Analysis and Commentary on Human Rights
Private Transitional Justice—The Case of the Slave Daguerreotypes

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler comments on a case in which a Massachusetts court affirmed Harvard’s ownership over several slave daguerreotypes despite the horrific and now criminal conditions under which the pictures were taken. Professor Wexler argues that the double injustice of mistreating enslaved people and using them to prove a theory of their lesser-than status calls for application of transitional justice principles, not ordinary law.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part IV—Assessing the U.S. Response

In this fourth in a series of columns about the U.S. military drone strike in Kabul that killed ten civilians (including seven children), Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler considers whether the United States has now satisfactorily provided the recommended amends and discusses what more ought to be done. As to what more is needed, Professor Wexler suggests congressional review of the incident, chain of command accountability decisions, and a broader review of drone strikes.

Rejecting Vaccination Status Discrimination: Learning from the Laws of War

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler argues that a just society should not punish unvaccinated persons in the allocation of even scarce medical care and resources, despite the exceptional circumstances of a global pandemic. In support of this position, Professor Wexler analogizes to the exceptional circumstances of war, pointing out that the laws of war also emphatically reject status discrimination in medical decision-making.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part III—Making Amends

In this third and final part of a series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professors Lesley M. Wexler and Jennifer K. Robbennolt suggest a robust approach to making amends for the victims of lawful harm imposed during drone strikes and other military uses of force. Professors Wexler and Robbennolt note the substantial support for various aspects of amends from many key stakeholders, including the victims and their families, members of the military who suffer moral injury as a result of the killings, and even the U.S.’s military objectives, which often rely on winning the hearts and minds of local populations.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part II—Condolence and Solatia Payments

In this second of a three-part series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler addresses the U.S. approach to voluntary condolence and solatia payments. Professor Wexler explains what these payments require and how they often fall short, and she points out the gulf between commitments to making condolence and solatia payments and payments actually made.

“A Tragic Mistake”: Understanding the Aftermath of the Kabul Drone Strike: Part I—Detecting Mistakes and No Required Reparations

In this first of a three-part series of columns on the Kabul drone strike in August that killed numerous civilians, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler raises two key concerns: that civil society rather than the government brought the mistake to light, and that there is no legal requirement to pay reparations. Professor Wexler describes the reasons behind our reliance on journalists and civil society to investigate problems like this strike and explains the relevant laws of war that allow the victims’ families to go uncompensated.

Simone Biles’s Perfect Score

Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy and survivor of child sexual abuse, praises gymnast Simone Biles for setting a stellar example of courage and self-care. Robb points out that as a result of Biles’s actions, USA Gymnastics may have lost a team gold medal, but more importantly, future young elite athletes and children worldwide observed the actions of a hero.

#FreeBritney and Believe Women

Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler comments on Britney Spears’s petition to end her conservatorship and explains how her situation reflects general attitudes about believing women. Professor Wexler argues that the #FreeBritney movement may shape emerging norms of believability, which is often a precondition to convincing judges, jurors, co-workers, friends, and others in society about both the existence of abuse and its impact on its victims.

Should Vegans “Force” Their Children to Be Vegan?

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb comments on a recent interview in which actor Joaquin Phoenix, who is vegan, said that he would not “force” his nine-month-old son River to be vegan, though he hoped he would be. Professor Colb explores why the question and his answer have provoked strong responses among vegan activists and offers an alternative understanding of his statement that supports, rather than undermines, veganism.

Pervis Payne’s Case Shines a Light on the Continuing Injustices of America’s Death Penalty

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—describes three kinds of defects and injustices inherent in capital punishment exemplified by the case of Pervis Payne, who is on death row in Tennessee. Professor Sarat points out that the death penalty in the United States is built upon erroneous convictions and miscarriages of justice, the prejudicial use of use of so-called victim impact evidence, and disproportionate targeting of defendants with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.

What’s in a Name? Genocide, Torture, Eugenics, Taxes, and Humpty Dumpty

Cornell Law professor Michael C. Dorf comments on the recent news that President Joseph Biden is using the word “genocide” to describe the Turkish regime’s murder of roughly 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I. Professor Dorf explains why language matters in the context of genocide, torture, eugenics, taxes, and Humpty Dumpty.

Oprah Interview as Truth Commission – Part II: What Counts as Success?

