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Human Rights @ Harvard Law

Areas Of Focus

Arms & Armed Conflict

The international community has increasingly sought to prevent civilian casualties during armed conflict and to mitigate the harm suffered afterward. Civil society has played an active role in the process, drawing on a variety of frameworks, including international humanitarian law (the laws of war), human rights, and humanitarian assistance. Through its partnerships with nongovernmental organizations and coalitions, the International Human Rights Clinic has been at the forefront of this movement.

Bonnie Interviews in Iraq

Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty interviews residents in Iraq.

The Clinic has been particularly involved in cutting edge disarmament issues. The last 15 years have seen a major change in how international law deals with problematic weapons. Protecting civilians now drives the creation of weapons treaties, where national security was once the central concern. In this context, the Clinic has done extensive advocacy related to the development of new international law. We have brought field research and legal arguments to international treaty negotiations and provided legal advice to civil society. We have also been active in promoting strong implementation of adopted treaties.

The Clinic has focused its disarmament work primarily on cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, often in collaboration with Human Rights Watch.

Our focus on armed conflict is not limited to disarmament treaties, however. We regularly investigate cases of civilian harm and advocate for legal and policy change. We have taken field missions to places such as Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Libya. We have helped advance the concept of “making amends,” which calls on warring parties to assist victims of conflict. We have analyzed humanitarian problems associated with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. We have also been examining the challenges of distinguishing civilians and soldiers in an era where the line between these two groups is frequently blurred.

Recently, the Clinic expanded the scope of its work to support the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition launched in April 2013 that calls for a ban on weapons that could select and fire on targets without human intervention. A joint Clinic-Human Rights Watch report on these fully autonomous weapons helped form the basis for the campaign. Since its release, we have co-published a series of reports and briefing papers elaborating on the need for a new treaty that preemptively bans these weapons.

The Clinic offers seminars on armed conflict each year, and the Academic Program regularly holds events on the current conflicts around the world. In October 2013, the Human Rights Program co-sponsored with Action on Armed Violence an international summit on addressing civilian harm caused by armed conflict and armed violence.

Point person for Arms & Armed Conflict: Bonnie Docherty

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