Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins joins the Human Rights Center

Award-winning citizen journalist Eliot Higgins

Award-winning citizen journalist Eliot Higgins has joined the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law as a Research Fellow, as part of the center’s Human Rights Investigations Lab.

Higgins, founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog, is a global leader in the use of social media and other publicly available sources to investigate conflict, including human rights violations. He publishes the work of an international alliance of citizen journalists who trawl the web to document the weapons and tactics deployed in armed conflict, including the downing of flight MH17 in Ukraine and Sarin and chlorine gas attacks in Syria. According to Human Rights and Technology Program Director Keith Hiatt, “Eliot’s expertise in vehicle and munitions identification is well known, but it’s his ability to coordinate the efforts of a globally distributed team of investigators, and synthesize findings in an accessible way, that really sets him apart.”

“We’ve entered a new era of human rights investigations and Eliot Higgins is at the forefront of that work,” said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center. “We are honored to partner with Eliot and to support his groundbreaking efforts to investigate human rights abuses.”

Higgins is currently a visiting research associate at the Centre for Science and Security Studies at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. In addition, he is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, where he co-authored major reports documenting Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

The Human Rights Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley will become part of Amnesty International’s “Digital Verification Corps,” along with the University of Essex and the University of Pretoria. The center will launch the lab in January 2017.

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #7: Michele DiTomas

A prison doc’s mission to fix the system

Dr. Michele DiTomas, Chief Physician at the California Correctional Medical Facility and 1997 Human Rights Center Fellow.

As the Chief Physician at the California Correctional Medical Facility and Director of Hospice for incarcerated men, Dr. Michele DiTomas is charged with caring for some of the state’s most vulnerable people and helping to fix a broken system. When federal judge Thelton Henderson ruled in Plata v. Schwarzenegger more than a decade ago that a lack of appropriate medical care in California’s adult prisons was unconstitutional—citing “outright depravity” and egregious misconduct in the system—he ordered the federal government to enter the prison system into receivership. DiTomas was among the doctors hired to clean house. She now manages fifteen doctors who care for 2,800 inmates, at least half of whom are mentally ill or developmentally delayed. Her formal education (a Joint Medical Degree from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco) and real-world experience have prepared her well. She was in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the early 1990s carrying out famine relief work during a massive drought, in the slums of Bangkok for her Human Rights Center Fellowship in 1997, and in poor and marginalized Bay Area communities for residency and beyond. Since 2006, she’s worked tirelessly within the state’s troubled mass incarceration system.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) or the Federal Receivership. 

Q. Although you worked in Malawi and Thailand, you ultimately did your medical residency in San Francisco. Why?

A. When you’re 35 and have three kids, you realize you’re probably not going to work in a Mozambican refugee camp with Doctors Without Borders. The residency I chose was UCSF family medicine and based at SF General. You’re working with people who have serious mental illness, substance issues, socio-economic challenges, immigration issues, poverty issues. It turns out that the people who I like to take care of most are these middle-aged, intermittently incarcerated homeless men. Every day I hear a story about an experience that is very different than what I encounter in my daily life.

Q. What did Plata v. Schwarzenegger say about health-care in California’s prisons?

A. Medical care in the prisons was found to be unconstitutional. People were dying unnecessarily in their cells. They were presenting with shortness of breath, told to go back to their cells for their asthma attack, and then died of asthma. There were egregious cases. Medical care was being given by people who were not necessarily qualified to give medical care. There has been a huge change since the receiver took over. Over the last 10 years, medical care inside the system has dramatically improved.

Part of why we have such overly aggressive sentencing in our criminal justice system is because as a society we tend to put things in categories. These guys are in prison, so they must be bad. That’s not what you learn when you spend time with people and hear their stories.

Q. Where did you begin?

A. I was hired as a Chief Physician and Surgeon—half clinical and half supervisory. The combination gave me time to do clinical work, but also work on system and quality improvements. I think it would have been too frustrating to go into such a damaged system and slog through the day and see the problems but not have any time to help make the system better.

Q. Does the California Correctional Medical Center feel like a prison or a hospital? Do you ever feel unsafe?

A. Part of why we have such overly aggressive sentencing in our criminal justice system is because as a society we tend to put things in categories. These guys are in prison, so they must be bad. That’s not what you learn when you spend time with people and hear their stories. When I’m walking down the main line and all of the guys from Unit 4 at 6:30 in the morning are walking out of their unit for chow, they say, “Hey, doc” or “Hey doc, thanks for helping me.” It feels safe to me. I have felt more unsafe at SF General because there you have very mentally ill patients who aren’t getting treated and you have no officers around if something goes wrong. Unfortunately, prison has become our nation’s de facto mental health treatment system. On the inside in California people have access to treatment programs, psychiatric medications, groups. It’s when we send them back out into society that they often do not have these supports.

Q. You also oversee the state’s hospice program for incarcerated men, with 17 beds. Hospice in prison must be a bit complicated.

