Defending Dissent and the Rule of Law

Aerial shot of people spelling out "Resist"

Facing a growing crackdown on dissent around the globe, human rights advocates and scholars are engaged in a creative and critical fight to defend fundamental freedoms. The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights supports a range of education, research, and advocacy initiatives to protect dissent and promote the rule of law.  These include:


  • 2019's panel event, Human Rights in Hong Kong, which saw a packed house attend to hear human rights activists and lawyers at the epicenter of the unfolding crisis share reflections and strategies on the role international advocacy can play in supporting a pro-democracy movement.

  • 2017's conference, Defending Dissent: Civil Society and Human Rights in the Global Crackdown, a forum for leading human rights activists, lawyers, and scholars from China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Russia, Turkey, and the United States to share legal strategies and tactics to safeguard crucial spaces for dissent.

  • Convening an annual Judicial Seminar on International Human Rights Law for federal judges in partnership with Colombia Law School’s Human Rights Institute. The seminar covers topics ranging from international human rights laws, sessions on torture, disappearances, extraordinary rendition, refugee law, and the law of armed conflict.

  • Placement of a Masiyiwa-Bernstein fellow at an organization committed to defending dissent and promoting the rule of law, including RFK for Human Rights and Human Rights First.

  • Educational talks and programs for students and the broader NYU community on the intersection of human rights and civil society.


  • Commercial Spyware and the Surveillance State

    •  An increasing number of governments purchase spyware technology to track, monitor, and intimidate human rights defenders, journalists, and political dissidents. The spyware is known as a dual-use good, defined by the European Commission as a good that can have both civilian and military applications.  While governments contend that the software serves legitimate national security and intelligence gathering purposes, growing documentation has shown how governments are using digital spying tools designed for criminal investigations and counterintelligence to target human rights defenders and journalists.

    • In 2017, the Bernstein Institute partnered with the Global Justice Clinic and Technology Law and Policy Clinic at NYU School of Law and with Amnesty International to launch a groundbreaking research project to investigate legal accountability measures to address the state surveillance of human rights defenders.

    • On March 1, 2019 the NYU Law team submitted a briefing paper on the spyware industry to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. The paper, “Attempted Digital Surveillance as a Completed Human Rights Violation: Why Targeting Human Rights Defenders Infringes on Rights,” responded to the Special Rapporteur’s call for submissions concerning the surveillance industry and human rights.

  • International Human Rights Law Research Program 
    • The Institute supported  innovative research and teaching related to international human rights and China, including thematic areas like the Internet, national security and terrorism, and Hong Kong.

Legal Advocacy

  • Supported the filing of a petition brought by members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others to the Israeli District Court demanding that the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD) revoke the explore license of NSO Group, a Israeli company whose spyware products have been used to attack human rights defenders around the world by states such as Saudi Arabia, Mexico, UAE, among others. The NYU team supported the drafting of a key affidavit in the case. 
  • Related press releases on the case be found here and here.
  • To read more about the surveillance project check out an article by the NYU team on Just Security, "CTRL + HALT + Defeat: State-Sponsored Surveillance and the Suppression of Dissent"

Check out radio interviews from The Takeaway with Yara Sallam and Olga Sadovskaya, two human rights defenders who joined us for our 2017 Conference, Defending Dissent: