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Tag: International Human Rights Clinic (page 1 of 5)

Understanding Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

Via the International Human Rights Clinic

By Bonnie Docherty

The humanitarian impact of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) depends on both its comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons and its obligations to assist victims and remediate the environment affected by use and testing. The former aims to prevent future harm, while the latter addresses harm that has already occurred.

The Clinic is releasing new papers on victim assistance and environmental remediation in order to increase awareness of these elements of the treaty. The short publications provide an overview of the provisions in the TPNW and guidance from other humanitarian disarmament treaties as to how they might be implemented.

The TPNW’s so-called “positive obligations” establish a framework of shared state responsibility for helping victims and cleaning the contaminated environment

During last year’s treaty negotiations at the United Nations, the Clinic worked closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. A team from the Clinic, along with advocates from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, played a leading role in ensuring that the treaty included the positive obligations.

In Clinic Case, Jury Finds Former Bolivian President Responsible for Extrajudicial Killings of Indigenous People; Awards $10 Million in Damages

Via International Human Rights Clinic

April 3, 2018 – In a landmark decision today, a federal jury found the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense responsible for extrajudicial killings carried out by the Bolivian military in September and October 2003. The decision comes after a ten-year legal battle spearheaded by family members of eight people killed in what is known in Bolivia as the “Gas War.” It marked the first time in U.S. history a former head of state has sat before his accusers in a U.S. human rights trial. The jury awarded a total of $10 million in compensatory damages to the plaintiffs.

Both the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, have lived in the United States since they fled Bolivia following the massacre known as “Black October.”  During that period, more than 50 people were killed and hundreds were injured. In Bolivia, in 2011, former military commanders and government officials who acted under Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín’s authority were convicted for their roles in the killings. Both Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín were indicted in the same case, but could not be tried in abstentia under Bolivian law.

The lawsuit originated in the International Human Rights Clinic, and dozens of students have worked on the case since 2006.

“After many years of fighting for justice for our family members and the people of Bolivia, we celebrate this historic victory,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a plaintiff and member of the indigenous Aymara community of Bolivia, who were victims of the defendants’ decision to use massive military force against the population. “Fifteen years after they fled justice, we have finally held Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín to account for the massacre they unleashed against our people.”

In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, the families of eight Bolivians who were killed filed suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín in 2007. Today’s verdict affirms the plaintiffs’ claims that the two defendants were legally responsible for the extrajudicial killings and made decisions to deploy military forces in civilian communities in order to violently quash opposition to their policies.

“To me, it was the biggest honor of my life to work with the plaintiffs and learn from them in their struggle for justice,” said Thomas Becker ’08, who brought the idea for the lawsuit to IHRC after spending time in Bolivia and learning about the massacre there. “It’s an extraordinary privilege to witness this and be a small part of this.”

The three-week trial included the testimony of 29 witnesses from across Bolivia who recounted their experiences of the 2003 killings. Twenty-three appeared in person. Eight plaintiffs testified about the deaths of their family members, including: Etelvina Ramos Mamani and Eloy Rojas Mamani, whose eight-year-old daughter Marlene was killed in front of her mother when a single shot was fired through the window; Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, whose pregnant wife Teodosia was killed after a bullet was fired through the wall of a house; Felicidad Rosa Huanca Quispe, whose 69-year-old father Raul was shot and killed along a roadside; and Gonzalo Mamani Aguilar, whose father Arturo was shot and killed while tending his crops.

One witness, a former soldier in the Bolivian military, testified about being ordered to shoot at “anything that moves” in a civilian community, while another recounted witnessing a military officer kill a soldier for refusing to follow orders to shoot at unarmed civilians. Witnesses recounted how tanks rolled through in the streets and soldiers shot for hours on end. Others testified about how the president and minister of defense committed to a military option instead of pursuing dialogue with community leaders to reach a peaceful resolution.

In 2016, a U.S. appeals court held that the plaintiffs could proceed with their claims under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), which authorizes suits for monetary damages in U.S. federal court for extrajudicial killings. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín then sought and were denied a review by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, and the case moved forward in U.S. District Court. After a review of the evidence gathered by both sides, District Court Judge James I. Cohn ruled on February 14 that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

“There are just no words for what the plaintiffs have done over the past ten years to seek justice for their lost loved ones as well as many others who were killed in Bolivia,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Today the jury gave the plaintiffs a huge victory, and showed that the former president and his defense minister are not above the law.”

“When I heard the verdict, I almost couldn’t believe it,” added Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “The only thing I could think of was: We didn’t let down the plaintiffs, we didn’t disappoint them, we did our jobs.”

The plaintiffs and their litigation team.

The plaintiffs and their litigation team.

As co-counsel, the International Human Rights Clinic has been involved in all phases of the litigation from the outset, including researching and drafting for the complaint and various motions and briefs, assisting with oral arguments, and undertaking more than a dozen investigative missions to Bolivia since 2007. Over the past year, during the discovery phase, students traveled to Bolivia numerous times, and assisted with document review, interrogatories, and the depositions of plaintiffs, witnesses and experts; more than a half dozen students worked on every facet of the case during the three weeks of trial.

“It was fascinating to work under the legal team and have complete faith in their talent and ability to manage such a complex case,” said Amy Volz ’18, who traveled to Bolivia on four fact-finding trips. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After the jury announced its verdict, the defendants made a motion asking the judge to overturn the jury’s finding of liability against both defendants. Both parties will submit briefing on this issue in the coming weeks.

“We’re not one to leave halfway through the fight,” said Baltazar Cerro. “We will struggle until the last moment.”

In addition to the Clinic, a team of lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firms of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman, LLP, and Akerman LLP are representing the family members. Lawyers from the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) are cooperating attorneys.

Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead

Via Harvard Law Today

Experts gather to reflect on a growing movement to end the international proliferation of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons

Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead 1

Credit: Heratch Ekmekjian
In early March, international experts gathered for “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead,” the inaugural conference of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) at Harvard Law School.

Earlier this month, about two dozen international experts gathered for “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead,” the inaugural conference of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) at Harvard Law School.

Drawing on their own involvement in creating international law, conference participants reflected on the development of the humanitarian disarmament movement, which strives to end civilian suffering caused by inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, and discussed where the movement should go from here. Humanitarian disarmament is a key focus of the ACCPI, which formally launched under the leadership of Associate Director Bonnie Docherty ’01 on March 5.

“I was thrilled to have the key players in humanitarian disarmament on campus, and the energy they brought was inspiring,” said Docherty. “It was the perfect way to kick off the ACCPI.”

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Susan Farbstein Honored in Harvard Women’s Law Association’s International Women’s Day Exhibit

Via International Human Rights Clinic

A portrait of Susan Farbstein, Co-Director of our International Human Rights Clinic, on display at Harvard Law School this week in celebration of International Women’s Day.

On this International Women’s Day, and every other day, we’re full of gratitude for all the women who push for change around the world. But we’re feeling particularly happy and proud today to see our very own Susan Farbstein honored in this year’s International Women’s Day portrait exhibit, organized by the Harvard Women’s Law Association (WLA).

Susan, who co-directs our International Human Rights Clinic, is among 25 luminaries celebrated in the Wasserstein Hall exhibit for their “astounding contributions” in the areas of law and policy.

They include Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist and the creator of “Me Too,” a phrase invented to raise awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse in society; Zainah Anwar, a leading feminist activist and scholar in Malaysia, and the current Director of Musawah; Sarah McBride, an LGBT rights activist who serves as the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign; Losang Rabgey, the co-founder of Machik, a nonprofit dedicated to social innovation in Tibet through educational development and capacity building; and Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, and the first woman elected to head a major professional sports union in North America.

It comes as no surprise to us that Susan stands among them. As an expert in Alien Tort Statute litigation, among other things, she has been co-counsel in such landmark human rights cases as Wiwa v. Shellin Re: South African Apartheid Litigation, and now Mamani v. Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain. That historic case, which began trial in Federal District Court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Monday, marks the first time a former head of state stands trial in a civil case in U.S. court for human rights abuses.

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International Human Rights Clinic represents relatives of slain Bolivians in landmark case

Via Miami Herald

Landmark case in Florida pits Bolivia’s ex-leader against villagers attacked by his army

Etelvina Ramos Mamani, far left, and her husband, Eloy Rojas Mamani, and their children in Bolivia. They are suing the country’s former president over the death of their 8-year-old daughter, Marlene. Thomas Becker Center for Constitutional Rights

Etelvina Ramos Mamani, far left, and her husband, Eloy Rojas Mamani, and their children in Bolivia. They are suing the country’s former president over the death of their 8-year-old daughter, Marlene. Thomas Becker Center for Constitutional Rights

On a rocky and impoverished rural slice of Bolivia, the noise sounded like corn popping loudly.

Etelvina Ramos Mamani was lying on her bed, weak and feverish. She heard a scream from next to the window. Her 8-year-old daughter, Marlene, suddenly collapsed and tilted her head back, desperately trying to suck air into her lungs — pierced by a bullet fired by Bolivian soldiers.

“Blood was coming out of her chest like a fountain,” Ramos testified Tuesday.

Outside, the government soldiers were charging through the small village, firing away. Hours passed before the shooting stopped. By then, as her relatives held an impromptu wake in the dark, Marlene was dead — an innocent victim of the violent unrest that wracked Bolivia in the fall of 2003.

Ramos took the witness stand Tuesday not in South America, but 3,000 miles away in a Fort Lauderdale federal courtroom.

Her testimony marked the start of a landmark court battle that pits relatives of the poor, mostly indigenous people killed in the chaos against Bolivia’s ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzain.

Tuesday’s testimony marked the first time that a former head of state of a foreign country faced trial in a U.S. civil court for human rights abuses, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is representing the Mamani family.

“My daughter was innocent. She had not even gone out. She was playing inside the house,” said Ramos, who sported two long braids, a pink sweater and a turquoise skirt typical to the indigenous people of her region.

Her husband, Eloy Ramos Mamani, recalled soldiers chasing and firing on unarmed villagers. “Like scared rabbits they escaped to the hills,” he told jurors.

The couple belongs to one of eight families suing the former Bolivian government leaders under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows suits for extrajudicial killings in foreign lands. The suit was filed in South Florida, where the two former politicians now live after fleeing Bolivia in 2003.

The legal wrangling over the case has lasted for nearly a decade, and the trial is expected to last several weeks before U.S. Judge James Cohn. The relatives of the slain Bolivians are represented by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and several high-powered private law firms.

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One win against weapons could fuel another

Via Harvard Gazette

Successful campaign banning landmines could provide blueprint against nuclear arms, panel says

During "From Landmines to Nuclear Weapons," a panel featuring Steve Goose (from left) and Beatrice Fihn and moderated by Bonnie Docherty of the Law School addressed the origins and evolution of humanitarian disarmament while reflecting on their roles negotiating treaties that ban landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons.

During “From Landmines to Nuclear Weapons,” a panel featuring Steve Goose (from left) and Beatrice Fihn and moderated by Bonnie Docherty of the Law School addressed the origins and evolution of humanitarian disarmament while reflecting on their roles negotiating treaties that ban landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons.
Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

When the movement began in 1992, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was considered quixotic, its proponents unrealistically idealistic, its efforts doomed to fail. Twenty-five years and one Nobel Peace Prize later, more than 180 countries have signed its 1997 treaty, agreeing not only to avoid using the weapons but to help remove them from areas where they have been abandoned and remain a danger to life, limbs, and livelihoods.

