

Background:

This year, humankind faces an unprecedented global challenge, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities prevalent in all regions of the world. Since March, the IE SOGI has conducted extensive research and consultations with over 1,000 individuals from more than 100 countries, which led to the conclusion that COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on LGBT persons. During the event, he will present his key findings and discuss his recommendations to ensure that response and recovery from the pandemic adequately address the needs of LGBT persons, as we all aspire to build a better world.

You can download a summary of the report and the full report at the linked text below:

Disclaimer:

The mandate of the Independent Expert supports freedom of expression and opinion of the widest variety within a frame of mutual respect during its events. The mandate of the Independent Expert has a policy of zero tolerance for hate speech: a dedicated team will monitor comments and questions raised during the event. Hate speech will be filtered and participants responsible for it will be removed from the session.

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October 16, 2020

“Deep Shame Within the Ranks of UN Staff”

Posted by Joey Bui JD'21

Assessing the UN’s Haiti Cholera Response 10 Years On

In 2010, a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission caused an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 Haitians. On Oct 8, 2020, ten years after the outbreak began and amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, key experts joined the Human Rights Program at Harvard Law School for a webinar to discuss the ongoing failure of the UN to adequately answer to Haitian victims and what lessons the rights organization should learn moving forward.

It was a rare occasion in which a UN official spoke publicly with Haitian and foreign advocates who have been extremely critical of the UN’s response. During the event, former UN officials provided an inside look at the UN’s failures in Haiti, and expressed shame about the UN’s response. The panel also identified key takeaways for the UN to adopt in order to prevent a repeat in the future.

The virtual panel, which was a part of Harvard Worldwide Week and was co-sponsored by seven different Harvard centers and groups, included Mario Joseph, a prominent Haitian human rights lawyer at Bureau des Avocats Internationaux who has led efforts to seek justice for victims, as well as Haitian doctors who have worked on the frontlines of the outbreak, Dr. Inobert Pierre of St. Boniface Hospital and Dr. Marie Marcelle Deschamps of GHESKIO. Presenting perspectives from the UN were Josette Sheeran, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti; Andrew Gilmour, the former Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights; and Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights.

Eight individuals on zoom during a webinar.
From left to right, top: Beatrice Lindstrom, Philip Alston, Louise Ivers; Middle: Marie Deschamps, Mario Joseph, Andrew Gilmour; Bottom: Inobert Pierre, Josette Sheeran.
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October 13, 2020

Building Momentum: IHRC and ASP Launch Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Posted by Zac Smith JD'21

Sexual violence is all too common in conflict and post-conflict settings, causing horrific physical and psychological damage and preventing peace building efforts. As recognized in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019), all individuals are at risk of sexual violence in conflict, and detention settings are a particular context of risk, especially for men and boys. 

Taking up Resolution 2467’s call to increase international attention and coordination on the issue, the All Survivors Project and the International Human Rights Clinic partnered to author the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings. Drawing from existing sources of international law and authoritative guidance, the document’s ten principles and accompanying commentary outline the international community’s responsibility to prevent and respond to CRSV. 

A red cover with a yellow block illustrating a cage with humans sitting on bars.

On Wednesday October 7, academic experts, policy makers, and diplomats came together at a virtual side event to the UN Human Rights Council to officially launch the Principles and highlight their significance. (Watch a recording of the event here.) Moderator Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs and Director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA School of Law, prefaced the conversation by underlining the driving motivation for the All Survivors Project’s work — including these principles — that “human rights protections must be afforded to all people, regardless of their individual characteristics.” Panelists included Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, who supervised the Clinic’s work on the project; HE Premila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict; Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and  leader of a recently completed global study of children in detention; and Sophie Sutrich, Head of Addressing Sexual Violence for the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The event began with opening remarks from representatives of three states that have championed CRSV prevention. Situating the place of the Principles in wider efforts to cultivate international peace and prosperity,Ambassador Jürg Lauber of Switzerland and Ambassador Peter C. Matt of Liechtenstein underlined their importance and timeliness. As Ambassador Lauber observed, “the Principles are clearly intended to be of practical use, as they contain specific recommendations for implementation.”Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith of Norway explained that “the physical hurt suffered from conflict related sexual violence does not discriminate between male and female victims.”She committed that CRSV prevention, including a focus on men and boys, would be a priority when Norway takes its seat as a non-permanent Security Council member in 2021.

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October 7, 2020

Forcing the UN to do right by Haitian cholera victims

A woman wearing a gray blazer looks out into the distance under an arch in front of the Harvard Law library.
Beatrice Lindstrom is pictured at Harvard Law School at Harvard University. Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Beatrice Lindstrom, Clinical Instructor in the International Human Rights Clinic, has spent almost a decade working with communities in Haiti affected by a 2010 cholera epidemic caused by a sewage leak from a U.N. peacekeeper base. Coming up on the 10 year anniversary of the epidemic, Lindstrom spoke with Liz Mineo of the Harvard Gazette about her pursuit for justice on behalf of cholera victims and the U.N.’s failure to properly provide remedy and reparations after 10,000 died from the disease.

As Lindstrom says in the interview, which you can read in full on the Gazette website:

“If you had told me in October of 2010 that I would still be doing this work 10 years later, I think I would have felt both exasperated and heartbroken that the U.N. still has not responded justly to victims of the epidemic. At the same time, this has been a very long struggle that has been led by victims and affected communities in Haiti. As long as they are pushing for justice for their families, it’s a privilege to be able to stand alongside them.”

Beatrice Lindstrom

Learn more from Lindstrom and other experts at the Human Rights Program webinar “10 Years On: Lessons from the Cholera Epidemic from Haiti” on Thursday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m. ET.

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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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