The Bernstein Symposium began in 1997 in honor of Robert Bernstein, the founding chair of Human Rights Watch, for his extraordinary contributions to the international human rights movement. The symposium is an integral part of the Robert L. Bernstein Fellowship in International Human Rights, which was established the same year. Each year, current and past fellows are invited back to Yale Law School to engage in human rights discussions and to connect with each other and with symposium participants. 

The program for the 2019 Symposium is below. The Symposium’s keynote address will be given by Chris Abani, the award-winning novelist, poet, screenwriter, and playwright. Other confirmed speakers include Sarah Stillman, the Project Director of the Global Migration Project and recent MacArthur Genius recipient, Sarah Song, professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley and author of Immigration and Democracy, and Sana Mustafa, founder of the Network for Refugee Voices. We will have lawyers from four different continents discussing litigation strategies. A full list of speakers will be available soon.


Borders, Refuge and Rights
Twenty-First Annual Bernstein Human Rights Symposium
Yale Law School
April 4-5, 2019

The figures are overwhelming. An estimated 68.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, or violence. 1 in every 110 people is an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. Current crises across the globe – Bangladesh, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Yemen – have revealed the crumbling foundations of the international refugee regime. Questions that have hounded the refugee system since its founding reverberate even more loudly today amidst populist and nationalist backlash to globalization. Is granting refuge an act of grace? A humanitarian duty? A moral obligation? The fulfilment of a claim of rights? This symposium will convene writers, scholars, activists, lawyers, and journalists to take stock of what is and to imagine what might come to be.

Thursday, April 4th 

4:15-6:00 pm     Opening Session: Voices

Conversations about the international refugee system’s many failings often focus on refugees as objects of humanitarian relief rather than as rights-bearers and political subjects. The opening panel will consider who speaks for refugees and how. This opening session will feature a keynote address, to be followed by a conversation among writers and journalists about the potential for language to recenter public discourse on refugees’ own dignity, agency and humanity.

Chris Abani, Novelist, Poet, and Board of Trustees Professor of English Northwestern University


Sarah Stillman, Project Director, Global Migration Project, Columbia University

Jim Silk, Binger Clinical Professor of Human Rights, Yale Law School (moderator)

Friday, April 5th

10:30 am - 12:00 pm       Panel 1: Ideas

The contemporary refugee crisis sets into stark relief longstanding and unresolved questions about the rights of individuals and state sovereignty. Is granting refuge an act of grace? A humanitarian duty? A moral obligation? The fulfilment of a claim of rights? This session examines the limits to a state’s right to close its borders, as well as whether refugees present special claims on the right to enter.

Sarah Song, Professor of Law and Political Science, University of California, Berkeley


Paul Linden-Retek, Robina Foundation Visiting Human Rights Fellow, Yale Law School

Paul Kahn, Robert W. Winner Professor of Law and the Humanities, Yale Law School  (moderator)

12-12:30 pm      Images

Mohamad Hafez, artist and creator of UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage

1:30-3:00 pm          Panel 2: Institutions

A central tenet of international refugee law is a system that transcends state borders to protect refugees. Yet, in an historical moment marked by rising populism and nativism, states appear to be embracing multilateralism to evade their international obligations. Major powers – the United States, Europe, Australia – are outsourcing policing of their borders to their poorer neighbors, such as Mexico, Niger, and Palau. This panel will explore the complex dynamics of international, regional and multilateral institutions and their potential, both good and bad.

Bill Frelick, Director, Refugee Rights Program, Human Rights Watch

Sana Mustafa, Consultant and Co-Founder of The Network For Refugee Voices

Leah Zamore, Senior Policy Analyst, Center on International Cooperation

Ryan Thorseon, Cover-Lowenstein Fellow in International Human Rights Law, Yale Law School (moderator)

3:15-5:00 pm          Panel 3: Strategies & Closing

Due to the situation of international refugee law at the uncomfortable intersection of humanitarian and human rights law, rights-based litigation has been a relatively uncommon strategy to improve the lives of forcibly displaced people. Even so, lawyers across the globe are employing law, courts, and other legal institutions in the struggle to recognize the dignity and rights of refugees.

Hanaa Hakiki, Legal Advisor, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Executive Director, Southern Africa Litigation Centre

Sirine Shebaya, Interim Legal Director, Muslim Advocates

Katie Robertson, Director of Legal Advocacy, Human Rights Law Centre

Hope Metcalf  Executive Director and Lecturer in Law, Schell Center for International Human Rights (moderator)


See photos and information about the 2018 Symposium below. 

At the 20th Anniversary Bernstein International Human Rights Symposium, 63 of the 85 former Bernstein and Robina Human Rights Fellows came together to reflect on the personal and professional challenges involved in human rights work. Alumni were able to attend the symposium thanks to the generous support of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School.

One recurring question of the conference was how to bridge the gaps between communities and the law. In the keynote address, Vivek Maru ’01 told the story of his organization, Namati, which trains and deploys paralegals to work in remote communities. “We need to turn law from abstraction into something everyone can understand, use, and shape,” he urged. Allana Kembabazi ’15 stressed the need to implement Namati’s vision in more places, such as Uganda, where she is a programs manager at the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights. Kembabazi said she sees an increasing number of people viewing not just law, but also human rights as increasingly inaccessible and irrelevant.

A nagging doubt among speakers was the efficacy of traditional human rights tools such as fact-finding, which may lose their power if governments and other actors cannot be shamed into doing the right thing. In the words of Maria Burnett, Human Rights Watch’s Director of East Africa and the Horn: “Shame is dead.” Still, Burnett and others maintained that human rights language and institutions can provide critical support for change, provided that international advocates stay humble and alert foremost to the needs of domestic advocates.

Sari Bashi, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Israel-Palestine office, had a suggestion for how to maintain hope and motivation in the face of these daunting questions, as well as the refugee crisis, environmental destruction, or the dozens of other human rights issues that current and former Bernstein and Robina fellows are addressing. Bashi compared human rights work to marathons and advised the audience to “find beauty in the struggle.” She added, “With the right amount of awareness and humility, we can achieve more than we think.”