A great post on OpenDemocracy recently by Chris Jochnick discussed human rights tools of litigation, and how the law can be harnessed to address some of the root causes of poverty. I especially liked the following questions he asks at the end, which I think are absolutely spot on:

  1. Can resources be mobilized at scale to support human rights work that directly confronts poverty, inequities and vested interests? The longstanding bias of human rights funders against ESR continues to limit this work.

  2. Can lawyers and litigation be incorporated into grassroots struggles without co-opting them? The legal training, the proximity to power, the allure of lawsuits, the mythologies of legal expertise all conspire against good faith efforts of lawyers to serve rather than lead campaigns.

  3. Can transnational human rights advocates find a way to work closely and collaboratively enough with those living in poverty, while retaining a strategic focus on broader structural issues? The rise of stronger human rights groups in the global south, connected to social movements and networked to international platforms (with a helpful infusion from the Ford Foundation) represents a promising, if fragile, step in this direction.

These questions often pique my interest when working in the human rights field. I often question: how can we mobilize individual struggles and direct legal services into broader change, and at the same time how can human rights advocates engaging in high-level litigation or “impact” cases while still maintaining a close connection to communities?  Especially, as he writes above, the “legal training, the proximity to power…” often make it appealing for lawyers to take leading roles in campaigns rather than a backseat. At the same time, often working to provide legal services or working with clients on an individual, one-on-one basis can be particularly difficult, not to mention can be challenging to make any systemic reform.

A great post summing up some of the debates in human rights/transnational lawyering and advocacy work, and absolutely worth checking out.


Hello, friends! I am excited to announce that I’m organizing an online symposium for the Harvard Human Rights Journal on a topic I am deeply passionate about:  assessing barriers to and successes in promoting access to justice to the poor, both via formal and informal justice systems and mechanisms.  We’ve already got a couple of fantastic pieces, but I also wanted to post here to spread the word to those of you who might be interested.

TOPIC: From the Informal to the Formal: Barriers and Successes in Promoting Access to Justice to the Poor

This year, we are excited to publish an online symposium focusing on issues of access to justice to the poor around the world. We invite submissions focused around the challenges of expanding access to justice to grassroots communities around the world, both through the formal justice system, customary and traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution, and through civil society and non-profit organizations.

In many countries, the formal state-governed justice system exists alongside various informal methods of justice delivery and dispute resolution, often termed “informal,” “non-state,” “traditional,” or “customary” mechanisms. Due to the barriers faced by litigants attempting to access the formal justice system, many have began to shift a focus to informal methods of dispute resolution in a range of cases – such as family law, land and property disputes, and issues of economic and social rights. There has been an increased emphasis on mediations and on engaging with informal justice mechanisms that already exist at the grassroots level, such as the shalish in Bangladesh, the bashingantahe in Burundi, or the shura jirga in Afghanistan. Although informal systems of dispute resolution are often more accessible and familiar to communities, they come with their own challenges and considerations, particularly in relation to gender and human rights norms.

We invite submissions discussing the challenges of strengthening access to justice through either informal, formal, or civil society mechanisms as well as case studies of successful approaches and new insights on the methods of navigating the complex informal and formal systems that exist around the world.

Style and Length: Our Online Symposium will be published on our website, at http://harvardhrj.com/symposia/ (see for examples of the type of content we publish). We welcome pieces that are more academic in nature as well as personal reflections from experience in the field. We seek pieces that are between 2,000 and 3,500 words. We welcome submissions from academics, practitioners, and students.

How to Submit: Email the Online Editors at hhrjonlinesubmissions@gmail.com with your piece, or with any questions or concerns.


Fantastic post on women’s rights and human rights by Keshet Bachan. This portion sticks out to me as especially key:

There is no doubt legislation is an important first step in promoting human rights. However, most countries don’t have strong democratic traditions that uphold the rule of law, meaning legislation remains formal and fails to become substantive. And when legislation encounters social norms and traditions that contradict it, most of the time it will come out on the losing end. Without strong law enforcement forces and functioning judicial systems, with high levels of illiteracy and in many cases parallel legal systems (Customary Law), ensuring human rights laws are actually protecting people in a given country is an ongoing struggle. And no less importantly, when working in international development, the Rights Based Approach, which provides the framework in which all programming is conducted, often fails to engage communities because of this basic mismatch between formal and substantive legislation. That is, the formal recognition of human rights has yet to be translated into norms, traditions and practices, and therefore doesn’t provide a productive basis for change.