A. Often people are estranged from family members. They haven’t seen them in many years. Sometimes they don’t even know if anybody is alive anymore. Many times family members were the victims of the crime. Often our incredible chaplain is able to track down family members. Recently he told three daughters that their father was here in hospice and that he wanted to see them before he died so that he could make amends for all of the pain and suffering he’d caused. And they said “No, we don’t want to ever see him again.” Click. The next day they all showed up at the front gate without any clearances or anything. This man had killed his wife in an alcoholic rage. They were kids when it happened and had been terrified of this man their whole life. He was a monster to them. They come in and here’s this little old man who says, “I’m so, so sorry.” He was able to have closure and to die in peace. Even more importantly these women who are now in their 30s and 40s will be able to live the rest of their lives knowing that he asked their forgiveness and that they forgave him the best that they could.

Unfortunately, prison has become our nation’s de facto mental health treatment system.

Q. Can we let out incarcerated men who have only a short time to live?

A. There is a process of compassionate release. If a doctor determines that a patient has less than six months to live, we can petition the courts to consider the individual for release. Since one of the criteria for hospice admission is a prognosis of less than six months, we request compassionate release for all of our hospice patients. Custody then reviews the case and if the patient is thought to not be a danger to society, they will forward the case to the court or the parole board for consideration. The problem is that the process typically takes four to five months and many of our patients have only weeks to months to live. This is an area of much needed reform so that the logistics of the process do not make the goal impossible.

Q. It’s probably not great for your mental health to be in prison. Are we doing all we can for mentally ill patients?

A. That’s what surprised me most when I started working there. I didn’t understand that we incarcerate people who are floridly psychotic when they commit their crime. One of the first years I was working I was reviewing my patient’s chart and saw his psychiatry note. When he committed his crime, he had this delusion that there were huge metal plates coming down from the sky trying to crush his car. The police were chasing him, he was speeding, crashed his car and hurt people. And he was put in prison. That was a wakeup call to me. He was running from something that he truly thought was a threat and yet he ends up inside a prison. Seems like there should be an alternative for cases like this. I also didn’t realize the degree of cognitive disability that people can have and still be incarcerated. I have patients who are so challenged that they have to be reminded daily to brush their teeth, shower and eat. And with the aging prison population we are spending extraordinary amounts of money caring for demented elders who need assistance with all of their activities of daily living.

No one intended for him to die in prison and certainly no one intended for his mother to have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Q. Do you consider your work human rights work?

A. This is my biggest internal conflict. Yes, I believe access to healthcare is a human right. But it also means working within a system that, in my opinion, is an unjust system.

Q. What’s the most unjust part of that system?

A. The sentencing laws are outrageous, often with sentences vastly out of proportion to the crime. They give much too long sentences. Many of our elderly patients are absolutely not a danger to society. The risk of recidivism is very low and yet we’re keeping them inside. And that feels wrong. Another area is the overuse of administrative segregation. A man gets caught with a bag of marijuana and a cell phone—these are potential security risks because people have called hits from prison and hurt other people—but no one deserves six months in solitary because of marijuana and a cell phone.

Q. Have your patients been further harmed by solitary confinement?

A. One man I remember well was my patient for about five years. He was a paraplegic. He had been shot in the spine in his early 20s, but was really fit with a sporty wheelchair. He had a history of depression but it was controlled. After he was sent to solitary confinement because he was caught with a marijuana and a cell phone, he became profoundly depressed. He was delusional. Paranoid. He gained 40 pounds. He would come in with these paranoid ideas that I knew weren’t happening. I attempted to advocate for him several times and custody did try to expedite the process. Human Rights Watch says more than two weeks in isolation is a human rights violation. There are challenges to being part of a system that does things like that. Sometimes I feel I should leave. But then somebody thanks me for helping them get the medical care that they needed. Or I have a small success, where I feel like my actions may have done something to change the culture for the better.

 Q. Do you have an example of this?

A. We admitted a patient to hospice who had a few weeks left to live. He really wanted to speak to his daughter one last time before he died and say goodbye, but she was incarcerated as well at a woman’s prison and was in ad seg [administrative segregation, also called solitary confinement]. We worked with our Warden who got permission from the Warden at his daughter’s facility for a phone conversation. It was arranged that they would have a 15-minute conversation. Afterwards the daughter was taken to a session with her mental health provider to help her process the intense experience. Later, I got an email from a captain at the other facility thanking us for allowing him to take part in such a moving and compassionate experience. He said in 25 years as a correctional officer it was one of the most positive things he had been a part of. These sorts of experiences remind me why I continue this work.

Q. Is there any one case that really haunts you?

A. There’s one, a 35-year-old man who had been using some drugs, perhaps dealing, maybe some burglary, nothing incredibly violent. He ended up stealing his mother’s car. She was at the end of her rope and was worried she was enabling his behavior. So she called the police and he ended up getting five years, which wasn’t what she anticipated. As a child he had suffered from a rare cancer that he had survived and was thought to be cured. During his second year in prison, his cancer came back. He ended up coming to our hospice. His mother visited him all of the time and wanted nothing more than to have him come home with her. We applied for compassionate release but the cancer was aggressive and we slowly watched him go from a strong independent man to fully bed-bound. We did not think he was going to make it home and it was so hard to watch. Finally, he was granted release but custody had 14 days to let him out. I wasn’t sure he was going to make it until Monday, let alone 14 days. So Friday night at 4:55 PM we found someone to send us the official court documents and I got a promise someone would work on it over the weekend so he could leave on Monday. The most haunting part when I told him he could go on Monday was the profoundly sad look on his face. I thought he would be elated but his eyes said that he was not sure he would make it. Thankfully, he did make it until Monday and was able to go home with his mother. He died four days later. No one intended for him to die in prison and certainly no one intended for his mother to have to live with that for the rest of her life.