Nuclear weapons, now a reality of our modern world, could go the same way, say the activists behind the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Indeed, humanitarian rights activists say, they must. On Monday at Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall, the anti-nuclear campaign’s executive director, Beatrice Fihn, joined Steve Goose, co-founder of the landmines-ban group and executive director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division, to discuss the origin and evolution of the mine campaign, and how the tactics of the first can be applied to the next.

“Everybody said it was impossible to do,” said Goose, looking back at the long road to the 1997 landmine treaty. “After we finally did it, people said, ‘Oh, that wasn’t that hard. It was a one-off. Circumstances allowed that to happen.’” They also, he reported, said its success could not be replicated.

Monday’s discussion was designed to prove that false. Indeed, this first public event of Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead (moderated by Bonnie Docherty, associate director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic) started off by outlining the similarities — and the successes — of other recent campaigns.

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Bonnie Docherty Launches Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, talking with colleagues.

The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) is thrilled to announce the launch of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI), which aims to reduce the harm caused by armed conflict through targeted advocacy, leadership development, and the generation of innovative solutions.

The ACCPI will be led by Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, who is an internationally renowned leader in the field of humanitarian disarmament. Docherty has worked at the heart of almost every major civil society campaign to ban inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, or curtail their use to minimize the impacts on civilians. She was a critical player in the 2008 cluster munitions ban, as well as the nuclear weapons ban, adopted in July of last year.

“Today’s armed conflicts are causing countless civilian casualties, destroying infrastructure and the environment, and driving people from their homes,” said Docherty, who also works as a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “This initiative represents a unique opportunity to provide focused support to the movement dealing with these issues, as well as to students interested in making a career in the field.”

Since she arrived at the Clinic in 2005, Docherty has put clinical students at the heart of her advocacy, supervising them on everything from field research in Lebanon to lobbying at the UN. Under her leadership, and through her mentorship, students have gone on to work as field researchersadvocates in peace negotiations, and policy analysts, actively working to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict.

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Clinic’s case against former Bolivian president for role in 2003 massacre to proceed to trial

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Plaintiffs Eloy Rojas Mamani and Etelvina Ramos Mamani and their children, Rosalia Rojas Ramos, Heide Sonia Rojas Ramos, Nancy Rojas Ramos, Maruja Rojas Ramos, and Marlene Rojas Ramos (named after her sister who died), with Thomas Becker, JD ’08, at top right.

February 20, 2018, Miami, FL – A federal judge has ruled that the former president of Bolivia and his minister of defense must face trial in the United States in a civil case alleging that the Bolivian military massacred more than 50 of its own citizens during a period of civil unrest in 2003. This is the first time that a former head of state will sit before his accusers in a civil human rights trial in a U.S. court. Last week, the judge rejected the defendants’ final effort to avoid trial, denying a motion filed by the former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and his former defense minister, José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, both of whom live in the United States. The trial will begin in the federal court in Fort Lauderdale on March 5, 2018.

“The former president and his minister of defense must now listen as we testify about what happened,” said Teófilo Baltazar Cerro, a member of the indigenous Aymara community of Bolivia, which led the protests where the government security forces opened fire. “We look forward to this historic opportunity to have our day in court.”

In Mamani v. Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, as detailed in the Court’s February 14 order, the families of eight Bolivians killed filed suit against Sánchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín, alleging that they planned the extrajudicial killings. The lawsuit alleges that, months in advance of the violence, the two defendants devised a plan to kill thousands of civilians, and intentionally used deadly force against political protests in an effort to quash political opposition. In addition to the deaths, more than 400 unarmed civilians were shot and injured.

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The Nobel Peace Prize Celebrations: Recognition and Reinvigoration for Humanitarian Disarmament Advocates

Via International Human Rights Clinic

By Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection and Lecturer on Law

ICAN Director Beatrice Fihn speaks at 2017 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo City Hall. Photo credit: Ralf Schlesener.

On December 10, 2017, at 1 p.m., uniformed musicians on the grand staircase of Oslo City Hall brought their gleaming trumpets to their lips and the audience to its feet. The clarion salute they sounded heralded the arrival of the king and queen of Norway and a new era of nuclear disarmament.

In front of dignitaries, diplomats, and dozens of civil society campaigners, myself included, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

The award honors ICAN for having “given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour.” In particular, the prize recognizes the civil society coalition’s “ground-breaking” work to realize a treaty banning nuclear weapons.

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My time at the International Human Rights Clinic

Photo of Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. '18 sitting at a desk

Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18

By Salomé Gómez Upegui LL.M. ’18

I believe in law as an instrument for social change, and I came to Harvard interested in focusing on that. A year is not much time, and as any LL.M. student can confirm, we all suffer from “fear of missing out”.  I’m happy to say the International Human Rights Clinic, was perfect to curb this fear. In a short time I was able to do so much more than I expected. It was a unique opportunity for hands-on learning, while engaging in public service, and making a difference.

Women’s rights are something I particularly care about, and when I got into this clinic I was eager to learn more about how International Human Rights Law is relevant to feminism. Thankfully, I joined Salma Waheedi’s team for a project on this subject, and my expectations were exceeded. We worked in coordination with Musawah, an NGO advocating for equality of Muslim women. In this project, creative thinking was at the center; using comparative law, alternative interpretations of Islamic law, and human rights standards, we drafted thematic shadow reports on women’s rights for the Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. I had the opportunity to travel to Geneva and participate in the 68th CEDAW Session at the United Nations, where the reports we drafted where presented. This trip was a rare chance to network and learn first-hand how international institutions, governments, and NGOs serve to advance (or sometimes set-back) feminist agendas.

