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Harvard Law School alum Steven Donziger recently marked his 900th day in detention. Donziger represented victims of oil dumping in a landmark case against Chevron in Ecuador and has since faced serious intimidation and harassment, including mishandling of his trial.
This high-profile case has garnered the support of Amnesty International, a UN Human Rights working group, members of Congress, 68 Nobel laureates, and others, with some calling on the Department of Justice to intervene.
Here at Harvard, Law Professor Charles Nesson has steadfastly spoken out in Donziger’s defense. Harvard Law students joined a letter signed by peers at 55 leading law schools, calling for Donziger’s prosecution to be reviewed. In Fall 2021, with the support of the Human Rights Profession Interest Council at Harvard Kennedy School, I coordinated a petition for Harvard students and alumni to support Donziger that more than 1,600 people have signed onto. This public support is overwhelming, and continued pressure is needed in order for Donziger to achieve justice.
So why hasn’t the Harvard administration spoken up?
The school is quick to parade its most controversial alumni. They have no qualms honoring alum Henry A. Kissinger ’50, who orchestrated widespread war crimes in Cambodia. They were eager to invite Harvard drop-out Mark Zuckerberg to give the College’s 2017 Commencement speech, shortly after Facebook’s incriminating role in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Harvard has shown that it is willing to take risks for certain kinds of alumni.
This makes their silence on human rights defenders all the more deafening.
Harvard trains students to be leaders and to act courageously to create a better world. Many students in my program at the Harvard Kennedy School graduate into high-risk careers, combatting authoritarianism, fighting for indigenous rights, or working on environmental accountability. Graduates have been detained for their work, from the 1992 imprisonment of HKS alum Jeffrey G. Kitingan in Malaysia to the 2012 imprisonment of HKS alum Bakhtiyar Hajiyev in Azerbaijan.
Just last year, HKS alum Erendro Leichombam was detained in India for a Facebook post criticizing Bharatiya Janata Party members’ approach to Covid-19. While Harvard alumni launched a petition for his release, and the Harvard Graduate Student Union lent its public support, these actions could only go so far.
Harvard alumni have been targeted for their human rights work in the past and will continue to be in the future. They deserve more than one-off petitions and scrambling students. Harvard is one of the most powerful educational institutions in the world; surely we can do more.
These targeted alumni are a part of a larger story. 2020 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists around the world, particularly for Indigenous people and the Global South. Of course, those who graduate from Harvard schools have privileges and protections not afforded to many. Donziger is a white American man with a Harvard Law degree who benefits from respectability politics, and we should critically consider why his case has received more attention than most.
But that is just it. The more we understand and leverage the connections between these cases, the more human rights defenders can receive the attention and advocacy they deserve. These are not isolated incidents. When the next HKS or HLS alum is inevitably threatened or detained, I hope we remember they are connected to a long lineage of targeted alumni and a vast community of targeted activists around the world.
Harvard has taken an important step with the Scholars at Risk program, established more than 20 years ago to offer respite to persecuted scholars, artists, and writers from around the world. Harvard should expand this commitment, devoting significant resources to the defense of human rights, with particular attention to indigenous, women, queer, poor, and otherwise marginalized activists.
It is time to support our alumni at risk, too. Harvard should develop contingency plans that allow the administration to evaluate a situation, get in touch with the detained alum’s close contacts, and consider a range of private and public support measures. At the very least, the administration should be receptive to student campaigns that request the school to make a public statement or intervene in support of a member of our community.
Harvard needs to take responsibility for the human rights defenders it trains. It needs to create a real, ongoing, accessible infrastructure of support. And it needs to start today.
Rachel E. Carle is a second-year Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.
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