This to me, is truly a key challenge, and one that is not being addressed by the major human rights organizations and NGOs. Pushing forward legislation means little when it is not enforced and when it has not been translated into social norms at the lowest level. How can we begin to make this shift?  This is the question I keep asking, and keep pondering.


The crisis in #Gaza is truly heartbreaking; stories of children in Gaza who have been killed in the conflict, and the pictures of dead civilians are truly heart rendering. Regardless of your views on this conflict, the fact that innocent civilians are dying should give you reason to pause. Although this is a few days late, I wanted to point out some of the arguments being used to justify civilian deaths in Gaza — and why Israel’s actions still cannot be justified under international humanitarian law.

First of all, the news media and Israel’s government has essentially been blaming Gazan civilians for their own deaths due to the actions of Hamas.  By accusing Hamas of using civilians as ‘human shields’ (by storing weapons among civilian locations and targets such as in schools and communities) Israel is legitimizing the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians and blaming them for their own demise — thus absolving Israel itself of any responsibility for so many deaths. The media has conveniently picked up this narrative, too.

As Noura Erakat more aptly writes, this type of narrative deprives Palestinians of the right to even be victims. 

Israel’s propaganda machine, however, insists that these Palestinians wanted to die (“culture of martyrdom”), staged their own death (“telegenically dead”) or were the tragic victims of Hamas’s use of civilian infrastructure for military purposes (“human shielding”). In all instances, the military power is blaming the victims for their own deaths, accusing them of devaluing life and attributing this disregard to cultural bankruptcy. In effect, Israel—along with uncritical mainstream media that unquestionably accept this discourse—dehumanizes Palestinians, deprives them even of their victimhood and legitimizes egregious human rights and legal violations.

But even if Hamas is hiding its weapons in civilian targets – like homes, schools and mosques – this does not actually absolve Israel of its responsibilities under humanitarian law.

Under the laws of war, there are a few key protections for civilians. Primarily is the principle of distinctionwhere civilians are supposed to be protected from military operations.  Parties in an armed conflict must distinguish at all times between combatants and military objectives & civilians and civilian objects.  Armed actors are only allowed to target military objectives/objects. This means that civilian objects – like homes, or schools – are simply not acceptable targets by a party to the conflict.  The presence in the civilian population of combatants does not deprive the population of its civilian character, and indiscriminate attacks which do not adequately distinguish between civilian & military targets are not allowed.

True, what Hamas is doing is not good and does not protect the lives of civilians.  Hamas has also been violating humanitarian law by indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel without specifically targeting military objects, and the use of human shields is also prohibited (some would dispute that Hamas is doing this, even).  But regardless of Hamas’s actions, Israel still has a responsibility to respect the principles of distinction and to protect civilian lives.

Ultimately, as Brad Parker sums up in this excellent article,

A civilian home, school, or hospital that is in some way deemed by Israeli forces to be “affiliated” with Hamas or another Palestinian armed group does not in itself provide legal justification under international humanitarian law to direct an attack at that object. The standard demands much more, and requires an exacting calculation. Precision is necessary because imprecision leads to war crimes.

Palestinian civilians must not be blamed for their own deaths. Even if Hamas or another Palestinian armed group may have violated the laws of war and used civilians as human shields, this does not relieve Israel from its obligations under international law nor does it justify an attack on civilians or civilian structures.

Now, if only humanitarian law had some weight in the world — and had the power to really constrain these countries’ actions; if only, a great deal of bloodshed would have been prevented in this conflict.


This summer, I have spent the bulk of my time working on issues of gender, women’s rights, and access to justice.  The first half of my summer focused on providing direct legal services to survivors of domestic violence in family and immigration law matters.  The second half — which I am immersed in at the moment — involves policy research on issues of sexual assault across the U.S.