The International Human Rights Clinic allowed me to strengthen fundamental lawyering skills. I especially enjoyed learning innovative advocacy strategies, and I have to say I was happily surprised by the people I met. Working alongside individuals with such passion and dedication to human rights was the highlight of this experience. I felt part of something meaningful from day one, there is a real sense of community, and the value of teamwork is constantly stressed. In a world where individuality is the rule, this was an exceptionally wonderful learning environment, and I’m so grateful to have been part of it.

Advancing human rights in the Middle East

Portrait photo of Zeineb Bouraoui LL.M. '18

Zeineb Bouraoui LL.M. ’18

By Zeineb Bouraoui LL.M. ’18

Following the escalation of the Syrian Civil War in 2012, I began working for the Syrian American Medical Society in Washington DC, assisting Syrian refugees in emigrating to the United States, mainly through public policy initiatives. This experience greatly influenced my desire to apply to law school. I was craving the opportunity to acquire effective tools that would allow me to fight back against the injustices that outraged me and to advance economic and social equality in my native region, the Middle East and North Africa.

At Sciences Po Law School, I focused my studies on international investment law and economic development, and graduated in 2016 with a masters’ degree in Economic Law and Global Business Law and Governance.  I then started working at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, working on policy coordination efforts in order to help governments resist protectionist pressures and develop effective policies to respond to legal concerns raised by international investment.

It was especially important to me to pursue my commitment to advance human rights in the MENA region at Harvard Law School, leveraging the numerous tools that the university provides to its students, in order to conduct the most effective research, and hope to have the most effective impact on the region. 

At the International Human Rights Clinic, I am working on the Yemen project. My team, led by Salma Waheedi, is contributing to a Human Rights Watch report on the growth of the missing file in Yemen. Since 2014, Yemen has become home to one of the most violent non-international armed conflicts in the world. Egregious human rights violations are being committed there on a daily basis. My team focuses mainly on investigating detention-related abuses currently being carried out by all sides to the conflict. We are in the process of mapping the network of secret prisons, and outlining the human rights abuses committed in them. We will then determine the international legal obligations of state and non-state actors involved in the conflict, and investigate enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings.

The Clinic constituted an eye-opening experience to me, allowing me to understand firsthand the challenges that human rights lawyers and activists are routinely facing with funding, media outreach and advocacy, or even the simple act of gathering accurate and reliable information. It was particularly challenging to work on a non-international armed conflict, as raising awareness on a conflict happening on the other side of the world, with very little interest for the United States can be at times frustrating.

I particularly enjoyed conducting in-depth factual research and interacting with local Yemeni NGOs such as Mwatana, which are doing an incredible job in producing exhaustive accounts of the human rights violations committed throughout the course of the civil war, often at the peril of their lives.

Clinic Releases Joint Report on Challenges and Significance of Documentation for Refugees in Nairobi

Via International Human Rights Clinic

The International Human Rights Clinic and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) Kenya released a report today in Kenya detailing the challenges refugees in Nairobi face in obtaining the official documentation needed to secure their status and identity, as well as the significance of documentation to their daily lives. Most of the nearly half a million refugees in Kenya live in refugee camps, but approximately 64,000 live outside the camps, in Nairobi.

report coverThe report, “Recognising Nairobi’s Refugees,” highlights refugees’ experiences in Nairobi with registration and refugee status determination – processes that lead to documentation. The challenges refugees described included stalled or suspended processes; inconsistency in requirements and information; substantial delays in receiving documentation; and confusion about the next steps to take in a process. The report relies on interviews with more than 30 refugees living in Nairobi, as well as with representatives of local and international non-governmental organizations; the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and the Kenyan government’s Refugee Affairs Secretariat.

In interviews, refugees described the critical importance of documentation to establishing a sense of security in the lives, as well as to proving their identity in official and informal settings. Without documentation, many reported frustration, stress, and even a feeling of hopelessness. Refugees lacking documentation also reported problems with police, such as harassment, which in turn led them to restrict their movements.

In their joint report, the Clinic and NRC recommend that, among other things, the Government of Kenya should continue to register refugees living outside camps; recognize refugees’ right to freedom of movement within the country; produce and widely disseminate clear guidance on registration and refugee status determination procedures; and undertake measures, such as training of relevant officials, to ensure refugees can live without fear or restriction in the city.

Today’s report is part of the Clinic’s ongoing focus on legal identity and refugee documentation. In previous years, the Clinic has collaborated with NRC to examine the challenges and significance of documentation – such as birth certificates and ID cards – for Syrian refugees living in Jordan.

Staff Reflection: Remembering Someone I Never Knew

Via International Human Rights Clinic

By Bonnie Docherty

Carl Thorne-Thomsen with high school friend Linda Jones Docherty, mother of the author. Photo from the 1964 Lake Forest High School yearbook, courtesy of Linda Docherty.

Carl Thorne-Thomsen with high school friend Linda Jones Docherty, mother of the author. Photo from the 1964 Lake Forest High School yearbook, courtesy of Linda Docherty.

Although I never met Carl Thorne-Thomsen, I’ve known about him for as long as I can remember.

I distinctly recall driving down the road to my grandparents’ home in Lake Forest, IL, as my mother told me about her close high school friend who had died in Vietnam. Carl had opposed the war, she explained, but he felt it was unjust for him to be sheltered from the draft while others with less privilege were sent to fight in Southeast Asia. In a quiet act of protest, he withdrew from Harvard College during his junior year and was drafted in April 1967. Two months after arriving in Vietnam, and 50 years ago this week, he was killed in combat.