In this second of a series of columns, Illinois Law professor Lesley M. Wexler continues analogizing Oprah’s interview with Meghan and Harry to a truth commission and describes some goals against which we might measure the success of a truth commission. Professor Wexler proposes such measures as (1) whether the commission finishes its mandate and widely disseminates its findings, (2) whether it establishes a definitive narrative of the relevant abuses, and (3) whether it serves as catharsis for individual victims. She suggests that although some initial facts on the ground are negative, reform and reconciliation are still possible.

The Oprah Interview as a Truth Commission

Illinois Law professor Lesley Wexler explains how Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might illuminate how a formal truth commission to deal with legacies of racism and colonialism might function in the British empire. Professor Wexler describes the purpose and function of state-operated truth commissions and notes the similarities and differences between those and the interview.

Celebrities as Glamour Species in the #MeToo Ecosystem

Illinois law professor Lesley Wexler explores the extent to which the role of famous, white, cis, heterosexual women as some of the most visible faces in the #MeToo movement helps or hinders the campaign. Professor Wexler proposes that conservation biology can help us understand the role of these celebrity women and harness their contributions to the #MeToo movement and also provide better assistance to other individuals and communities facing their own #MeToo struggles.

Corporate Transitional Justice

Illinois law professor Lesley M. Wexler and Nicola Sharpe discuss various corporate responses to the recent storming of Capitol Hill and consider whether such responses might constitute private transitional justice. Professors Wexler and Sharpe point out, however, that simply vocalizing a commitment to social justice, diversity, and inclusivity is not enough; corporations should diversify boards and leadership representation and take other quantifiable steps that transform corporate culture and processes.

Transitional Justice, Anti-Democratic Riots, and Private Responses

In light of the events of January 6, Illinois law professors Lesley M. Wexler and Colleen Murphy identify some preliminary questions raised by private actors sanctioning other private actors for the latter’s potentially criminal activities at the Capitol. In particular, Professors Wexler and Murphy explain why the event gives rise to transitional justice concerns, and through the transitional justice lens, they assess the advantages and disadvantages of private action in this context.

COVID Comes to Federal Death Row—It Is Time to Stop the Madness

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College—explains the enhanced risk of COVID-19 infection in the federal death row in Terre Haute, not only among inmates but among those necessary to carry out executions. Professor Sarat calls upon the Trump administration and other officials to focus on saving, rather than taking, lives inside and outside prison.

#MeToo and What Men and Women Are Willing to Say and Do

Cornell Law professor Sherry F. Colb explores why people have such strong feelings about the #MeToo movement (whether they are advocates or opponents) and suggests that both sides rest their positions on contested empirical assumptions about the behavior of men and women. Colb argues that what we believe to be true of men and women generally contributes to our conclusions about the #MeToo movement and our perceptions about how best to handle the accusations of those who come forward.

William Barr Has Made the Federal Death Penalty a Weapon in Trump’s Campaign Arsenal

Austin Sarat—Associate Provost, Associate Dean of the Faculty, and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College—comments on Attorney General William Barr’s recent order to resume federal executions and the political implications of that order. Sarat briefly describes the history of the federal death penalty in the United States and explains that, regardless of what state we live in, when the federal government puts someone to death, it does so in all of our names.

Our Demons

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on some lessons to be learned from the recent killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Though he laments the atrocious and unnecessary act of violence, Margulies too resists the urge to demonize, instead adopting a personal philosophy to better understand and approach humanity: There is no them. There is only us.

Meet our Columnists
Vikram David Amar
Vikram David Amar

Vikram David Amar is the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois... more

Neil H. Buchanan
Neil H. Buchanan

Neil H. Buchanan, an economist and legal scholar, holds the James J. Freeland Eminent Scholar... more

Sherry F. Colb
Sherry F. Colb

Sherry F. Colb is the C.S. Wong Professor of Law at Cornell University. Colb teaches courses in... more

John Dean
John Dean

John Dean served as Counsel to the President of the United States from July 1970 to April 1973.... more

Michael C. Dorf
Michael C. Dorf

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School. He... more

Samuel Estreicher
Samuel Estreicher

Samuel Estreicher is the Dwight D. Opperman Professor, Director, Center for Labor and Employment... more

Leslie C. Griffin
Leslie C. Griffin

Dr. Leslie C. Griffin is the William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the University of Nevada, Las... more

Joanna L. Grossman
Joanna L. Grossman

Joanna L. Grossman is the Ellen K. Solender Endowed Chair in Women and Law at SMU Dedman School... more

Marci A. Hamilton
Marci A. Hamilton

MARCI A. HAMILTON is the Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, and Fox Family... more

Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of... more

Austin Sarat
Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at... more

Lesley Wexler
Lesley Wexler

Lesley Wexler is a Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Immediately... more