In doing this work, I’ve often thought back to some of the assumptions I myself had about gender – and which were broken down – in particular through a course I took this past semester at Harvard.  A few key realizations from the course really stuck out to me.

First, having worked before the previous semester and last summer with survivors of domestic violence, I saw the same cycle over and over again and felt that the current system could not adequately address and eradicate the violence and fear felt by the women I worked with. Yet, I was not able to fully articulate why the system was not working.  Prior to the course, my immediate inclination had been (and often still is) to improve and expand shelters for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and to ensure that survivors have a safe place/space to go.  When working directly with survivors, I always sought – in safety planning – to inform them of shelters that they could go to in an emergency situation.  In our discussions, however, we completely rethought this assumption and discussed how the current system places the entire burden on those who are abused to flee their residence and disappear.  We are forcing women (by and large) to go underground, to go into hiding, just to escape their abuser.  Why are we not circumscribing the freedom of movement of the perpetrator by forcing him/her to go to a shelter or a space where they cannot intimidate the survivor?  Instead, alternatives — such as temporary, rehabilitative spaces such as batterer’s detention facilities or shelters could truly shift mindsets.  By requiring batterers to leave, we would turn the system upside down.

Another example further illustrates this: when you look at an order of protection, you see that a survivor can tick off certain zones where she would like to be safe.  Home.  Work.  School.  But should we be thinking of the survivor’s safety in such a limited manner?  Shouldn’t survivors of domestic violence be able to feel safe wherever they are – not just at home or work, but on the streets, in public – everywhere?  Shouldn’t we instead be preventing abusers from being able to go anywhere, circumscribing their movements instead of locking survivors of violence into certain areas where they can be assured of their safety? Shouldn’t survivors be free and safe no matter where they are?

How many more assumptions do we have, despite being activists in this field?  How many policies, and programs, and laws do we take for granted because this is the status quo, the way things have always been done?  How often do we blame the victim, or place the pressure on him/her to leave rather than urging the perpetrator to leave?   These considerations are important because they force us to question our assumptions time and time again.  And to truly improve our world’s response to gender-violence we must question every assumption that we encounter about gender, about violence, and about abuse.


My heart is breaking for Gaza; amidst all the destruction and pain, this Gaza-based writer seems to capture this well through her words.

All the writing rituals escaped. I possess nothing except a lead pencil and a piece of white paper, even though I am wary of the word lead. I want a pencil of life because life is now so dear in Gaza, and there were so many who insisted on plucking it like a flower whose infanticide they hastened. Especially those small flowers because they are beautiful; the hands snatch them and do not let them live. Our children became flowers stripped of their leaves, colors, and nectar. I feel anguish.

All the rituals of writing escaped after the soul slipped out of the body. It was so simple. While she was preparing her family’s breakfast she and they were all buried under the rubble of their home, without any warning. In this way the nymphs and their families depart the earth. In Gaza everything happens suddenly. She runs and runs all of the time looking for something lost; you always feel that you are being pursued and that eyes are watching you.

All the rituals of writing escaped. Sometimes they love you to death and other times they hate to death. The only sin you have is that you are a Palestinian man or woman expelled from her land in the villages of occupied Palestine to become a refugee in the Gaza Strip. Gaza is a mixture of life of all refugees; it is the taste and the scent of Palestine. Now they grill their flesh. They cut their hands and sometimes their heads before they shut their eyes. Talking has exhausted me. I do not wish for you to see Gaza as anything but a rose. A rose maintains her head and her leg and her roots and, most importantly, she still has her fragrance. Talk has exhausted me, and I have forgotten the rites of writing.

But she is a rose whose delightful fragrance wafted with the sea of blood that restored your senses and your love and perhaps your hatred.

— Hedaya Shamun


This piece in Politico by Sarah Kendzior is spot on, decrying the state of media representation of powerful women in politics:

Read these women’s magazines today—particularly those articles focusing on the “power women” of the Obama era, and there is a full shelf of them by now, from Mastromonaco to Michelle Obama, Samantha Power to Susan Rice—and you will find a familiar pattern. There are still only two main tracks for the female politico: intimidating and powerful or submissive and charming. When combined, these qualities translate into “having it all,” although “all” must be tempered with notes of humility, lest the women vault back into the “intimidating” category. As pundits debate the virtues of female confidence, it is the confidante who is still made to appear the ideal female type: the yes-woman, capable yet culpable, assertive in her lack of assertions.