Although I was in elementary school at the time of this conversation, Carl’s decision to live—and die—by his principles made a vivid impression on me. Decades later, having spent most of my career on issues of armed conflict, I still find myself compelled. The 50th anniversary of his death motivated me to track down more information through archives and interviews and to write a Vita for Harvard Magazine’s September/October issue.

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IHRC’s partner in negotiations of Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty wins Nobel Peace Prize

Via Harvard Law Today

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), with which Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic collaborated during the negotiations of a nuclear weapons ban treaty, received the Nobel Peace Prize today. The honor reflects international recognition of the humanitarian approach to disarmament, a movement that strives to minimize civilian suffering from inhumane weapons.

Members of the Harvard team (second to right), including Bonnie Docherty, Anna Crowe, and Lan Mei ’17, in a negotiating session of the new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Credit: Ralf Schlesener
Members of the Harvard team (second to right), including Bonnie Docherty, Anna Crowe, and Lan Mei ’17, in a negotiating session of the new treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Over the past decade, ICAN has changed the course of nuclear disarmament by shifting the focus from national security to the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences these weapons cause.  Their work and the invaluable advocacy of survivors of nuclear weapons used in conflict and testing helped lead to an international ban on the weapons this summer.

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Clinic’s Partner in Negotiations of Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty Wins Nobel Peace Prize

Via International Human Rights Clinic

The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.

We are thrilled to announce that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), with which we collaborated during the negotiations of a nuclear weapon ban treaty, received the Nobel Peace Prize today. The honor reflects international recognition of the humanitarian approach to disarmament, a movement that strives to minimize civilian suffering from inhumane weapons.

Over the past decade, ICAN has changed the course of nuclear disarmament by shifting the focus from national security to the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences these weapons cause.  Their work and the invaluable advocacy of survivors of nuclear weapons use in conflict and testing helped lead to an international ban on the weapons this summer.

The International Human Rights Clinic joined ICAN and UK-based disarmament organization Article 36 in the efforts for the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.  Supervisors Bonnie Docherty and Anna Crowe, along with a team of four students, provided legal support to the campaign during the treaty negotiations at the United Nations in New York.  They also advocated successfully for the inclusion of obligations to assist victims and remediate the environment harmed.

More than 120 countries adopted the treaty in July. Fifty-three have signed the treaty since it opened for signature last month. In so doing, those countries have committed to abiding by the object and purpose of the instrument.

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Lawyers Discuss CIA Torture Lawsuit

Via Harvard Crimson

Two members of the legal team that settled a lawsuit earlier this year against the psychologists who designed and implemented a Central Intelligence Agency torture program spoke Friday afternoon at the Law School about their work on the landmark case.

Paul L. Hoffman—a civil and human rights lawyer and lecturer at the Law School—and criminal defense lawyer Lawrence S. Lustberg played major roles on the American Civil Liberties Union’s litigation team in Salim v. Mitchell, filed on behalf of three former CIA detainees. The case accused two psychologists, James E. Mitchell and John B. Jessen, of designing “cruel, inhuman” interrogation techniques that were used against detainees Suleiman A. Salim, Mohamed A. Ben Soud, and Gul Rahman in secret CIA prisons.

The case, which was settled in August, is one of the most high-profile attempts to date to hold the U.S. government accountable for using techniques considered to be torture in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Numerous detainees have filed lawsuits challenging torture by the US government. Mr. Salim, Mr. Ben Soud were the first ones to ever have their case get this far, get to the eve of trial, get to a settlement,” Lustberg said. “Nobody had ever entered into a settlement with a CIA operative before in the history of the nation.”

More broadly, Lustberg said, the case illustrated the tension in public interest litigation between a client’s best interest and a litigation team’s cause.

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HRP Welcomes New Staff and Visiting Fellows

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Photo of Debbie Frempong and Dana Walters side by side

Debbie Frempong and Dana Walters, the new program assistants at HRP.

Now that the semester is underway, we want to extend our warmest welcome to all of the new staff and Visiting Fellows at the Human Rights Program. They are, in a word, fantastic.

Debbie Frempong, the new Program Assistant for the International Human Rights Clinic, comes to us from Harvard Divinity School, where she graduated with an MTS in Religion, Politics and Ethics. She holds a B.A. in Public Policy and Politics from Pomona College.

Debbie is taking on many of the responsibilities previously held by Katherine Young, who until recently worked as Program Associate. This summer, she was promoted to Program Manager, in charge of administrative management of the International Human Rights Clinic and the financial administration of the Human Rights Program.

Dana Walters, the new Program Assistant for the Academic Program, comes to us from the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, where she was a coordinator, and the Atlantic Media Company, where she was a fellow. Dana holds a B.A. in English and American Literatures from Middlebury College and an M.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago, where she was previously pursuing a doctorate.

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Banning the Bomb: Reflections on the UN Negotiations for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty

Via International Human Rights Clinic

photo of two students at UN

Carina Bentata Gryting and Alice Osman in the UN General Assembly Hall where the negotiations opened in March 2017.

By Carina Bentata Gryting JD ’18, Molly Doggett JD ’17, Lan Mei JD ’17, and Alice Osman LLM ’17

Signing up for the International Human Rights Clinic in spring 2017, we could not have imagined that it would lead us to the United Nations and global negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. With Bonnie Docherty and Anna Crowe as our clinical supervisors, we worked alongside London-based organization Article 36 as well as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the civil society coalition at the conference. We had the unique opportunity to not only witness, but also actually participate in, norm-building at the international level.

