Global Human Rights Clinic—Significant Achievements for 2020-21

This year the Global Human Rights Clinic (GHRC or “the Clinic”) continued to strengthen human rights around the world through the multi-dimensional advocacy strategies of documentation and reporting, legislative and institutional reform, and litigation in domestic, regional and international tribunals. As in past years, GHRC engaged in innovative, necessary and timely project collaborations with individual clients and organizational partners to advance social and economic justice across the globe.

In the past year, GHRC has continued its litigation of a class-wide petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of all domestic workers in the United States, receiving a favorable admissibility decision from the Commission in October 2020; provided advisory support and training to candidates for Chile’s constitutional commission on measures to advance gender equality and women’s rights; published two widely-cited reports on global police lethal use of force policies and laws (relied on most recently by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in its report on law enforcement and discrimination against people of African descent); designed and delivered multiple trainings on strategic litigation and comparative foreign law to lawyers in Tanzania challenging inhumane prison conditions; and submitted a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council documenting Vietnam’s violation of its citizens’ right to freedom of expression. These and other initiatives were featured in multiple media outlets throughout the year, including The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and The World.

Below is a more detailed description of selected GHRC 2020-21 projects, all aimed at promoting the rule of law and protecting human rights necessary to meet contemporary global challenges. This year GHRC focused its efforts on promoting human rights in the context of criminal justice and policing; women’s equality and non-discrimination; and freedom of expression and privacy. GHRC also provided non-governmental organizations with critical training on human rights documentation and treaty interpretation to support emergency work in environments experiencing acute human rights violations, such as Myanmar.

Unlike previous years, GHRC’s work this past year was conducted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions.

Criminal Justice and Policing

Studies and Advocacy on Human Rights and Police Use of Lethal Force

In June of 2020, GHRC released a report on Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law and Standards, which found that the 2018 police department use-of-force policies in the United States’ 20 largest cities failed to meet basic international human rights standards on police use of force. Following publication of Deadly Discretion, the Guardian newspaper commissioned GHRC to conduct a global study evaluating police use of force laws and policies around the world in accordance with human rights standards. Students in the Clinic spent much of the summer and fall of 2020 collecting and analyzing lethal use of force laws and policies of the 29 wealthiest countries (by GDP) in the world. A summary of the study, Global Impunity: How Police Laws & Policies in the World’s Wealthiest Countries Fail International Human Rights Standards was published in a feature in the Guardian and, recently, the complete study was published in a special issue of the Georgia Journal of International & Comparative Law. This comprehensive analysis found that, globally, the most highly resourced countries in the world have failed to comply with basic human rights standards that require force by law enforcement to be proportional, responsive to an immediate threat, grounded in law and subject to meaningful systems of accountability. This finding highlights enduring concerns about state failures to properly constrain police discretion.

Alongside the drafting and publication of the aforementioned articles, GHRC students participated in advocacy efforts to amplify the results of the study, including through tailored submissions and presentations to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The global study was relied on most recently by the OHCHR in its much anticipated July 2021 report on racism in law enforcement against Africans and Afro-Descendants.

Report on Prison Labor in the United States

The Clinic continued work with the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program (HRP) and the Campaign for Smart Justice (CSJ) on a public report investigating prison labor practices in the United States. The report will carefully document low wages, paycheck deductions, unsafe and poor working conditions, and lack of real vocational and technical training for many low-skill prison jobs, as well as licensing restrictions and discrimination in hiring that frustrate re-entry for the formerly incarcerated.

This past year GHRC has carried out the final stage of fact-finding for the report, delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. This final stage involved 120 in-depth interviews with formerly and currently incarcerated persons in the form of questionnaires and telephone interviews on their experiences in the prison labor program. The Clinic is currently incorporating the data collected from these interviews and expects to publish the report in October 2021.

