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Editorials

Human Rights, Bolivia, and the Best of Harvard Law

By Truong L. Nguyen
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

In the last few months alone, we’ve seen several high-profile Harvard Law School graduates grace the news with unseemly headlines: vacationing during a massively impactful crisis, distorting the truth through non-stop falsities, or engaging in inappropriate use of governmental resources. The trend makes it tempting to view Harvard’s legal education as a corrupting force.

But it isn’t, or at least it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes our Law School can make us proud, with brave alumni who showcase the very best of our ideals and ambitions — the very best of Harvard, even.

Last month was such an occasion. After over a decade’s worth of litigation, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic secured a landmark victory: A federal judge upheld a 2018 ruling that sentenced former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and former Bolivian defense minister José Carlos Sánchez Berzaín to $10 million in compensatory damages for their role in the 2003 massacre of Indigenous Bolivians.

The decision brings some closure to a dark chapter of Bolivian history, a tiny but long overdue slice of justice to the families of the victims of state-organized violence. It offers some solace to those who, in the aftermath of massive protests against a government plan to export natural gas through Chile, witnessed how their own government instructed the military to turn violently against its own citizens.

The original suit, filed in 2007 by HLS’s International Human Rights Clinic at the insistence of then second-year student Thomas B. Becker, charged Bolivia’s former officials with ordering the killings of 67 civilians. The two officials had fled Bolivia for the United States, but Becker believed that justice could follow them here and he found a way to make it happen. This case marked the first time that a former head of state sat before his accusers in a U.S. human rights trial.

Notably, the case was filed on behalf of 10 members of Bolivia’s Indigenous population, and named after the two plaintiffs, Etelvina Ramos Mamani and Eloy Rojas Mamani, who lost their eight-year-old daughter to stray bullet. In the words of the current International Human Rights Clinic co-director Susan H. Farbstein, the case was “driven and led by the plaintiffs” who, despite immense personal loss, chose to fight back. We commend them for their strength, perseverance, and the crucial part they played in a historic legal victory — and we hope that this ruling will bring them some solace.

This case is a shining example of the power of the Law School’s clinics and student-driven efforts. It proves, pretty decisively, that our education — at the Law School, and perhaps the College — doesn’t have to remain untethered from the world around us; it exemplifies the virtues of showing students the pathway to future careers in meaningful, but frequently less remunerative, fields.

The impact of this clinic and similar initiatives, of equipping our peers with a substantial understanding and appreciation for human rights and a variety of other causes, can’t be understated. Harvard’s mission, after all, is to train the citizen leaders of tomorrow — sometimes, this is best done outside a classroom.

The Law School’s clinics are not infallible (few things are), and there are times when we may disagree with the actions they take. Yet, without reservation — a phrase rarely used by this Editorial Board — we commend the International Human Rights Clinic’s role in this case, and congratulate those involved, especially the plaintiffs, on this important victory,

Perhaps the chief lesson to be learned from this success is that genuine, compassionate conviction can take our alumni far. We hope to see more of it, for the sake of both Harvard and the world it hopes to lead.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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