Q. Are you optimistic now that it seems more and more people are interested in fixing the mass incarceration system?

A. Sometimes I am optimistic and sometimes I’m not. Michael Romano is a civil rights lawyer who runs what used to be called the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford and they advocate for people with life sentences. He played a huge role in putting together Prop. 36, which changed the [thee strikes] penalty so that the third strike had to be a serious or violent offense. And it passed overwhelmingly. I think people realized the pendulum had swung too far. Usually I don’t know my patient’s crimes. I had known this one woman for a long time, a lifer, when one day she saw me in the hall and came over excitedly and said, “I’m going home!” And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “My third strike was for stealing mascara!” She got life in prison for stealing mascara. And she got out. So thanks Michael Romano. There are movements to pull the pendulum back. There’s always hope.


Human Rights Center Fellows: dispatch from the field

Children at the Dar Al-Fanon community center in the Askar Qadim refugee camp in the West Bank.
Children at a community center within a West Bank refugee camp.

West Bank children: Living in the balance between trauma and joy

A reflection from Thanh Mai, a 2016 Human Rights Center Fellow, who is working with children at a refugee camp in the West Bank. 

The Palestinians here do not own the sky. They cannot build or have anything higher than 60 meters in the air. The center is working on building and installing a flag pole that is 55 meters high, which is taller than the wall, and hoisting a huge 30 by 20 meter Palestinian flag so that it will be visible across the country. This was astounding to me because it means so much to them.

The children especially love taking photos on my phone and ask to borrow it to watch YouTube videos. They showed me a video of a wave pool at a water park, and asked if I had ever been to one. I said that I had and they got very excited, and I asked why they liked it so much and they said that it was because it was like the ocean. They got even more excited and asked me if I had ever been to the ocean, and I said yes, I live by the ocean and go swimming all the time. They said that it was their dream to see the ocean—not even go in it, just see it.

Spending time with the children in the summer camp has been very impactful since there is a general balance between the trauma and the pure joy that they experience as children. They don’t tell sad stories about their home life or cry often. They play and are more conscientious and kind than many of the children that I have met in the United States. Little stories will come out here and there, but they are just so happy to have these normal activities. They participate in traditional dance, drama, arts and crafts, and music; their abilities to process and vocalize their experiences surpassed my expectations. The first thing they wanted to draw was the Palestinian flag. The terms they asked for in English were all related to explaining the occupation and living near the wall. They love their families and they love each other, and as they grow older they come to understand more and more about how their situation is not shared by many other people in the world.

Human Rights Center Fellows: dispatch from the field

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A women’s agricultural group working with Nari Gunjan in India.

Working with Nari Gunjan (Women’s Voice), India

The mission of the Nari Gunjan in Bihar State in India is to socio-politically, economically, and physically empower the Scheduled caste girls and women, particularly the Musahar, through the medium of education. Founded in 1987 by Sudha Varghese, the organization is providing elementary education as well as vocational and life skills training to over 3,000 girls at alternative educational centers in 40 villages. Woojin is assisting Nari Gunjan in creating a rights-based monitoring and evaluation framework to determine the developmental and human rights impact of the program.

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

Excerpt from Woojin Jung’s report from the field:

In 1987, Sudha, who was from a prosperous family in Kerala, moved to a cluster of mud houses in Jamsaut village in Bihar and began helping the Musahar. A Musahar girl, Lalmati, lived in the same village where Sudha had settled. Her family was the poorest of the poor, living in a deplorable situation. They lived in a small hut in tolla (Musahar Settlement). Because her parents were older, nobody would give them work. So her mother collected paddy and grains while her father went to fish with a fishing rod. They also grew vegetables, ate, and sold the rest.

For some reason, Lalmati was older than her classmates. When she came back home from school, she had much work to do. She cut rice, cooked food for her family, took care of the elderly and young brothers and sisters, and fed goats and cows. By the time she finished all the household chores, it was already evening. She could not afford a lantern, so ran to Sudha didi (big sister)’s house. There, she studied by the light of a bulb.

Late in the evening, most of the families in her community came to talk with Sudha about their struggles—from sexual violence, to minimum wages, caste issues, tensions between next tola, and health problems. Lalmati spent much time listening to Sudha and developed different ways of looking at her surroundings. After all the families left, Sudha shared her dinner with Lamati, who would then fall asleep.

In 1987, Sudha converted a latrine into a classroom in her village, and launched a learning center for adolescent girls. The center provided alternative education for children who were left out of the formal education system. At first Sudha taught the girls, but later could not teach them because she was starting education centers in other villages.

Teachers hired from outside the community did not come on time and did not want to sit close to the children from the Musahar, who were in the lowest rung of the caste system. Facing discrimination similar to what they experienced in public schools, the children were reluctant to come to the center. So, Sudha had to change teachers two or three times.

