Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
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March 15, 2017
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The humanitarian disarmament community lost a legend last week. Bob Mtonga, a medical doctor and long-time activist, died in his native Zambia shortly after returning from one of countless international trips to promote the protection of civilians in armed conflict. He was just 51.
Bob was a much-loved leader in the field of humanitarian disarmament, which seeks to end civilian suffering caused by indiscriminate and inhumane weapons. He campaigned for strong international law on nuclear weapons, and landmines, and cluster munitions, and the arms trade. He served on the leadership committees of several civil society coalitions and had been co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).
In less than two weeks, the UN General Assembly will begin negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. This coming September marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty. Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Bob contributed to each of these milestones. His absence at the nuclear negotiations and anniversary celebrations will be deeply felt.
While making international law is often a slow process, nothing would ever deter Bob from working to improve the world. One friend wrote after his death, “Wherever we all go from this place, we can be sure that since Bob has preceded us he is already organizing it to be a better place.”
I met Bob more than a decade ago during the Oslo Process, which produced the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I came to know dozens of civil society advocates during those negotiations, but Bob immediately stood out as a campaigner and a personality. Continue Reading…
March 10, 2017
Posted by Jared Small, JD '18
Tomorrow, my Harvard Law School colleagues and I will board an airplane for Kosovo. Our goal: track down remnants of a war that ended nearly two decades ago.
The Kosovo War ended in 1999 after a months-long NATO airstrike crippled Yugoslav and Serbian forces and paved the way for an internationally monitored Kosovan autonomy. Kosovo has since declared independence, and is moving forward towards what it hopes will become full membership in the European Union.
But there is an invisible part of this story that has largely escaped the public eye over the past decade and a half. Our team from the International Human Rights Clinic will travel to Kosovo to better understand potential environmental and human health impacts that linger from the war.
During the course of the NATO airstrikes, United States aircraft deployed at least 5,723 kg of Depleted Uranium (DU) ammunition at Serbian and Yugoslav targets. As an incredibly dense by-product of the process of enriching uranium, DU is often used by militaries in armor-piercing shells and bullets. American A-10 Thunderbolts fired DU at more than 100 ground targets during the campaign against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was attempting to cleanse Kosovo of its nearly 90% ethnic Albanian population.
In addition to penetrating armored vehicles, DU rounds ended up in areas now returned to civilian use, including bucolic buildings and urban streets. Even 18 years after the end of the war many of these penetrators remain scattered around Kosovo.
For a minute or so after the war, the world took notice of the fact that Kosovo had been littered with DU. The media reacted to a Pentagon statement acknowledging the use of DU. The Post-Conflict Assessment Unit of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both made site visits to Kosovo shortly after.
But concern about DU faded from the public eye as the world moved on from the Balkan Wars and new events demanded resources and attention. The initial UNEP and WHO reports cited neither a “smoking penetrator” nor any cancerous abnormalities in the civilian population. Those same reports, however, warned of potential longer-term radioactivity issues stemming from ingestion of uranium in drinking water or inhalation of uranium dust suspended in the air.
DU’s chemical toxicity raises other concerns. When ingested, the greatest concentrations of DU may show up in the kidneys, liver tissue, and skeletal structure, potentially causing renal dysfunction and organ damage.
As we head to Kosovo, here’s what we know: calls by concerned stakeholders for longer-term water, soil, air, and livestock monitoring in Kosovo have not been heeded. And studies of heavily targeted DU sites elsewhere in the Balkans—such as the TRZ Hadžići Tank Repair Facility in Bosnia and Herzegovina—have uncovered health and psychosocial consequences among populations exposed to DU.
Even before setting foot in Kosovo, we have begun discussing the value of increased information sharing and heightened transparency around DU target areas. Our trip will allow us to examine the state of awareness that surrounds these issues, and ultimately to offer recommendations for a response that is in line with the needs of Kosovan individuals, communities, and civil society.
February 9, 2017
Congratulations to Anna Khalfaoui, LLM ’17, who wrote the post below for the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. It was published February 8, 2017.