It was at times difficult to explain to those not involved in the negotiations why the ban treaty was an important or even a sensible cause. Many people questioned the impact of a treaty being boycotted by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. For those of us participating in the negotiations, however, the purpose behind the treaty was complex but clear.

Nuclear weapons should no longer be the only weapon of mass destruction not prohibited by international law. A categorical ban on nuclear weapons would increase the stigma surrounding the weapons and ramp up pressure on nuclear states to work towards eliminating their arsenals. Moreover, a strong humanitarian motivation drove the treaty. Prior conferences on the impact of nuclear weapons had led many countries to declare the catastrophic effect of nuclear weapons incompatible with any legal or practical purpose. Countries like the Marshall Islands, Algeria, and Kazakhstan suffered from years of testing and their populations have experienced decades-long harm. Victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, known as Hibakusha, along with their children and grandchildren, still deal with the health and environmental consequences of atomic bombs today. Survivors of this use and testing offered compelling testimony for why nuclear weapons should be banned.

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Pisar family establishes professorship and fund for International Human Rights Clinic

Via Harvard Law Today

Credit: Jerry Berndt

Credit: Jerry Berndt

Harvard Law School has announced that the family of the late Samuel Pisar LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’59, has endowed a professorship and a fund to support the International Human Rights Clinic. The funds established by Judith Pisar, Samuel Pisar’s widow, his daughters Helaina Pisar-McKibbin, Alexandra Pisar-Pinto, and Leah F. Pisar, and his stepson Antony Blinken, will be known as the Samuel LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’59 and Judith Pisar Professorship of Law, and the Samuel LL.M. ’55 S.J.D. ’59 and Judith Pisar Endowed Fund for Human Rights.

The professorship will have a focus on human rights in honor of Samuel Pisar, a renowned international attorney, presidential adviser, and Holocaust survivor who died in 2015. The clinical fund will support a range of activities at the International Human Rights Clinic, including research, scholarship, events, fellowships, internships, travel, and exchanges with peer institutions.

“We are immensely grateful to the Pisar family for their generous support of our faculty and the International Human Rights Clinic, which will honor a tireless champion for the rule of law, global governance, and human rights,” said Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor at Harvard Law School. “When I addressed the graduating Class of 2016 at Commencement, I chose to highlight Sam’s career and life. His courage, brilliance, hope, and creativity made such a difference across the globe; he advised leaders in the United States and in France, in government and in the private sector. As a survivor of the Holocaust, he showed enormous strength and also later wrote a powerful memoir, and collaborative works of art with Leonard Bernstein. Honored in three continents for his service to international relations and to human rights, he remains an inspiration to me. Through this gift, he will continue to inspire human rights lawyers, advocates, and scholars in the years to come.”

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Addressing Human and Environmental Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in New Ban Treaty

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Bonnie Docherty, associate director at the Clinic, delivering statement to countries negotiating nuclear weapon ban treaty at the UN in New York. Photo courtesy of ICAN.

Bonnie Docherty, associate director at the Clinic, delivering statement to countries negotiating nuclear weapon ban treaty at the UN in New York. Photo courtesy of ICAN.

Member states of the UN General Assembly are currently engaged in historic negotiations of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. At this point, nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a categorical prohibition in international law. A team from the International Human Rights Clinic, which is participating in the negotiations in New York, has joined the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in urging countries to adopt a strong treaty that is focused on preventing and remediating the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing.

Prohibitions on the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons are necessary but insufficient components of the new treaty. In order to address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons effectively, states parties must also adopt positive obligations to provide assistance to victims in their territory and to remediate environmental contamination caused by nuclear weapon use and testing. In partnership with London-based NGO Article 36, our clinical team has released papers arguing for the inclusion of victim assistance and environmental remediation treaty provisions.

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The Law and Happiness in Bhutan

Via Harvard Law Bulletin

A new law school in the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Stephan Sonnenberg ’06 has been helping to design the law school’s curriculum and will be one of the 11 faculty members.

Credit: Kristen DeRemer
Stephan Sonnenberg ’06 has been helping to design the law school’s curriculum and will be one of the 11 faculty members.

Among the rugged mountains and the swiftly flowing rivers of Bhutan, new legal institutions are taking root. Soon this small country—with just over 750,000 inhabitants—will open its first law school.

In recent years, the Himalayan nation, wedged between China and Tibet to the north and India to the south, has undergone significant political and cultural transformations. In 2006, the nation’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that he would step down in favor of his son and he set in motion the drafting of a new constitution to replace an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. In 2008, a new constitution was ratified. Now, nine years later, the Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law will open its doors to its first class in July.

Envisioned by the current king to honor his father and his father’s guiding development philosophy for Bhutan, which he called Gross National Happiness, or GNH, Jigme Singye Wang­chuck School of Law will operate under the motto “Justice, Service, Wisdom.”

GNH may sound a bit hedonistic to some, but its origins are Buddhist. It makes collective happiness the goal of government and emphasizes harmony with nature and traditional values. Where the United States has its “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Bhutan has the four pillars of GNH—economic self-reliance, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.

“The school is the means of bringing GNH and justice to fruition,” says Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck LL.M. ’07, honorable president of Jigme Singye Wangchuck School of Law.

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Neither Facially Legitimate Nor Bona Fide–Why the Very Text of the Travel Ban Shows It’s Unconstitutional

Via International Human Rights Clinic

This article was first published on Just Security.

