HRJ Conference Reviews 20 Years in Human Rights Advocacy, Teaching


From left to right, Editor in Chief Stacy Hume-Schulz, Conference Co-Chair Stephanie Swanson, Conference Co-Chair Yin-Shuan Lue, and Editor in Chief Brandon Weiss.

On Saturday, March 10, human rights activists, educators, and students gathered in Langdell North for the Harvard Human Rights Journal’s second annual conference. Marking the journal’s 20th anniversary, the theme was a retrospective of twenty years in human rights scholarship and advocacy. Panelists gathered from places as far-flung as Phnom Penh, Cambodia and as close as Harvard Law School’s own Human Rights Program. The Harvard College Student Advocates for Human Rights, The HBS Leadership and Ethics Forum, the HLS Dean’s Office, and International Legal Studies co-hosted the conference. 2Ls Shuan Lue and Stephanie Swanson were the conference co-chairs.

Students from several of Harvard’s schools and other local universities spent the day listening to three well-attended panel discussions and a keynote speech over lunch in Harkness South. Organizer Lue said, “The human rights field has evolved significantly over the last two decades. The conference served as a great forum for leading human rights experts to critically examine the development of the field, as well as to apply lessons learned from history to current issues and beyond.”

Professor William P. Alford kicked off the conference by reviewing the accomplishments of the panelists and also of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. He noted that the keynote speaker, Philip Alston, had written an article on activism for the inaugural issue of HRJ and that the journal had thus come full circle. He described the journal as a forum for a very international cast of authors and the source of frequently cited articles on disability rights and emerging trends in social and economic rights. He also concluded that journal members had bright futures ahead of them, as alumni included international law scholar Tom Kellogg at Yale Law School and the head of the Massachusetts ACLU chapter, Carol Rose.

The first panel, “Revolution or Institutionalization? 20 Years in Human Rights INGO Practice” was moderated by Professor James Cavallaro of the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program and featured five activists with almost a hundred years of experience in international non-governmental organizations between them. Luisa Cabal, the director of the International Legal Program’s Center for Reproductive Rights recalled that when she began her life as an activist, women’s rights were seen as political goals distinct from the realm of human rights. She later brought two abortion-rights cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that established violations of privacy in the abortion context as human rights violations. She also spoke of the need to build capacity with national groups to engage in international litigation for human rights.

Another panelist, James Ross of Human Rights Watch, looked back 30 years and recalled that human rights activism barely existed apart from humanitarian law when he began working as an activist. He credited President Jimmy Carter for making human rights policy an issue in US foreign policy and moving the focus of human rights beyond political rights in the USSR to include development and cultural rights around the third world.

A repeating theme throughout the panel was the need to break down “walls” between human rights law and humanitarian law, and between political rights and economic and social rights. Panelists agreed that advocates for different human rights policy positions needed to share strategies for creation and enforcement of human rights norms around the world.

After a second panel, which focused on human rights education and clinical work in law schools, the conference attendees listened to the keynote speech by veteran human rights advocate Philip Alston. His wide-ranging speech exhorted those in attendance to view international events through the human rights prism, and took jabs at everyone from the Philippines government to the humanitarian law scholars in his early career who had derided him as a “human rightist.”

The exciting third panel, “Mechanics of Justice: 20 Years in Human Rights Criminal Tribunals,” was moderated by HLS’s own Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, Martha Minow, and featured members of several high-profile international criminal tribunals.

Visiting Professor Richard Goldstone recalled his almost accidental transformation from Justice of the South African Constitutional Court to Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. His background had been in human rights law, but after eight other candidates for the role of Chief Prosecutor for the ICTY had been rejected by the Security Council of the UN, someone had suggested that former South African President Nelson Mandela nominate Goldstone. “I had three problems: one, I had never prosecuted, two, I knew nothing about humanitarian law, and three, I knew nothing about Yugoslavia,” said Goldstone. However, he laughingly remembered, “you couldn’t say ‘no’ to Nelson Mandela.”

Payam Akhavan, the former Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the ICTY countered that despite the “historical accident” of Goldstone’s appointment, he had played an important role in the legitimization of international criminal tribunals and called the Yugoslav tribunal a “phenomenal success.”

The importance of the legitimacy and credibility of international criminal law was the central theme of the panel discussion. Visiting Professor Raul Pangalangan, who served on the drafting committee of the International Criminal Court, argued that international courts could override political considerations to prosecute human rights abusers, and gave the example of former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, who was never prosecuted in the Philippines, but was successfully sued in Honolulu by victims of his regime in 1995. Akhavan, however, said that without vigorous enforcement of the Genocide Convention and other human rights treaties, human rights norms were empty promises.

Professor Minow asked if the structure of international tribunals could affect their legitimacy. Professor Pangalangan responded that though tribunals often favored openness over efficiency, they had to offer victims a thorough forum to express their pain in order to heal wounded societies and fully expose abusive regimes.

Robert Petit, the International Co-Prosecutor of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, said that no amount of openness would deter future human rights abusers, so criminal tribunals should focus on successful convictions and enforcement of the law, rather than on peacemaking.

At this point, Martha Minow polled the audience to ask whether prosecutors in sensitive international criminal trials should ever delay or otherwise alter a trial to take into account political considerations, such as on-going peace negotiations. Nearly ninety percent of the audience agreed to delay a trial if it would help peace negotiations. None of the panelists, however, said they would do so.

Professor Goldstone then gave an example from his personal experience; on the eve of the indictments of wanted Serbian war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Russian ambassador to the UN called him at home and said that the Russian government wanted Goldstone to suspend the indictments so that Mladic and Karadzic could attend the Dayton peace accords. Goldstone said he had refused, saying that he lacked authority to do so, and later learned that the Bosnians would have refused to attend if Mladic and Karadzic had been present.

Professor Minow described this debate about political influence in international trials as an ongoing one, and thanked the panel participants for letting the attendees be part of the discussion. “I can’t imagine a better group of people to share their experience across a range of tribunals as we debated the role of political considerations in prosecutorial decisions,” she said.

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