Looking at Lalmati, Sudha thought, “Why don’t I give her a chance?” and asked her, “Can you teach? I can pay you exactly what I pay for the teacher.” With Lalmati from the same Musahar community, children felt at home and did not miss classes. She received 750 rupees per month and saved the money to take care of her parents.

With Nari Gunjan’s program, many Musahar girls started to become more passionate about being educated and even getting jobs. Still, child marriage remains a crippling cause of poor enrollment and attainment in girls’ education. Parents fear that when their daughters get older they will not find a suitable boy and that the more educated their daughters, the more dowry their in-laws will demand.

Lalmati is the first girl to complete the secondary school and became employed at the government school. As a teacher and a mother of two, she demonstrates the ripple effect of education by sharing her knowledge and experience with the next generation, and by helping young people to achieve an equal right to education. On the wall of Prerna hostel, it says “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” She clearly sets an example.



Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #6: Julie Freccero

Scoping mission: How do we protect refugee children from sexual violence?


Julie Freccero meets with a Serbian police official in March 2016.

Julie Freccero, associate director of the Human Rights Center’s Sexual Violence Program, visited Greece, Serbia, and Germany during a research scoping mission in March to learn about the needs of refugees—particularly refugee children—and their vulnerabilities to trafficking and sexual violence. The scoping team, which also included Kim Thuy Seelinger, director of the  Sexual Violence Program, and Rich Weir, Berkeley Law JD ’16, interviewed government officials, service providers, and advocates. In Greece, they found that refugees lacked access to safe shelters and even basic medical services for sexual violence. HRC researchers will return to Greece later this year to assess the needs of unaccompanied refugee children, in hopes of improving protection and support services. Freccero shares her initial impressions of this crisis. 

Q. What did you learn about the plight of refugee children in Greece?

A. An estimated 22,000 refugee children are stranded in Greece, and around 2,000 of them are unaccompanied by an adult. Some of the unaccompanied children were separated from a parent somewhere along the journey, but many of them actually started on this route on their own. According to EKKA, which is the National Center for Social Solidarity in Greece, over 90 percent of unaccompanied children are adolescent boys between the ages of 14 and 17. Many of them are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and countries in North Africa. More recently, Syrian boys have been traveling on their own.

Q. What efforts are made to identify and protect these children?

A. It’s important to note that the refugee situation in Greece is changing on a daily basis. But when I was in Lesvos in March, it was actually a Frontex border officer and a police officer who determined if the child was under 18 at the time of registration. They didn’t have any training in age assessment and weren’t using any standard process. Children were often claiming to be over 18 so they didn’t get stuck in the child protection system in Greece. They wanted to continue on to Germany, Sweden, or other destinations.

Children were detained until the social services agency in Greece placed them in a shelter for unaccompanied minors in mainland Greece. The Greek government was calling it “protective custody,” but it was definitely detention. I went to the camp in Lesvos where children were confined to a small area with this tall barbed wire fence around it. They were not able to freely walk around the camp. NGOs were raising a lot of concerns—that girls and boys were being housed together, that these areas had no oversight or management, and that they didn’t have sufficient access to psychosocial support services.


“Unaccompanied children are worse off since the formal closure of the Balkans route. Now all the shelters are full because children are no longer leaving to cross borders. When I was there in the Spring, there was a list of over 200 unaccompanied minors waiting for shelter beds. So even though they are being identified, there’s literally nowhere to place them now.”


Q. What is the strategy for protecting refugee children?

A. Before the borders closed in April, approximately 80 percent of the kids were running away from these shelters for unaccompanied children within two or three days. They just wanted to continue on the migration path. There was a lot of debate among child protection providers about whether they should even be helping the children to register as unaccompanied. Some felt that you couldn’t just send children off on the Balkans route where they would be exposed to trafficking and other kinds of exploitation or abuse. Other providers felt that when you put them in the Greek shelter system, you separated them from their peer group—literally their only form of social support—and because they would leave anyway, this was actually putting them at risk of greater harm.

Q. What changed when the borders closed? Where are most of these children now?

A. Unaccompanied children are worse off since the formal closure of the Balkans route. Now all the shelters are full because children are no longer leaving to cross borders. When I was there in the Spring, there was a list of over 200 unaccompanied minors waiting for shelter beds. So even though they are being identified, there’s literally nowhere to place them now. They’re staying for longer periods of time in detention centers and police facilities. They’re in overcrowded camps with the general population. Many of them are on the streets, near Piraeus Port in Athens, Victoria Square and the surrounding area, and other parts of the city. Having been stranded in Greece for months, many of these children are running out of money and are increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and survival sex. And with only illegal options to continue to their migration, they’re also increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and more dangerous smuggling routes.

Q. What did you learn about risks of sexual and gender-based violence faced by refugees in Greece?

A. We heard a lot about rape and sexual assault by smugglers, by border authorities, and police officers, while people are in transit—particularly in Turkey. We heard a lot about sexual exploitation. Some people run out of money or robbed along the way and end up exchanging sex to continue to cross borders. There were a lot of concerns about young boys from Afghanistan and Pakistan, that they were being sexually exploited in some of the parks in Athens.