International Human Rights ClinicAs the litigation over the travel ban moves to the Supreme Court, the most important passage in the Fourth Circuit’s en banc opinion may be a tangential footnote finding “yet another marker” of illegitimate purpose in the text of the Executive Order. Both the first version of the Executive Order (of January 27) and the second version (of March 6) include language that any informed observer would recognize as evidence that the purpose of the travel ban is to gratify and further incite hostility against Muslims.Advocates seeking to persuade doubting Justices should not be distracted by the voluminous debates about whether candidate Trump’s statements count against the constitutionality of President Trump’s actions.  For Justices inclined to interpret narrowly the standard of review in immigration cases, the explicit statement of purpose in the first EO, and the residual markers in section 11 of the revised EO, should provide the starting point.

In the first EO, the final paragraph of section 1 explained the EO’s purpose as follows:

In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles.  The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law.  In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including “honor” killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

As the Fourth Circuit noted, “Numerous amici explain that invoking the specter of ‘honor killings’ is a well-known tactic for stigmatizing and demeaning Islam and painting this religion, and its men, as violent and barbaric.”  The thinly coded incitement throughout this purpose paragraph is perhaps best explained in Aziz Huq’s amicus brief for Muslim Rights, Professional and Public Health Organizations.

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A disarming leader: Bonnie Docherty recognized for contributions to human rights, clinical community

Via International Human Rights Clinic

When Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, began the daunting work of documenting torture and mass hangings in a Syrian prison, she was prepared. She knew how to interview survivors of trauma. She knew how to protect the security and confidentiality of witnesses. She knew, when her 50th interview was done, just how to connect the dots.

“There I was, with my pieces of paper all around me, with different highlighters for each different fact I was trying to establish,” said Nicolette, a researcher for Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “That’s basically me modeling what Bonnie taught me to do.”

Bonnie on a fact-finding mission in Iraq.

Bonnie on a fact-finding mission in Iraq.

Over the course of her career, as Bonnie Docherty has emerged as an international expert on civilian protection in armed conflict, she has also mentored scores of clinical students, from field researchers in conflict zones to advocates inside the halls of the UN in Geneva.

Her biggest alumni fans call themselves “the Bonnie mafia.” When they heard of her recent promotion to Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection at the International Human Rights Clinic, the reaction could best be summed up in one word: jubilation.

“This is the best news I’ve heard in a while,” said Lauren Herman, JD ’13, a fellow atMake the Road, NJ, an immigrants’ rights organization. “I am just thrilled for Bonnie and the Clinic and all of Harvard.”

The promotion gives Bonnie room to deepen and expand her work on civilian protection. She plans to increase support for civil society organizations working in the field, create a track for students interested in careers in civilian protection, and provide a forum for experts to develop practical innovations.

A senior researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch as well as a Harvard lecturer on law, she’ll continue to dedicate much of her time to humanitarian disarmament, which seeks to eliminate civilian suffering from problematic weapons. It’s an area Bonnie has been working in for 16 years.

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Clinic and partners call on ICC to investigate role of Chiquita executives in contributing to crimes against humanity

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Bogota, Colombia, May 18, 2017 – Today, on behalf of affected Colombian communities, a coalition of human rights groups called on the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the complicity of executives at Chiquita Brands International in crimes against humanity. To date, no executive has been held to account despite the company’s admission that it funneled millions of dollars to Colombian paramilitaries that killed, raped, and disappeared civilians. If the ICC takes up the case, it would be the first time it moved against corporate executives for assisting such crimes.

In their submission to the court, the coalition of local and international human rights groups traces the executives’ involvement with payments made to the paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004. Even after outside counsel and the U.S. Department of Justice said such payments were illegal under U.S. law, the payments continued. The submission includes a confidential, sealed appendix that identifies by name fourteen senior executives, officers, and board members of Chiquita who the coalition argues should be the focus of the Prosecutor’s investigation.

The coalition, which consists of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR), relied on internal Chiquita documents and assistance from the National Security Archive at George Washington University to identify the Chiquita officials and show how they were involved with the crimes.

“The executives who oversaw the funding of paramilitaries should not be able to sit comfortably in their houses in the United States as if they did nothing wrong,” said a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartado, which submitted a letter to the ICC about how the paramilitary violence personally affected them. “Families across Colombia have been waiting for accountability for too long.”

Chiquita could have acted differently, or could have left the country years before it did, but instead decided to continue its lucrative business while paying paramilitaries for so-called ‘security’ in the banana-growing regions. By 2003, Chiquita’s subsidiary in Colombia was its most profitable banana operation in the world.

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WEBINAR: Human rights and Myanmar’s transition from military rule

Via International Human Rights Clinic

Several weeks ago, Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, and Yee Htun, Clinical Advocacy Fellow, presented a webinar for Harvard Law School alumni on human rights and Myanmar’s transition from military rule. The talk was so popular, the school asked if it could feature it as part of its bicentennial celebration.

Great work, Tyler and Yee.

Op-Ed: UN investigation can help Myanmar down the path of democracy

Via International Human Rights Clinic

This opinion piece by Clinical Advocacy Fellow Yee Htun and Tyler Giannini, co-director of the International Human Rights Clinic, appeared in The Irrawaddy on March 29, 2017.

At first glance, the UN Human Rights Council resolution passed on Myanmar looks like a rebuke of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) government. The resolution calls for an international investigation into “alleged recent human rights violations by the military and security forces,” singling out Rakhine State in particular for scrutiny.

Given her muted public response to the violence, her government’s denials, and the lack of any serious domestic investigation to date, it would be easy to lay a lot of the blame at Aung San Suu Kyi’s door. But the real story remains in plain sight: there are roadblocks that prevent her and the civilian government from investigating and controlling the abuses of security forces. These roadblocks are rooted in the country’s Constitution, adopted by the military in 2008, and until they are removed, domestic and international maneuvering will be necessary to pressure the military to change its violent ways.