Freedom of Expression and Privacy

Training and Legal Strategy Support to Civil Rights Attorneys in Tanzania

The Clinic continued its work with Freedom House to build the capacity of its attorney partners in Tanzania on strategic litigation. In the previous academic year, the Clinic developed a training manual and module on strategic litigation to introduce the concept and guide inexperienced advocates on developing strategic litigation aimed at preservation and expansion of civic space as well as addressing other civil and human rights violations. Over the past few years, President Magufuli of Tanzania has undertaken increasingly aggressive steps to limit certain rights in Tanzania, enacting, in particular, legislation and regulations that curtail and criminalize opposition speech and the work of the media. The Freedom House office in Tanzania, with other civil society partners, determined that courts in the country remain a relatively untapped source for advocates to resist these efforts. While these organizations are aware of the promise of strategic litigation, many need additional support.

To support Freedom House’s work in Tanzania and the region more broadly, the Clinic consulted advocates in the region and produced a training module and manual on strategic litigation appropriate to the Eastern Africa context. This past year, Clinic students delivered the three-day training to multiple groups of Tanzanian lawyers and human rights defenders over the course of the academic year in a virtual format. Attorneys who attended these trainings received “CLE” credit for doing so.

GHRC also provided legal research support to attorney partners on planned and pending strategic litigation cases throughout the year,. The GHRC student team provided legal teams with extensive comparative foreign and international law research on prisoners’ welfare rights, solitary confinement, corporal punishment, and overpopulation of cells, as well as the restriction of the right to vote of incarcerated peoples. The team also did work on corporal punishment in public schools and the permissibility of a state-sponsored student loan program to garnish student wages.

Shadow Report on Restrictions to Freedom of Online Expression in Vietnam

Project 88 is a new but impactful NGO documenting arrests, harassment and detention by the government of Vietnam of Vietnamese citizens exercising their freedom of expression. This past year GHRC partnered with Project 88 to submit a report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) documenting Vietnam’s violation of its human rights obligations related to freedom of opinion and expression, specifically online expression. The report is intended to guide the HRC’s evaluation of Vietnam when that country’s human rights record comes under review as part of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process.

In the process of writing the report, GHRC students interviewed over a dozen human rights defenders -- lawyers, journalists, artists and activists – who were subjected to harassment, imprisonment and torture for their online expression of dissenting political views. The report drafted by the students combines findings from these in-depth interviews with an analysis of Vietnam’s legal framework. The report lays out evidence and arguments demonstrating that Vietnamese laws, as written and applied, violate the country’s international human rights obligations. The report is currently being submitted to the UN HRC.

Technical Advice on Litigation Addressing Privacy Infringements by Closed Captioned TV (CCTV) Surveillance in South Africa.

Closed captioned video-surveillance systems (CCTV) are commonly used in South Africa, particularly in its major urban areas. The CCTV surveillance networks are largely privately-owned with the stated intention of reducing South Africa’s high crime rate and assisting the South African Police Service with crime prevention. Though such systems have received broad support, advocates are concerned at the lack of appropriate safeguards that ensure protection of privacy rights and non-discrimination. ALT advisory, a public interest advisory firm based in South Africa focusing on data privacy, requested that GHRC develop an analysis of international standards relevant to CCTV surveillance and data retention. The GHRC team conducted this analysis and also provided the ALT Advisory with comparative foreign law research to serve as a foundation for potential litigation. Finally, the GHRC team presented its findings and analysis in a virtual international conference on human rights in the digital age, RightsCon.

Women’s Equality and Non-Discrimination

Siti Aisah and Others v. United States, Petition Before the IACHR on Behalf of Domestic Workers in the United States

The GHRC, with the ACLU as co-counsel, continues to litigate Siti Aisah and Others v. US before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) alleging that the United States violates the rights of domestic workers under the American Declaration of Human Rights and requesting appropriate remedies in the form of legal and policy reform. This filing is part of a fourteen-year-long litigation effort before the IACHR, originally filed by GHRC Director and Clinical Faculty, Professor Claudia Flores, when she was a staff attorney at the ACLU.