We also heard from service providers that there had been more reports of domestic and sexual violence in the camps once people became stranded and were staying for weeks instead of days. I spent one day in Eleonas, a refugee camp in Athens, and just during that time, we heard about four cases of domestic violence. One of them was a pregnant woman. It was a really urgent case. She wanted to be transferred to a safe shelter. They couldn’t find a place for her.

Q. Are we protecting refugees of all ages from sexual violence in the camps?

A. Sexual- and gender-based violence has been one of the most neglected aspects of this humanitarian response. The UN IASC guidelines for addressing GBV in humanitarian settings state that you should assume that gender-based violence is happening in crisis settings, regardless of the availability of data. Gender-based violence services are considered life-saving services and should be put in place at the earliest stages of humanitarian response. When I was there in March, there was very little in place for survivors who come forward. Even basic medical services for sexual assault, such as post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, weren’t available in most of the camp areas.

After a year of virtually no action, there is finally acknowledgement that SGBV is happening, and that prevention and response measures must be put in place. We’ve learned about recent progress in this area—there are now gender-based violence sub-working groups in every region, more NGOs planning GBV-related activities, and dialogue about how to respond is taking place. Hopefully soon this will be soon be accompanied by actual services.

Q. Is Greece up to this challenge?

The emergency has really shed light on these huge gaps in Greece’s own public systems. Service providers talked a lot about how services were cut back in the economic crisis. There are more than 50,000 refugees still stranded in Greece. So when we talk about sustainability and linking refugees to mainstream health and social services, this is a huge challenge. The systems were already strained before the refugee crisis. We met with some Greek NGOs that are doing some amazing work with unaccompanied and separated refugee youth—providing shelter, family reunification, and integration services—but the need is huge and capacity is limited.

Since Greece has transitioned from a transit country to a protracted refugee situation, and as new camps continue to be established, it’s critical to make sure GBV prevention and protection measures are part of the planning.

Human Rights Q&A #5: Noah Novogrodsky

Theory to the practice and practice to the theory

NoahNoah Novogrodsky Novogrodsky’s work in human rights is sprawling—from championing marriage equality to challenging “seafood slavery” to defending the health of Ugandan mothers to analyzing the Islamic State. What binds it all together is a commitment to fusing legal theory and academic scholarship with an unwavering eye on the prize: the practical impact on human rights. He is the co-director of the Center for International Human Rights Law & Advocacy and a professor of law at the University of Wyoming. He was also the founding director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. The father of two, Novogrodsky is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Human Rights Center this year while his wife, also a University of Wyoming professor, conducts research in her field of cultural history.

 Q. What sparked your career in human rights?

A. I read about the work that Harold Koh was doing at Yale Law School on behalf of Haitian refugees trying to get to the United States who were intercepted and taken to Guantánamo Bay. You don’t need a lot of reasons to go to Yale for law school, but I had an extra one in that I was studying international relations in graduate school at Cambridge but there was a human face to the work that folks were doing at Yale. When I went into academia, I was influenced by both the practice and scholarship of Yale Law School. I’ve tried to keep my foot in both worlds ever since.

Q. What does “practice and scholarship” mean to you?

A. I think there is a problem with academics in general when they become too far removed from real-world issues. If they are only operating at the theoretical level, it’s hard to test their ideas and see if they are applicable as problem-solving or framing devices. The practitioners are in the trenches every day and sometimes they don’t get to think beyond their immediate circumstances and more holistically about law and society and what it means to be an advocate for social justice. I think that the best practitioners draw from interesting ideas, many of them theoretical concepts, and the best scholarship, research, and writing is informed by real world events and practice. I’ve tried to bring theory to the practice and practice to the theory.

“There are some times when it is disappointing, but I draw a distinction between disappointment and discouragement.”


Q. Is academic scholarship compromised when it is influenced by advocates?

A. Some academics are pretty elitist and they don’t want to be sullied by practitioners so they turn out constitutional tomes that have very little applicability in practice. I believe the sweet spot for an academic is to be able to step outside of the trenches occasionally and pay attention to interesting scholarly developments and bring some of those ideas and influences to your work as a practitioner.

Q. Is that what we do here at Berkeley?

A. One of the things I like about the Human Rights Center at Berkeley is that the investigative reports that come out of this office have application for both academic scholarship and real-world human rights advocacy. It starts with excellent research and analysis and writing in clear unexaggerated terms. Human Rights Center reports are a reflection of real problems and how people are negotiating the resolution of those problems, as opposed to an aspirational document about a vague duty that may crystallize in the future but doesn’t exist right now. I think studies of victim participation at the International Criminal Court or sexual violence experienced by migrants have practical and institutional implications for how we do this work better or more sensitively or in ways that are for victims or in support of human rights and the rule of law. It’s my go-to resource for academic writing on similar topics. I’m concerned about academics who fall in love with an idea and don’t test it against a reality.