This is not the first time that we have seen Myanmar’s Constitution fail its citizens. Despite her party winning the first open elections in a generation, Aung San Suu Kyi herself was denied the presidency under the Constitution. She and her party had to resort to creating a new position – State Counselor – that has made her the de facto leader of the government. It was a creative, and necessary, move to bring a just outcome to the election.

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Tracking a remnant of war in Kosovo

Via International Human Rights Clinic

By Jared Small, J.D. ’18

Tomorrow, my Harvard Law School colleagues and I will board an airplane for Kosovo. Our goal: track down remnants of a war that ended nearly two decades ago.

Damage from depleted uranium penetrators in Gjakova/Đakovica. Credit: Naomi Toyoda / ICBUW

The Kosovo War ended in 1999 after a months-long NATO airstrike crippled Yugoslav and Serbian forces and paved the way for an internationally monitored Kosovan autonomy.  Kosovo has since declared independence, and is moving forward towards what it hopes will become full membership in the European Union.

But there is an invisible part of this story that has largely escaped the public eye over the past decade and a half.  Our team from the International Human Rights Clinic will travel to Kosovo to better understand potential environmental and human health impacts that linger from the war.

During the course of the NATO airstrikes, United States aircraft deployed at least 5,723 kg of Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunition at Serbian and Yugoslav targets.  As an incredibly dense by-product of the process of enriching uranium, DU is often used by militaries in armor-piercing shells and bullets. American A-10 Thunderbolts fired DU at more than 100 ground targets during the campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was attempting to cleanse Kosovo of its nearly 90% ethnic Albanian population.

In addition to penetrating armored vehicles, DU rounds ended up in areas now returned to civilian use, including bucolic buildings and urban streets. Even 18 years after the end of the war many of these penetrators remain scattered around Kosovo.

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Stuck in legal limbo

Via Harvard Gazette

Challenges for Syrian Refugees

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer
Anna Crowe, clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program, spent two semesters in Jordan interviewing Syrian refugees about the difficulties of obtaining legal documentation and the precarious existence of living and traveling without papers.

Some Syrian refugees in Jordan lack documentation, so they wait and wait

When human rights clinical instructor Anna Crowe first began documenting the legal challenges faced by Syrian refugees in Jordan, she found a tangled system that put their lives on hold. Thousands of refugees, stuck in legal limbo, were vulnerable to risks ranging from statelessness to relocation to refugee camps.

In Jordan, Syrian refugees must register with the interior ministry to obtain identity cards, which allow them access to health care, education, work permits, and humanitarian assistance. But to obtain the cards, the refugees need to show their original Syrian identity documents, which many lost in transit. They are caught in a catch-22.

“In theory, everyone or most people should be able to get the card,” said Crowe. “But there are practical challenges refugees face, which means that tens of thousands don’t actually have those cards.”

Lack of documentation is an aspect of the Syrian refugee crisis that doesn’t grab the same headlines as the harrowing scenes of people rescued from the rubble of a bombed city or drowned in the Mediterranean while fleeing to Europe. But the consequences for stranded refugees can be crippling.

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Student perspective: Reflections of a newcomer to the CCW Review Conference

Via International Human Rights Clinic

By Anna Khalfaoui, LL.M. ’17

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 12.25.30 PMThe Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was a great success for advocates of a ban on fully autonomous weapons. Held at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2016, the Conference was also an opportunity for me to discover and reflect on the processes and challenges of the CCW, to which I was a newcomer.

I became involved when I attended the Conference as part of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC).  I also contributed to a report that IHRC co-published with Human Rights Watch the week before the Review Conference. Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban rebuts the major arguments against a prohibition on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons. These weapons, also known as killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons systems, would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention.

The Review Conference was a key step toward a ban because states parties agreed to formalise talks on killer robots by establishing a Group of Government Experts (GGE), which will meet for 10 days in 2017. This GGE creates the expectation of an outcome as past GGEs have led to negotiation of new or stronger CCW protocols. It provides a forum for states and experts to discuss the parameters of a possible protocol which hopefully will take the form of a ban. The Review Conference also showed that support a ban is gaining traction around the world. Argentina, Panama, Peru and Venezuela joined the call for the first time at the Conference, bringing to 19 the number of states in favour of a ban.

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Student Perspective: Documentation dilemmas for Syrian refugees living in Jordan

Via International Human Rights Clinic

By Katherine Gonzalez, J.D. ’17

Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi

Two Syrian schoolmates hold up their MoI cards. Credit: Norwegian Refugee Council/Lian Saifi

It may be difficult to believe that a simple piece of paper can carry so much weight. But for Syrian refugees living in host communities in Jordan, marriage certificates, birth certificates, and government-issued identity cards are essential to securing basic human rights.

Several months ago, I traveled with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic to interview dozens of Syrian refugee families about their experiences with obtaining these documents in Jordan. Like the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan, these families lived outside of refugee camps, their legal status dependent on whether they had new government-issued identity cards, otherwise known as “MoI cards.” Without the cards, refugees lived in situations of legal uncertainty, without access to essential services, and at risk of arrest, detention, forced relocation to refugee camps, and possible refoulement.

The families we interviewed described a variety of experiences, but one theme was common throughout: lacking proper documentation can have cascading consequences for Syrians who already occupy a marginalized and vulnerable position.

For one Syrian mother, getting a new MoI card for her infant son, who was born in Jordan, seemed nearly impossible. In order to get the card, she needed proof of identity for her son, in the form of a birth certificate issued by Jordanian authorities. But she couldn’t get the birth certificate until she got a marriage certificate. And she couldn’t get the marriage certificate because the woman and her husband, who wed in Syria two years prior, could not provide sufficient proof that they had been married in Syria.

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