Latest Blog Entries

The IHR Clinic blog is written and edited by students and recent alums of the University of Chicago Law School. The blog examines contemporary issues in human rights, as well as social, political and cultural events viewed through the lens of human rights. 

Protecting Unsympathetic Defendants, from the United States to Pakistan

Alli Hugi, Class of 2018
as featured in The Huffington Post
April 17, 2017

Following a brutal gang rape in New Delhi in 2012, there were calls in India to punish rape with a mandatory death sentence, starting with the perpetrators of that crime (one of whom was seventeen years old).

In contrast, when Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani woman famous for posting “provocative” selfies online, was killed by her brother in 2016 for bringing shame to their family, some felt that justice had been served.

As a law student in the University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, I have been struggling to balance these divergent reactions to violence against women. On the one hand, those calling for harsh sentences and processes that invariably result in convictions seem willing to weaken the safeguards their justice system has created for the accused. American colleges, for example, have sometimes reacted to high-profile sexual assaults on campuses by adopting internal processes that don’t allow accused parties to have lawyers argue on their behalf, access the evidence against them, or cross-examine witnesses.

On the other hand, the reactions to Baloch’s murder clearly demonstrate that, in many regions, progress is yet to be made before violence against women is treated as it should be.

This tension has been illustrated to me by a project I am currently working on in the Clinic with the Punjab government in Pakistan to support implementation of the state’s Protection of Women Against Violence Act. The Act, which was passed last year, is an ambitious, progressive law that sets up one-stop centers to provide women who have experienced violence with legal, medical, and counseling resources. I am working with an inspiring group of psychologists, prosecutors, police officers, and policy makers in Pakistan committed to fully investigating and prosecuting violence against women and providing these women with the services they need. The first center opened last month.

One of the many goals of our work has been to make sure that thorough prosecution of instances of domestic violence—a central goal of the Act—does not lead to the erosion of protections for the accused that serve as the backbone of a modern criminal justice system and effective rule of law.

Protecting the rights of those accused of violence against women in Pakistan takes place against a bleak backdrop for women’s rights. Almost nine in ten Pakistani women have faced domestic violence in their lifetime. 2014 saw over 10,000 reported cases of violence against women, including 1,000 “honor killings,” like Baloch’s. Domestic violence has historically been considered a private, family matter in the country. Sections of the influential religious community have derided the Punjab Act, claiming it will destroy the family by increasing divorce rates and changing power dynamics between men and women.

Dangers of Solitary Confinement, by Angel Bohannon (Fourth Year, BA)

In the United States, solitary confinement used as a form of incarceration drastically increased in the 1980s. The increase was due in large part to an attempt to control prisoners and reduce violence in overcrowded prisons. Supermax or super-maximum security prisons rely heavily on solitary confinement to house and punish the most dangerous criminals. However, solitary confinement of over 15 days adversely affects mental health in prisoners and it has not been shown to have an effect on levels of prisoner violence or recidivism rates. The practice also violates the UN Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Extended solitary confinement for over 15 days should therefore be banned.

Solitary confinement isolates prisoners in a small concrete cell for about 23 hours a day. Food slides through a slot in the door and is eaten alone. Exercise consists of pacing in the small cell. The extreme mental and physical isolation of solitary confinement leads to a significant deterioration of mental health among prisoners, especially those with pre-existing mental conditions. A literature review of four decades of published studies on extended solitary confinement by Professor Craig Haney shows negative mental effects, such as panic, rage, paranoia, self-mutilations, and insomnia.[1] A study by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shows that solitary confinement increases the propensity to self-harm. Fifty-three percent of the 2182 acts of self-harm in the New York City jail system from 2010 to 2013 were done by prisoners in solitary confinement, even though they only represented 7.3% of the general prison population.[2] Furthermore, a study of Danish prisons shows that prisoners subject to solitary confinement for longer than four weeks were 20 times more likely to be put in the hospital for psychiatric reasons.[3]

These negative mental health effects are particularly damaging to those with pre-existing mental illnesses. Prisoners with pre-existing mental health problems are four times more likely to be held in solitary confinement, according to a Washington State study. The ACLU’s National Prison Project shows that, given the especially severe effects of solitary confinement on the mentally ill, every claim in federal court made by mentally ill prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement has been found valid.