Reflections on the Review Conference as a Newcomer to CCW
The Fifth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was a great success for advocates of a ban on fully autonomous weapons. Held at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2016, the Conference was also an opportunity for me to discover and reflect on the processes and challenges of the CCW, to which I was a newcomer.
I became involved when I attended the Conference as part of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). I also contributed to a report that IHRC co-published with Human Rights Watch the week before the Review Conference. Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban rebuts the major arguments against a prohibition on the development and use of fully autonomous weapons. These weapons, also known as killer robots and lethal autonomous weapons systems, would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention.
The Review Conference was a key step toward a ban because states parties agreed to formalise talks on killer robots by establishing a Group of Government Experts (GGE), which will meet for 10 days in 2017. This GGE creates the expectation of an outcome as past GGEs have led to negotiation of new or stronger CCW protocols. It provides a forum for states and experts to discuss the parameters of a possible protocol which hopefully will take the form of a ban. The Review Conference also showed that support a ban is gaining traction around the world. Argentina, Panama, Peru and Venezuela joined the call for the first time at the Conference, bringing to 19 the number of states in favour of a ban.
The establishment of a GGE was the news I eagerly waited for the entire week. Continue Reading…
December 12, 2016
Clinic and HRW Document Increase in Incendiary Weapons Attacks; Call for Stronger International Restrictions
Increase in Incendiary Weapon Attacks
Stronger International Restrictions Needed
(Geneva, December 12, 2016) – The mounting use of incendiary weapons, which cause horrific wounds to civilians, should prompt countries to strengthen the law restricting them, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a diplomatic meeting about these and other weapons.
The 30-page report, “Time to Act against Incendiary Weapons,” documents civilian harm from incendiary weapons used in Syria since 2012, focusing on their increased use during the past year’s joint operations by Syrian government and Russian forces.
“Governments that care about protecting civilians should condemn incendiary weapon attacks and call for an end to the use of these exceptionally cruel weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Governments should also take action to strengthen international law on the weapons by committing to substantive discussions next year.”
The Clinic co-published this report with Human Rights Watch, for which Bonnie Docherty is also a senior researcher. Continue Reading…
December 9, 2016
Formalize ‘Killer Robots’ Talks; Aim for Ban
Fully Autonomous Weapons on Disarmament Conference Agenda
(Geneva, December 9, 2016) – Governments should agree at the upcoming multilateral disarmament meeting in Geneva to formalize their talks on fully autonomous weapons, with an eye toward negotiating a preemptive ban, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 49-page report, “Making the Case: The Dangers of Killer Robots and the Need for a Preemptive Ban,” rebuts 16 key arguments against a ban on fully autonomous weapons.
Fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems and ‘killer robots,’ would be able to select and attack targets without meaningful human control. These weapons and others will be the subject of the five-year Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) from December 12-16, 2016.
“It’s time for countries to move beyond the talking shop phase and pursue a preemptive ban,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. “Governments should ensure that humans retain control over whom to target with their weapons and when to fire.”
The report is co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is also senior arms researcher. Continue Reading…
October 20, 2016
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Alleged abuses against civilians in non-ceasefire areas may constitute violations of Myanmar’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement
Legal analysis shows ceasefire’s civilian protection commitments extend nationwide
(Cambridge, MA, October 20, 2016)– Reported abuses of civilians in non-ceasefire areas by the Myanmar military and other signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) would, if verified, constitute violations of key civilian protection provisions established by the agreement, said Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (the Clinic) in a legal memorandum released today. The military and other signatories should act immediately to address such reports, including by engaging with the mechanisms and processes established by the NCA and investigating alleged abuses.
The Clinic’s memorandum comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the signing of the NCA by the government and eight ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). While the agreement failed to include many of the EAOs that participated in the ceasefire talks, it was still heralded as a significant step in the country’s peace process. Over the past year, however, armed conflict has intensified in Shan State, Kachin State, and elsewhere, with reports of widespread abuse of civilians by the Myanmar military in particular.