In the fall of 2020, the IACHR issued a decision finding in favor of the Petitioners and declaring the Petition admissible (a decision similar to surviving a motion to dismiss in US courts). In its admissibility decision, the IACHR rejected the US governments’ arguments on admissibility and also requested Petitioners submit further briefing on its Article II argument that the US has violated prohibitions against non-discrimination by excluding domestic workers (who are 90% women and overwhelmingly immigrants or people of color) from most labor and employment protections. GHRC drafted and filed the merits brief in March 2021, a 331-page document laying out how the United States violates in law and practice the right of domestic workers to equality and non-discrimination, as well as their rights under nine other articles of the American Declaration--including the right to life and bodily integrity, the right to health, the right to privacy and the right to judicial remedies. GHRC will now request a hearing for the fall of 2021 on the merits. In the meantime, GHRC is supporting efforts to advocate for the passage of the national Domestic Worker Bill of Rights currently pending before Congress.

Assistance to Candidates for the Constitutional Assembly in Chile

This past year Chile has engaged in a long-awaited process to draft a new national constitution to replace the one put in place in the 1980s by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. The GHRC partnered with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, to provide women candidates to the constitutional commission technical knowledge and guidance on integrating gender equality and rights in their new constitution. In consultation with the UN Women country office in Chile, the GHRC team carried out comparative foreign legal research on an array of subjects related to gender equality in constitutions and relevant to the Chilean context--including the rights of domestic workers and indigenous women. GHRC then designed and delivered trainings on these subjects to the women candidates to Chile’s constituent assembly. The team developed two trainings: the first one, on “Promoting constitutional provisions on gender equality,” took place in February 2021, and the second one, on “The rights of indigenous women in constitutional processes,” took place in April 2021. The students and faculty on the project team delivered all trainings in Spanish.

GHRC Conference -- Making Gender Equality a Reality: Women’s Rights and Constitutional Reform in the Americas.

On May 14, GHRC organized and hosted a conference, Making Gender Equality a Reality: Women’s Rights and Constitutional Change in the Americas. This daylong virtual conference brought together leaders on women’s equality in the Americas from over ten countries in the Western Hemisphere to share and reflect on the challenges, opportunities, and impact of constitutional change on women’s rights. The conference included a keynote address by Ambassador Julissa Reynoso, Co-Chair of the White House Gender Policy Council, Former U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay and Chief of Staff to the First Lady. Panels discussed gender in governance, sexual and reproductive rights, intersectional advocacy, and substantive equality. The GHRC student team kicked off this daylong event with their own presentation on the challenges, opportunities, and impact of constitutional change on women’s rights, as gleaned from their year-long research on these questions as well as their experience supporting the Chilean process. The daylong conference was recorded.

Human Rights Capacity Building

Training for Myanmar Activists on Collecting Testimony of Human Rights Violations

Following the military coup in Myanmar in early 2021, GHRC designed and (virtually) delivered a training for activists in Myanmar on how to collect testimony and documentation from victims of human rights violations in accordance with international standards and best practices. The training provided much-needed information on documentation that would meet evidentiary standards of domestic and international tribunals. Trainees were exposed to fundamental concepts --including confidentiality, “do no harm,” and informed consent--and had the opportunity to put those concepts into practice through facilitated simulations. The training material was later circulated among other activists in Myanmar and is currently being used by fact-finders to document ongoing violations domestically.

Training to Freedom House’s Emergency Assistance Program on International Human Rights Treaty Obligations

GHRC designed and delivered a training for program officers in Freedom House’s Emergency Assistance Program on how to interpret human rights standards in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Emergency Assistance Program requested this training to ensure their internal systems accurately identified human rights violations in a manner consistent with legal principles. The training included interactive portions where participants had to analyze case studies and answer questions about how to apply legal interpretations of the relevant human rights.