In addition to having negative mental health effects, solitary confinement does not achieve its intended goals of reducing violence among prisoners or decreasing recidivism. The opening of supermax prisons that rely heavily on solitary confinement, like Tamms in Illinois, did not decrease inmate-on-inmate violence and achieved mixed results with prisoners-on-staff violence. Furthermore, the reduction in size of supermax prisons in Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi did not result in an increase in prison violence. In fact, solitary confinement may give rise to violent tendencies because it causes prisoners to feel mistreated and has negative mental health effects. In the United States, where two-thirds of 700,000 prisoners released every year are rearrested in three years, solitary confinement only perpetuates recidivism. A study of Florida prisons showed that prisoners who had undergone solitary confinement had a 24.2% chance of being reconvicted of a violent crime, compared to 20.5% of general prisoners.[4]

International human rights authorities oppose extended solitary confinement. In 2011, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment reached the conclusion that solitary confinement must be limited to 15 days or less because it violates the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Article 1 of CAT defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as . . . punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed.” Solitary confinement intentionally deprives meaningful social contact, thereby inflicting severe mental pain on prisoners and exacerbating mental illness. Accordingly, solitary confinement constitutes torture.

Despite recent advances in state courts, such as New York, and the push by international human rights advocates, U.S. federal courts have not taken the necessary final step. Solitary confinement should be considered "cruel and usual punishment" under the 8th Amendment to the Constitution because psychological damage caused by solitary confinement can prevent a prisoner from properly functioning in society and can endanger his physical state through self-harm. This should be considered in light of the fact that solitary confinement does not achieve its intended benefits of reducing levels of prisoner violence and recidivism. Federal courts should thus rule that extended solitary confinement violates the 8th Amendment and the practice of solitary confinement over 15 days should no longer be allowed in prisons.

[1] Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and "Supermax" Confinement (Crime and Deliquency, 2003).

[2] Homer Venters et al, Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm among Jail Inmates (American Journal of Health, 2014).

[3] DM Sestoft et al, Impact of Solitary Confinement on Hospitalization Among Danish Prisoners in Custody (International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 1998).

[4] E. Shira Gordon, Solitary Confinement, Public Safety, and Recidivism (University of Michigan Law Reform, 2014).


IHR Clinic Students Reflect on Research Trip to New Delhi, India in Partnership with Nazdeek

Alex Kiles (3L, 2014)

This year, the International Human Rights Clinic partnered with Nazdeek, a capacity-building organization in New Delhi, India, to conduct research and explore strategies for improving housing conditions in New Delhi. Nazdeek is comprised of three human rights workers—Jayshree Satpute, Sukti Dhital and Francesca Fergulio. As part of the work, I, along with two other students, travelled to New Delhi to learn more about the housing challenges in the city.

Upon arriving, the first thing that struck me was the sheer scope of homelessness. Driving through the city, I could see families on virtually every corner, living in tents or makeshift structures. In New Delhi, there are over 150,000 homeless individuals and an additional 1.8 to 3.6 million living in slums, depending on which source you trust. During our trip, we spent much of our time visiting slums and listening to the plight of the community members in order to discover how our legal work could be most impactful. The resiliency of the people living in the slums clusters stunned me. Many of these communities lack potable water, electricity, sewage systems and other basic necessities. Yet, despite these limitations, the community members were unbelievably hospitable. These were families who had almost nothing, but they invited us into their homes and offered us something to eat and drink. The kids were outside laughing, playing cricket and chasing each other joyfully.

After speaking with many families, I learned of the rich history embedded in these slum clusters. Many families have been living in the slums for decades, and their tradition, family history and livelihood are intricately connected with their community. Nonetheless, these families and many other slum-dwellers in New Delhi live in constant fear of the destruction of their homes and livelihood. In the pursuit of transforming New Delhi into a world-renowned city, the city government has turned to demolishing slum clusters and forcing slum dwellers to the periphery of the city. These demolitions often occur suddenly and without notice to the communities, before families even have a chance to remove their few possessions from their homes. Once relocated to the outskirts of the city, many people cannot afford to spend the time and money to commute to their jobs at the city center. Nazdeek steps in to stop these demolitions and has successfully obtained court orders to stay demolitions in a number of communities. Every community with whom we met was extremely grateful for the work being done by Nazdeek. Community members told us that no one cared about their situation until Jayshree, Sukti and Francesca walked into their community, listened to their stories and decided to make a difference.

While in New Delhi, we were presented with an incredible opportunity to meet with Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court and one of Asia's most renowned jurists. Justice Shah, as the current chairman of the Law Commission of India, a board of legal experts entrusted by the Government of India to reform the law, is keenly interested in reforming housing laws in India and sees our work as coming to his attention at the perfect time. As a result, this quarter we will be aiding the Law Commission in drafting the framework for a national housing rights policy for India.

I decided to go to law school to do human rights work and have learned so much from this experience. This project has been one of the most meaningful experiences that I have had at the University of Chicago Law School. For the first time, I am able to see what it truly means to be an international human rights lawyer.

Brian Ahn (3L, 2014)

Majnu and his family live in makeshift huts along a river of sewage, with no running water or sanitation facilities. If not bad enough already, when it rains, the river rises, flooding the homes with raw sewage. Sadly, this an all too common story in India. In fact, Majnu’s community is one of the “success” stories: after being evicted from their previous homes, the community received a positive judgment for rehabilitation from the Delhi High Court.