Q. We tend to think of the United States as a great leader on the marriage equality front, but it’s not necessarily so.

A. The United States is both a leader and a laggard, because some states were out front and others resisted. Some of our state supreme courts came up with loony ideas about marriage. The Indiana Supreme Court, for example, ruled that marriage exists to save the children of unwed teenagers from bastard status. They were down to one, decidedly unromantic, reason for limiting marriage to opposite sex couples: to give a status incentive, usually to young people who accidentally get pregnant, to rescue them and their unborn children from stigma and discrimination.

Q. What’s the gist of the amicus brief on marriage equality that you drafted and filed in the U.S. Supreme Court? 

A. The struggle for marriage equality has played out in human rights terms and has occurred with dizzying speed. In a dozen years we went from one or two states experimenting to 50-state marriage equality. That is in a sense a whole generational or multigenerational civil rights project playing out in a 12-month period. The Obergefell case asked whether same sex marriage should be a legal possibility in all 50 states. The claim we made in the brief was that the United States does not exist in isolation and that we can learn from developments in other constitutional democracies and how we determine constitutional rights and principles influences what happens in other countries. We are not an island. The lead author [of the amicus brief] was [Yale’s] Harold Koh. The argument that the six professor amici made in this case was that principles of dignity and equality in our Constitution have been interpreted by the Supreme Courts of other nations to allow marriage equality. About twenty countries globally now allow same-sex marriage. The trend is undeniable. From Canada to Argentina, they have all embraced marriage equality for reasons of the dignity of the participants and the notion that it is unseemly for the state to create separate and unequal forms of legal partnership. We made the argument that in this circumstance, the U.S. could learn from other countries that have, in turn, learned from us on issues of dignity, equality, and liberty.

Q. You are working on another landmark case halfway around the world, to improve maternal health in Uganda.

A. I’m involved in an interesting case in partnership with a Ugandan NGO—a challenge under the Ugandan Constitution to provide safe Cesarean sections and other emergency obstetrics to pregnant women. Uganda has an appallingly high mortality rate. It also has a constitution that contains protections for women and children. The claim in that case is that right to life and right to health mean that women should be able to give birth in as safe an environment as possible. In Uganda, poor women sometimes have a hard time getting to hospitals and clinics to deliver and women who need C-sections often don’t get them because they don’t get the medicine or procedure to deliver babies safely. Somewhere on the order of sixteen women a day on average die in childbirth in Uganda. That’s almost fifty times the death rate of the United States and other developed countries and seven times that of neighboring Rwanda, which has a similar GDP.

I was asked to join the case after a Ugandan Court issued an adverse ruling based on a misreading of the U.S. law, specifically the political question doctrine.  Our role was to help our allies appeal that issue to the Ugandan Supreme Court.  We helped to contribute briefing material for the local lawyers who argued the case and helped them to construct an argument about the role of the judiciary, based largely on US law.

My 13-year old daughter, Ruby, said I had done good work on the Uganda case and that mattered to me. David is 9. He’s concerned about Star Wars and fighting injustice on that level.


Q. How is this case about North-South collaboration?

A. There are many lessons in this case. We should think hard about the right times for us to share our experience with foreign advocates and human rights activists. It’s very rarely appropriate for us to say, ‘that’s how we do things in the US and you should do it here.’ We don’t want to be neocolonialists and we don’t want to be telling the rest of the world how to behave. But in a case that interprets US law, we have a lot to say. The work in Uganda pairs nicely with the same sex marriage case because effective human rights advocacy needs to be a two-way street. We need to be sharing the best of what happens here with partners internationally and we need to be importing positive developments internationally.

Q. You’re an expert on failed states and what constitutes a state. Why does it matter?

A. I’m writing an article that asks whether ISIS is a state. The Montevideo Convention is the international building block for ‘what is a state’ and it has only four criteria: a permanent population, a government, a territory, and the ability to enter into negotiations with other states. The state doesn’t need to be representative or democratic or secular or even constitutive of the hopes and aspirations of people in the unit. It’s an authority on a piece of territory that can negotiate with its neighbors and defines where one state starts and another one begins. It could be a capitalist state. A monarchy. A radical Communist state. It’s still a state if it meets the minimum criteria.

The Islamic State is challenging some of our core notions of what it means to be a state. Scholars have long recognized that the Montevideo Convention is an incomplete analysis of what constitutes a real country, but the Islamic State is calling itself a state. Unlike Boko Haram or al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations that use violence to further their aims, the Islamic State has territory under its control. It has imposed an austere and authoritarian government structure. It has engaged in horrific human rights abuses of the population it dominates. But that’s no different than other states.

 Q. Who decides if a state is a state?

A. Ultimately, the State Department here and foreign ministries of other states make determinations about when they will recognize other countries and when they won’t. Usually when there are strong political or economic interests that equation looks different than instances when there aren’t. Very few Americans have a stake in the question of whether East Timor becomes a sovereign nation and not part of Indonesia. But there are a lot of Americans who care deeply on both sides of the issue about whether Palestine is recognized as a sovereign state. Part of my agenda here is to help distinguish between the Kurds and the Palestinians, who clearly meet international legal standards for statehood, and the Islamic State, which offends our sensibilities with its horrific abuses. We need a reason for denying statehood. One of the problems is that existing states commit atrocities all of the time. It’s a little rich to tell a would-be state that it cannot be a state. I think part of getting a seat at the table is signing on to international conventions and making commitments and promising to respect borders and boundaries. And with statehood comes immunity from prosecution. Before we talk about the Islamic State becoming a state, it’s reasonable that we demand that it refrain from massacring groups or throwing gay men off of buildings or committing other barbaric acts.

