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Tag: Aminta Ossom

Finding human solutions to global problems

via Harvard Law Today

by Dana Walters

Headshot photo of Aminta Ossom

With headlines declaring 2019 the year that the world woke up to climate changeAminta Ossom ’09 sees hope in approaching the issue from a specific angle: human rights.

“Human rights has a lot to offer the climate change movement because it’s a way to humanize the issue. It becomes less scientific or technical and more accessible,” she said. “The human rights approach also says that everyone has a buy-in and should have a say. Everyone is a potential victim of the effects of climate change,” she added.

After years working at Amnesty International and the United Nations, Ossom returned to Harvard Law School this fall to teach in the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), where one of her projects focuses on how human rights organizations are advising governments on climate change. The new clinical instructor, who self-identifies as a “regional human rights systems nerd,” had not originally planned on a career in law.

A childhood attending science summer camps and a STEM magnet school propelled her to the University of Oklahoma as a chemical engineering and pre-med major. But when Ossom realized she was drawn more toward religion and global politics than thermodynamics, she combined history, philosophy, languages, political science, and literature into a self-designed major. That degree showed Ossom how she might “connect history to current events through broader world issues and theories of justice,” she said.

In 2006, she enrolled at HLS and joined the International Human Rights Clinic, where she researched child labor and diamond-mining in Sierra Leone. Her clinical instructor, Sharanjeet Parmar, taught students how to do legal research with nuance and a historical eye. Both the method and the project proved formative for Ossom, helping her identify a larger theme for her advocacy: economic, social, and cultural rights (ESCR).

“It’s a tricky subject. Economic, social, and cultural rights violations frequently result from inaction, like a failure to provide adequate food, housing, or education, so the process of determining responsibility can feel less straightforward than when the violation is an affirmative action that can be identified,” Ossom said.

Ossom leans against a wooden chair in front of a blank board as a group of people sit in chairs to the right.

As a Satter Fellow for Amnesty International in 2011-2012, Ossom helped build an evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa.

After earning her J.D. at HLS and a Masters in African Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Ossom was awarded a Satter Fellowship to work at Amnesty International, where she focused on international criminal law and matters of universal jurisdiction. She also contributed to a variety of projects that bolstered her ESCR expertise, from helping organize a demonstration on forced evictions in Ghana to assisting with research on maternal mortality in Sierra Leone.

Following a teaching stint as the Crowley Fellow at Fordham Law School, Ossom landed at the United Nations in Geneva, where she worked with leading experts to monitor state compliance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. There, she had a front-row view to the human rights movement’s engagement with the U.N., noticing where it was advancing and where more work was necessary. She began to see the human rights movement as a living organism with changing needs.

“I think we’re moving from people who have access to powerful institutions—like lawyers—being the ones raising rights violations to a more decentralized type of work,” she said. “Especially for those of us who grew up in the global north, it’s important for us to see ourselves less as conduits to change and more as allies. Communities and survivors of human rights violations are now the face of the movement. I think that’s super exciting to witness and be a part of, and it’s what I want to foster more with my students.”

These days, Ossom finds herself “thinking a lot about how human rights can respond to issues that aren’t specific to particular communities,” she said. Climate change is one example.

Aminta Ossom sits in a meeting room with three female students, Tara Boghosian, Johanna Lee, and Alicia Alvero Koski

As a clinical instructor in the IHRC, Ossom is leading a team on right-to-work issues, focusing on the types of rights violations faced by workers in the informal economy, and how international and regional human rights law could be invoked to further protect these workers. Pictured from left to right: Ossom, Tara Boghosian ’20, Johanna Lee ’21, and Alicia Alvero Koski ’20.

In her first year as a clinical instructor in the IHRC, Ossom and her students are preparing recommendations for governments trying to adapt to and respond to the climate change crisis, with an awareness of how inequality disproportionately magnifies the impact for some communities. To recommend solutions, the team is looking closely at the principles that have been solidified in the jurisprudence of the Committee on Economic and Social Rights, making sure that states preparing for climate change do not inflict harm by pulling resources away from other responsibilities like education and healthcare.

In addition to her climate change work, Ossom is studying how the changing nature of labor increases the chance that workers might be exposed to harassment, discrimination, or other types of abuses. Her clinical team is researching the types of rights violations faced by workers in the informal economy and how international and regional human rights law could be invoked to further protect these workers.

Tara Boghosian ’20, who has been part of the right-to-work clinical project since the fall, described Ossom as building a “collaborative team ethos.”

“Aminta encouraged us to take ownership of the direction of our project, while still providing us with plenty of support and guidance so that we felt well-equipped to take on new challenges. She gave each member of the team the opportunity to lead a call with an expert, but worked with us as much as we needed to brainstorm agendas and topics for each conversation,” Boghosian said.

Building relationships with students, she sees advising as a way to “multiply [her] impact” and support others on subjects she is equally as passionate about but does not have the capacity to take on herself. At IHRC, she models thoughtful and intentional practices and communicates to her students how to set boundaries, act with humility, and avoid burnout.