During Spring Break, my team and I had the incredible opportunity to speak with Majnu and others living in similar situations in Delhi as part of a research project through the International Human Rights Clinic. Our team worked closely with out our partner organization, Nazdeek. The project seeks to identify the causes of housing problems in New Delhi and advocate for a more coherent and sustainable housing policy. To that end, in addition to meeting with slum dwellers, we were able to interview judges, policy makers, and housing activists. The experience and perspective gained on the ground was invaluable to our work; it’s one thing to research housing policies and caselaw from Chicago, but quite different to actually speak with people who make, enforce and are affected by the policies.

In preparation for the trip, our team researched and drafted memos on housing policies in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, and Chicago. Nazdeek believed that an analysis of these countries would be a helpful point of comparison for New Delhi. However, during the trip, it became much more than that. In a meeting with Justice A.P. Shah, the former Chief Judge of the Delhi High Court and current Chairman of the Law Commission of India, we learned that he was interested in developing a framework for a national housing rights bill in India. He was very interested in reading our memos as points of comparison. The memos we prepared during the Fall Quarter in Chicago turned into a presentation in front of the Law Commission of India.

Moving forward, we plan to use what we learned in Delhi to draft a memo examining the existing housing law and policy scheme in New Delhi, including case law and international human rights law relevant to the city. The memo will also incorporate the findings from our trip and will be submitted to the Law Commission of India for its consideration, as it prepares to draft a framework for national housing rights bill. This amazing opportunity is exactly the type of work I hoped to get out of the clinic. My hope is that our contribution can be used to help the situation of communities like Majnu’s and others in New Delhi and across India.

Marco Segatti (JSD, 2014)

On the 5th of February 2009, bulldozers sent by the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi demolished some “encroachments” on public land. The demolition was conducted to enable construction of a flyover connecting Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium to Tyagraj Stadium for the Commonwealth Games 2010.

In a few hours, and with no notice, some thirty-five families lost everything—their identity cards, their livelihoods and their homes.

We arrived at the Gadhia Lohar basti in the early afternoon on Friday, March 21, 2014. As we crossed the street, avoiding cars, trucks, auto rickshaws, a family on a motorbike and all sorts of other vehicles (the traffic in Delhi!), Majnu, the leader of the community, a small man of indefinite age, approached us with a smile, welcoming us to his new “home.”

Majnu was one of the petitioners in a landmark case on housing rights decided by the Delhi High Court. In its judgment, the Court stated that “when a family living in a Jhuggi is forcibly evicted, each member loses a ‘bundle’ of rights—the right to livelihood, to shelter, to health, to education, to access to civic amenities and public transport and above all, the right to live with dignity.” The Court ordered the parties to “engage meaningfully, regarding the relocation of the dwellers.”

Five years after the judgment, Majnu lead us through a short, downhill, path, right beneath the flyover, which separates the two settlements that were displaced after the demolition in 2009. They are both members of the Gadhia Lohar community, a scheduled caste. The Gadhia Lohars are a nomadic group, ironsmith by trade, from Rajasthan.  We were told, however, that the whole group in the basti (eight families on Majnu’s side, thirty across the street) has been living in the area since the 1960s.

There are few plastic tents on the right; on the left, at the end of a short slope, there is an intimidating and fetid nala (river). No water, no electricity, no sewage system: this is, I guess, what five years of “meaningful engagement” with Delhi’s authorities means for Majnu, his family, and his friends.

I find myself mindful of every step, looking down at my shoes as we proceed closer to the nala. You never really know what you are about to step on—mud, garbage, stagnant water. I forced myself to look up, hoping that no one noticed my clumsiness or guessed the rather obtuse concern I had for my brand new sneakers. Is it ever a decent response to feel discomfort when someone is actually welcoming you to his “home”? Is there a way to feel repulsion for a place, and not for the people that happen to live in it?

Not too far away from where we stood, facing us and dominating the landscape in the background, I could see the top of the monumental Jawahar Lal Nehru Stadium. There, on 14th October 2010, the Commonwealth Games Federation Chief, Mr. Michael Fennel, speaking at the closing ceremony of the Games, emphatically remarked that “The Organizing Committee overcame all obstacles and presented a successful Games. Delhi has now a rich legacy, the world class venues and improved city structure. It has presented itself as a world class city. The world will have a better understanding of this wonderful country and its potential now."

As I looked at our project partners—Jayshree Satpute, Sukti Dhital and Francesca Fergulio of Nazdeek— I noticed their grace and passion in taking Majnu’s side. I felt proud and grateful of having witnessed an altogether different, more humane, and better kind of potential.