Q. We have learned, in recent months, that shrimp, tuna, and other fish we buy at our local stores may have been caught by men who are literally enslaved on fishing boats. How can this be and what are we doing about it?

A.The Human Rights Clinic in Wyoming has been involved in a project to study possible remedies to this odious practice of seafood slavery. There’s a lot of expertise at Berkeley on the same issue. So some of this is a question of forced labor and of other forms of modern slavery and [Human Rights Center Faculty Director] Eric Stover and others at Berkeley have written extensively of the rights abuses and implications of global and domestic forced labor. Seafood slavery is a relevant and understandable problem: individuals are being duped or coerced to work, not paid for their labor, and sometimes locked in with the fish. The Guardian and others have exposed the abuses. There are companies like Costco and Purina that don’t actively want to abet human rights violations but are buying cost-competitive goods for sale here from suppliers that have a lot of blood on their hands. Most businesses, certainly those with a brand that can be punished by consumers in the marketplace, don’t want to be associated with violations. We need to move to a whole other level of concerted advocacy and coordinated actions and that might take the form of legal regulations in deveoped countries or cracking down on the worst abusers at the source. It might take the form of consumer boycotts or changes in behavior. There are a lot of ways of addressing and trying to correct for a problem once we know it exists.

Q. Have you seen any changes since you started to work on this issue?

A. I think there is a concern among the big players in the seafood industry and they are trying to certify that they aren’t sourcing their fish from certain places. But corporate social responsibility is notoriously voluntary. Some consumers are starting to wonder where their seafood comes from and whether getting seafood at affordable prices is worth it if we know what goes into production….I think we’re at a pretty early stage of exposing the violations.

Q. Do you talk to your young children about your work?

A. My 13-year old daughter, Ruby, said I had done good work on the Uganda case and that mattered to me. David is 9. He’s concerned about Star Wars and fighting injustice on that level.

Q. Do you ever get overwhelmed with the urgency and amount of work there is to do for human rights and feel your work is just a drop in the bucket?

A. Like Bob Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, I think I’m a happy warrior. You’ve got to do something that gives you energy. One of the reasons I left a corporate law firm for a less lucrative career is that I don’t find myself watching the clock. I feel inspired to work on a range of issues. I feel privileged. There are some times when it is disappointing, but I draw a distinction between disappointment and discouragement. If you have a privileged tenured position like I do, you get wide latitude to make all sorts of contributions. I have great sympathy for people who work in the trenches on issues that are hard to confront every day. The psychologists working in war zones or the rape counselors in the eastern Congo or the journalists covering the Yazidi survivors of ISIS assaults. I think that can be so dispiriting that it’s hard to go to work the next day. I remember how fortunate I am when I go back to my academic office, and I have students who are lined up and eager to join me in this work.

Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #4: Danny Murillo

Sharing his life to change lives

Danny Murillo1
Danny Murillo, Co-Founder of the Underground Scholars Initiative at UC Berkeley

Danny Murillo grew up on the “one-way streets” of Norwalk, California, southeast of Los Angeles, at the height of the crack epidemic in the early 1990s, landing in a California prison before he could even vote. At first he just learned how to be a smarter prisoner, to work the system, to survive. Facing solitary confinement in the Security Housing Unit of Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City with more than five years to go on his 15-year sentence, Murillo found the people (mainly cell mates or fellow prisoners on the yard) and the books (Voltaire and Galeano) that shifted his focus to scholarship and began to transform his life. Upon his release at age 31, he finished his AA degree and was then accepted at several University of California schools. He chose UC Berkeley, where he become a Ronald McNair Scholar and a Peter E. Haas Public Service Leader. Murillo, the middle of five siblings, co-founded the Underground Scholars Initiative, a network of formerly incarcerated students and family members that is thriving today. Now he is working at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York and the NJ-STEP Mountainview Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey—serving formerly incarcerated people and helping carve pathways to college. He is a John W. Gardner Fellow in Public Service at the University of California, Berkeley. Murillo returned to UC Berkeley in February for The [in]Justice System series on California prisons. 

Q. How would you describe your neighborhood growing up?

I grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American/Chicano neighborhood [in an area known to some as the “one-ways”]. I saw three gang-related shootings before the age of 13. By the time I got to the third one, it was already very normalized. The first one, when I was about 8 years old, happened on my block. The next day, I was scared to even walk out to the corner.

The second time, I was at baseball practice. Not far from baseball field was the basketball court where young men were playing. Other men came out and started shooting. I just hit the ground. It was interesting because my baseball coach, who never experienced this, just started running around. I remember he asked me, ‘How did you know what to do?’

The first time I was placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station, I was 8 years old.