Sometimes, an image sears itself into your brain — it becomes a snippet of a memory that comes back, flashes back, and horrifies you when you least expect it.  These images come back to haunt you when you are lying down after a long day, about to sleep.  When you take a brief respite from work and take a quick walk outside.  When you are eating dinner.  At the most mundane times, sometimes these images strike — and you feel like you’re back there again.  Sometimes, there are moments you cannot forget, even if you wish you could.

For me, there are several images and snapshots of time that come back to me periodically.

For me, these memories come with flashes of guilt, of sadness, of helplessness.

On this sunny morning in Cambridge, on the day after America’s independence has been celebrated with fireworks and dazzling lights and red-white-and-blue clothing everywhere, I was taken back to a moment in Sierra Leone where a woman ran past our legal services office. She was crying and screaming, and stumbling on her way to the police station.

The minute I remember is when she turned around and I saw the other side of her face: blood was streaming down and there it was — a large, open wound on her head. Her face, covered with blood.  Blood, entering her eyes and her mouth and dripping down her chin onto the ground.

I had never seen so much blood. Sure, I had met women with injuries before — I had interviewed numerous women, girls, and men who spoke of the domestic violence they had suffered — but most often, the violence was somewhat distant from me. There was a barrier in between, and the barrier was that of time and words.  There was a comfortable distance between me and the violence.  The violence was in homes and it was hidden.  When I spoke to and interviewed survivors, I gained their confidence, their voices, their words, and their stories.  And yet, their stories were always in the past tense, even if the past was as recent as “this morning,” or “last night,” or “last week,” or “last month, he strangled me in front of our children.”  These words, these tenses, kept me at a comfortable distance from the violence.  This invisible wall — this barrier — helped me continue those interviews, listen to those words, work with survivors of violence, and honor the confidence they placed in me.  This wall allowed me to keep going, to not be overwhelmed by the violence, to somehow keep moving in the face of inexplicable tragedies.  Over time, I had erected this wall to keep out some of the worst emotions, and to maintain the calmness needed to do this work day after day.

But this was here.  The violence was happening.  It was now. 

There was no past tense in her words, in her blood, in her tears — this was the present moment.  And so it was unavoidable.

The walls had been broken down. 

Then, she turned again.  I saw her tears, instead of blood.  The next moments were also unforgettable: we attempted to help her as she relayed her story to the police.  She had been beaten heavily by her husband, who took a large stick and hit her head after an argument.  She tried to resist and push back, but he was relentless.  She yelled and screamed, but her neighbors did not come to her aid.  So she ran here, to the police, for help.  The moments after this were still more imprinted in my mind.  The police calmly took down her statement, informed her they would search for her husband.

We stayed with her while the police investigated the case, trying to locate her husband.  In the meantime, they told us that if she wanted to pursue prosecution, she needed a medical examination by a police-approved doctor.  We accompanied her while she spoke to her family members, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the money to even travel to the doctor for an examination, let alone pay the bribe that doctors often demand for such an examination.

The story mostly ended there.  Despite consistent pressure on the police, they too lacked the resources to track down the husband, who by that time had supposedly fled to a nearby town.

There was nothing more to be done — to my horror.

This is one story of many, but one story that has seared itself in my brain.  It is a moment in which all the walls were broken down — and I was confronted with violence in the present, before my eyes.  It was something I could not escape.

It was a story too, of heartbreak and regret. Fear that I — we — could do so little for someone who had been through so much.  Fear that there are too many barriers preventing her from having a better life: ineffective and resource-poor police; poverty; lack of healthcare; corruption; lack of financial independence; social stigma.

But a story of hope too — hope that if we identify and attack some of these barriers, change may be possible.  And hope too — because her image is with me, and will always return to remind me of the incredible work that is to be done.

A story too, to remind me: why this is all worth it.

IMG_8278Sewa river, in the backdrop of our Salone town

IMG_8362The local court, where disputes are often resolved using customary and local laws