Women In Law: Understanding Human Rights with Professor Lehr-Lendhardt

The JRCLS Women in the Law Webinar featured Professor Rana Lehr-Lenhardt and her impressive background in international human rights law. She is currently a professor at the University of Missouri - Kansas City School of Law.  Professor Lehr-Lenhardt discussed human rights, emphasizing their universal and inalienable nature regardless of race, ethnicity, or location. She compared different metrics for measuring human rights globally, noting discrepancies between civil and political rights and economic, cultural, and social rights, which are in many ways similar—but not necessarily identical—to “Constitutional rights” in the United States.

She also explored various human rights treaties and declarations, including those addressing indigenous rights, discrimination against women and racial discrimination, rights to education and employment, and the rights of the child. These treaties are generally based on the International Bill of Rights. Regional human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, supplement these global standards with stronger enforcement mechanisms at the regional level. She explains three main areas of law protecting human rights in conflict situations: human rights law, humanitarian law (or the law of war), and refugee law. Human rights are considered universal but can be limited during wartime, while humanitarian law provides protections for civilians and non-combatants during armed conflict. The Geneva Conventions establish rules regarding the treatment of civilians and combatants during war, with Article 3 providing additional protections for non-combatants. Lehr-Lenhardt emphasizes the importance of upholding human rights, particularly in conflict situations, and highlights violations against children such as killing, recruitment as soldiers, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.

She also discussed the challenges of delivering humanitarian aid in conflict zones, where rebel forces and government factions often divert aid for their own benefit instead of distributing it to civilians. This diversion of aid can incentivize families to send their children to fight in exchange for food, exacerbating recruitment of child soldiers. Lehr-Lenhardt also highlighted the psychological trauma experienced by children in conflict zones, which can have lifelong consequences. It provides examples of sexual violence against children in conflict, underscoring the horrific impact on victims and the underreporting of such crimes. She used both Yemen and Haiti as examples where children are at the greatest risk from violations of humanitarian law due to conflict and violence.  She emphasized the need to also address systemic issues contributing to violence against women and girls in marginalized communities.

In addition to discussions of the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is constantly in the news at the moment, she delved into the complex humanitarian crisis in Haiti, primarily driven by pervasive gang violence as opposed to political conflict. She mentions several critical issues including food insecurity, violence and murder, abduction of children, targeting of hospitals and schools, and denial of humanitarian aid.  With over 5.2 million people in need of humanitarian aid, Haiti faces severe food shortages. Gang violence disrupts food production and distribution, exacerbating the crisis.  Gang violence in Haiti has led to the victimization of over 5,400 individuals, with approximately 3,000 murders reported. The escalating violence poses a significant threat to civilians and contributes to widespread fear and instability. Children are particularly vulnerable in this crisis, with reports of abduction for various purposes. Some are forcibly recruited as child soldiers, while others, particularly girls, are abducted for sexual slavery, resulting in enduring trauma and suffering. Gangs target essential institutions like hospitals and schools, depriving communities of vital services. Attacks on hospitals hinder access to healthcare, resulting in preventable deaths, while attacks on schools disrupt education, robbing children of their futures. The situation is further aggravated by the denial of humanitarian aid by various parties involved. This denial exacerbates suffering and prevents essential resources from reaching those in need.

Lehr-Lenhardt explains that this dire humanitarian crisis in Haiti and the comparative lack of news coverage illustrates the critical role of humanitarian and human rights organizations in addressing these challenges. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee and Human Rights Watch work to provide aid, document human rights violations, and hold governments accountable for their actions, even in areas that are not the focus of global public outcry.

Lehr-Lenhardt underscored the importance of understanding human rights treaties and obligations to advocate for change effectively. By educating themselves and others, people can become advocates for accountability and compliance from governments, thereby contributing to the resolution of humanitarian crises like the ones in Yemen, Gaza, and Haiti.