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Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #3: Hernán Reyes

Watching the world’s prisons

Hernan speaking on prison panelDr. Hernán Reyes thought he was signing up for a brief stint with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after finishing his medical studies and specialization as an Ob/Gyn.  The job turned into a passion and a three-decade career, taking him to hundreds of prisons worldwide to document and bear witness to torture and other abuses. While most people are aware of the Red Cross—especially the country-specific American Red Cross, French Red Cross or Turkish Red Crescent—the ICRC itself is less known. The organization was launched in 1863 with the first Geneva Convention to ensure that the battlefield wounded weren’t left to suffer and die. Later, the ICRC helped implement wartime protocols to protect prisoners of war. The son of a United Nations translator, Reyes was born in Chile and raised in New York and Geneva. Reyes is retired from the ICRC now, living with his wife in Geneva, and serving as a Human Rights Center Senior Fellow. His grown children are traveling (and positively impacting) the world. He recently visited UC Berkeley to speak on a panel about prison conditions, solitary confinement, and hunger strikes.

Q. Your career path in medicine shifted pretty radically, from obstetrics to prisons. How did that happen?

A. I knocked on the ICRC’s door, thinking they might need a gynecologist. They said no, we need surgeons or midwives, not a gynecologist. But would you be interested in looking into prisons and prison medicine?…The last delivery I did was my youngest daughter who is now 24! All in all, I’ve spent 28 years working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting hundreds of prisons in more than 40 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and practically everything in the middle, including Guantánamo and Maze prison in the UK—the worst and the best, and the most gruesome prisons you can imagine.

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Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #2 Keramet Reiter

Shedding light on solitary


UC Irvine Professor Keramet Reiter is one of the nation’s leading experts on U.S. prisons, solitary confinement, and mental health. From her first blog post on crime and delinquency as a Human Rights Center Fellow at UC Berkeley in 2010 to her new book (co-edited with Human Rights Center Executive Director Alexa Koenig) Extreme Punishment: Comparative Studies in Detention, Incarceration and Solitary Confinement, Reiter has illuminated egregious flaws in the United States prison system. Her forthcoming Prisons within Prisons: The Hidden Hell of the American Supermax is due out from Yale University Press next year. Reiter recently came back to Berkeley (where she earned her Ph.D. in Jurisprudence and Social Policy in 2012) to speak about the court settlement spurred by Pelican Bay prisoners that ended indefinite detention in solitary confinement in California.

Why did you start studying prisons?

While I was in college in Boston I worked with the American Friends Service committee, which is a Quaker organization that has historically done prison reform work. They were just beginning to look at solitary confinement issues in Massachusetts. That’s when I first learned about it as a practice that people were thinking about challenging.

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On #CalBigGive: Students at the heart of HRC’s work

The Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law is known around the world for our research and investigations. But here on the UC Berkeley campus, we’re also known by students for something else: human rights education. Last spring, close to 100 students took the legal studies class our Executive Director Alexa Koenig taught along with our Faculty Director Eric Stover. One of the students, Sayaka Ri, shared with us how this class changed the trajectory of her life:

“There are few classes at Berkeley that have the ability to redefine a student’s academic career….From the start of the semester, it was clear that Professor Stover and Koenig were not only interested in lecturing about human rights, but were invested in developing the next generation of human rights activists. Lectures were invigorating, discussion sections were thought-provoking and office hours were mentoring sessions, where the professors did everything within their capability to realize your aspirations. Through personal experience, after Professor Stover’s health and human rights lecture and many office hours with Professor Koenig, LS 154 helped me discover my passion towards medicine and human rights, allowed me to critically and skillfully apply lecture material to research projects in the Human Rights Center and introduced me to a summer internship in New York with Physicians for Human Rights that changed and consolidated my life pursuits entirely. For these opportunities, enrolling in LS 154 has been one of the most invaluable decisions I have made and know that this class and its exceptional professors will be pivotal for the lives of many Cal students to come.”

Powerful perspectives from students like Sayaka have led us to think of new ways to engage undergraduates in research. In 2016, the Human Rights Center will work on the following projects:

    • Expand our course on human rights to include research methodologies and an engaged research project—both to strengthen undergraduate research opportunities at UC Berkeley and increase the number of undergraduate students prepared to participate in graduate-level work.
    • Launch a human rights tech lab to engage students in real-world coding and programming projects focused on addressing human rights challenges. Students will also learn how digital technologies are becoming increasingly critical to human rights investigations, research, and legal practice.
    • Award our coveted Human Rights Center Fellowships to undergraduates. To date, we’ve enabled 275 fellows, mostly graduate students, to work on the front lines with international human rights organizations, and we hope to give select undergrads the same life-changing opportunity.

Our strongest and most important collaborations over the past twenty years have been with students, and we believe that focusing on students will lead to both a stronger human rights movement and a more optimistic future. The next generation of human rights researchers and advocates is right here at Berkeley.

To make these projects possible, we need your help. Each year, the Human Rights Center must raise more than 95 percent of our budget from grants as well as from individuals and BIG GIVE is a great time to give! Every tax-deductible gift we receive directly benefit students by providing new human rights research opportunities—opportunities that will contribute to human rights globally and empower the next generation of scholars, lawyers, and advocates to harness their world-class education for good.Donations of any size will help the Human Rights Center win day of contests and prize money, increasing the impact of your gift.

Click here to donate to the Human Rights Center today. Any amount is a contribution to our work.