Proud Samoan in the U.S. Dept. of Justice

A Harvard Law School graduate with roots in Salelologa, Savai’i, is mighty proud of her Samoan ancestry as she works for the U.S. Department of Justice (D.O.J.) in Washington D.C.

Leilani Lilomaiava Doktor, a citizen of Samoa, earned her Doctor of Jurisprudence (J.D) in 2019 and is a trial lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department, according to a report from Pacific Global Media.

At Harvard, Leilani held numerous leadership roles. She was Co-President of Harvard Law Students Association, Co-President of Native American Law Student Association, Environmental Law Society, and Women's Law Associate.

She was also an editor for the Harvard Environmental Law Review.

Doktor received the Dean's Award for Community Leadership, Harvard Law School. 

Leilani was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Comparative Studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

Following graduation from Duke, Leilani worked on U.S. Senator Brian Schatz’s (Hawai’i-D) campaign, practiced non-profit grant writing in Bangalore, India and was an environmental consultant in Hawai’i.

She is from the Tinousi Lilomaiava family of Salelologa Savaii.

Leilani comes from a line of doctors: her father is Dr. Doktor and her mother is Dr. Sailiemanu Lilomaiava-Doktor, a professor at the University of Hawai’i-West O‘ahu.

Last year, she was featured in the Student Spotlights of the Harvard Law Today publication.

Leilani spent Winter Term in Fiji, where she conducted a case study on climate migration.

She turned her attention to Kiribati, a neighboring island republic harmed by decades of extractive phosphate mining and threatened now by rising sea levels, stronger waves and cyclones, the intrusion of salt water into freshwater supplies, and other environmental concerns. As a result, many people from Kiribati are being displaced to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

“As a citizen of Samoa, I am acutely aware of the effect climate change and sea level rise have had on small island nations,” Leilani told Harvard Law.

Her project “speaks to the exact reason I came to HLS—to represent Pacific Islanders on environmental law issues and eventually change the current dynamic where developed countries continue practices that are making the islands of the South Pacific uninhabitable.”

“International law has not yet explicitly recognized climate change and environmental degradation as a justification for refugee status,” she said.

“The question that I’m exploring is whether you can expand the concept of ‘refugee’ into ‘climate refugee.’ Yes, there is a threat to their right to life, but in this case it’s definitely not because of persecution by their home government, because Kiribati has been very active in trying to preserve people’s rights to their lands and so on. Still, many of our international treaties, covenants and agreements say that people have a right to life, and within that is the right to security of place, to food, and to water. All those things are being threatened in Kiribati.”

Leilani interviewed government officials in Kiribati and Fiji, learning about bilateral agreements, adaptation plans and relocation guidelines; she also spoke with representatives from international organizations who were working in Fiji to implement international law standards on the rights of migrants, and observed immigration proceedings.

“When a person gives the reason why they are migrating, environmental degradation or the salination of their crop area is accepted as an explanation,” she said.

“Ultimately, refugee policy, in the way that it is enacted, is defined by domestic interpretations of law, and Fiji is taking a step forward.”

In contrast, Leilani was surprised to find a strong resistance to the term “refugee” on the part of the migrants themselves.

“People have taken note of the treatment of refugees in other neighboring countries, and they are also concerned about the status of people who are kept as a separate population. What they are looking for is the freedom of movement and freedom of choice that comes with full integration,” a challenge that Fiji and Kiribati are working to address.

She also visited a 5,460-acre parcel of land in Fiji that the Kiribati government has purchased for resettlement.

“It’s unprecedented in that the government purchased the land; there are interesting legal questions about sovereignty,” Leilani notes.

She was active in the Environmental Law Society and on the Harvard Environmental Law Review; she also spent a summer with the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

Her Winter Term project gave her many meaningful opportunities to apply what she has learned. During interviews with officials and NGO leaders.

“They would ask me what I thought, and I would talk about the legal principles that I understood, and how people could be held accountable under international law,” Leilani told Harvard Law.

“In some ways, it was a kind of intergovernmental direct client service. This was a really powerful experience.”

She hopes to bring her legal career back to the Pacific.

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