“Human rights is not what any single individual does but it’s something that a whole group of individuals and organizations are doing together. I’m not that crucial. It will all still go on if I withdraw at some point,” she tells her students. “This idea also helps me be very deliberate with my projects, both in terms of substance and style. When I teach, I emphasize that human rights is not just fact-finding. You can do human rights and legislative drafting or human rights and criminal defense. I hope my students can find a match between their skill set and the movement’s larger goals.”

Human Rights Program Summer 2019 Highlights

Via HRP

Human rights work doesn’t stop for the summer. HRP staff, however, do take a moment to pause and regroup, taking the necessary time to recharge and plan before their project and teaching work picks up full steam in the Fall. Staff spent the summer on mountains, at the opera, and at the beach. We also developed new classes focused on women’s leadership and taught human rights and populism in Berlin.

Read on to see what we’ve all been up to this summer!


Following the release of Clinical Instructor Thomas Becker’s IHRC report “Femicide and Impunity in Bolivia” last year, the Bolivian government implemented a ten point emergency plan this summer to tackle the high rate of femicides in the country. In other news, after two months of climbing, Becker summited Mount Everest. With temperatures reaching as low as -40 degrees on the mountain, he thinks he is finally prepared for winter in Cambridge. Following Everest, Thomas’s work led him to a slightly warmer destination, the Sahara, where he spent several weeks meeting with human rights activists, women’s groups, and social movement leaders in refugee camps in Algeria.

Anna Crowe accomplished an intra-Cambridge move in July and submitted a book chapter on a disarmament topic to be published later this year.

Bonnie Docherty spoke at the International Symposium for Peace in Hiroshima on the advantages of the humanitarian approach to nuclear disarmament and why Japan can and should join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (check out a transcript of her remarks here!) She also had meetings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki with civil society advocates, student activists, and doctors who have treated the hibakusha who survived the atomic bombings. On her recent work trip to Geneva for killer robots meetings at the UN, she carved out a weekend for mountains and marmots. She visited the alpine peaks of Chamonix and met some furry friends in the hills above Montreux. Hiking buddy Elizabeth Minor of Article 36, longtime Clinic partner, even brought her tote bag from ACCPI’s humanitarian disarmament conference.

Susan Farbstein developed new teaching modules on women’s leadership to pilot in the advanced Human Rights Careers Workshop this fall. She was lucky to work with one of the Clinic’s alumni, Salomé Gómez Upegui LLM ’18, as well as current SJD student Regina Larrea Maccise, to review and curate materials and build the sessions. She’s excited to see how the 3Ls will respond to what they’ve put together. She also spent a lot of time with her family, swimming, hiking, riding bikes, flying kites, building sand castles, and eating fried fish and ice cream across New England (and in Canada!).

After being on sabbatical Spring semester, Tyler Giannini went to Berlin to conduct a human rights simulation with Yee Htun. He also had the opportunity to visit members of the extended HRP family in the Netherlands and got to learn about their work at the ICC (Juan Calderson-Meza, former clinical fellow) and innovative work on business and human rights (Fola Adeleke, former clinical fellow; Deval Desai LLM ’08, SJD ’18, former research fellow; and Amelia Evans LLM ’11, former clinical instructor). With his family, Giannini also visited his roots in Ireland and in Lucca, northern Italy, for the first time, where they met long-lost cousins they never knew existed. 

Clinical Instructor Yee Htun completed a book chapter on populism in Thailand and Myanmar for an edited collection to be out next year from Cambridge University Press. She also taught a module entitled “Human Rights Under a Military Dictatorship: A Case Study on Myanmar/Burma” at the Lucerne Academy on Human Rights Implementation as well as presented at “Gender Matters: A Summer Workshop for Educators” organized by the Asia Center, the Center for African Studies, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator, and the Religious Literacy Project of Harvard University.  In personal news, Htun is feeling a little lighter after donating 14 inches of her locks to Wigs for Kids.

Beatrice Lindstrom joined HRP as a Clinical Instructor at the end of August. Her summer was busy moving from New York and closing out nine years with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). She worked on responding to a deteriorating human rights situation in Haiti, including preparing a request for precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights for victims displaced by a brutal massacre in La Saline. She also published a chapter in the book Emerging Threats to Human Rights that came out in July. Before the move, Lindstrom got to spend some time with family on a lake in Maine.

Gerald Neuman presented his work on populism and human rights at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin in June, during a two-week stay at that social science research institute. While in Berlin he found something he has wanted for years at the Pergamon Museum – a working facsimile of a Babylonian cylinder seal. He will not be using it, however, for HRP correspondence.

New Clinical Instructor Aminta Ossom moved here from Geneva, finishing up her work with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and joined the Clinic. Before she left, she had the opportunity to cross off some items from her Geneva bucket list, including spending a day on a “funky jazz and blues boat” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in July and enjoyed a sunrise concert from the aubes musicales (“musical dawns”) concert series on the shores of Lake Geneva before work, which is a Geneva summer tradition. 


We hope you all had relaxing and productive summers! We look forward to picking up threads of old projects and meeting some new faces this year.