“Ongoing abuses in conflict zones cast doubt on the military’s commitment to the NCA and undermine the trust between Myanmar’s government and ethnic nationality populations,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the Clinic. “Myanmar military officers can’t hide behind the fact the NCA was signed with only some ethnic armed organizations to abuse civilians in non-ceasefire areas.” Continue Reading…
September 20, 2016
Posted by Cara Solomon
Now that we’re in the rhythm of the semester, it’s time to introduce some new faces in the International Human Rights Clinic. We’re thrilled to welcome five new clinical advocacy fellows, all accomplished lawyers with different expertise and experiences. They’re leading clinical projects this semester on a range of new topics, from human rights protection in investment treaties to armed conflict and the environment.
In alphabetical order, here they are:
Fola Adeleke is a South African-trained lawyer who specializes in international economic law and human rights, corporate transparency, open government and accountability within the extractives industry. This semester, his projects focus on human rights protection in investment treaties and reconfiguring the licensing process of mining to include more consultation with communities.
Rebecca Agule, an alumna of the Clinic, is an American lawyer who specializes in the impact of conflict and violence upon individuals, communities, and the environment. This semester, her project focuses on armed conflict and the environment, with a focus on victim assistance.
Juan Pablo Calderón-Meza, a former Visiting Fellow with the Human Rights Program, is a Colombian attorney whose practice specializes in international law and human rights advocacy and litigation. This semester, his project focuses on accountability for corporations and executives that facilitated human rights abuses and atrocity crimes.
Yee Htun is the Director of the Myanmar Program for Justice Trust, a legal non-profit that partners with lawyers and activists to strengthen communities fighting for justice and human rights. Born in Myanmar and trained as a lawyer in Canada, Yee specializes in gender justice and working on behalf of refugee and migrant communities. This semester, her project focuses on women advocates in Myanmar.
Salma Waheedi is an attorney who specializes in international human rights law, Islamic law, gender justice, family law, comparative constitutional law, and refugee and asylum law. Born in Bahrain and trained as a lawyer in the U.S., Salma currently holds a joint appointment with Harvard Law School’s Islamic Legal Studies Program, where she focuses on family relations in Islamic jurisprudence. This semester, her project focuses on gender justice under Islam.
We’re so pleased to have the fellows as part of our community this semester. Please swing by at some point to introduce yourself and say hello.
June 20, 2016
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This piece originally appeared in The Conversation on June 16, 2016
New technology could lead humans to relinquish control over decisions to use lethal force. As artificial intelligence advances, the possibility that machines could independently select and fire on targets is fast approaching. Fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” are quickly moving from the realm of science fiction toward reality.
These weapons, which could operate on land, in the air or at sea, threaten to revolutionize armed conflict and law enforcement in alarming ways. Proponents say these killer robots are necessary because modern combat moves so quickly, and because having robots do the fighting would keep soldiers and police officers out of harm’s way. But the threats to humanity would outweigh any military or law enforcement benefits.
Removing humans from the targeting decision would create a dangerous world. Machines would make life-and-death determinations outside of human control. The risk of disproportionate harm or erroneous targeting of civilians would increase. No person could be held responsible. Continue Reading…
April 11, 2016
“Killer Robots: The Case for Human Control”
Nations Convene to Discuss Fully Autonomous Weapons
(Geneva, April 11, 2015) – Countries should retain meaningful human control over weapons systems and ban fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic said in a report issued today. The concept of meaningful human control will be a centerpiece of deliberations at a week-long multilateral meeting on the weapons, opening April 11, 2016, at the United Nations in Geneva.
The 16-page report, “Killer Robots and the Concept of Meaningful Human Control,” discusses the moral and legal importance of control and shows countries’ growing recognition of the need for humans to remain in charge of the critical functions of selecting and firing on targets.
“Machines have long served as instruments of war, but historically humans have directed how they are used,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic and the report’s lead author. “Now, there is a real threat that humans would relinquish their control and delegate life-and-death decisions to machines.”
Fully autonomous weapons would go a step beyond existing remote-controlled drones as they would be able to select and engage targets without human intervention. Although these weapons do not exist yet, the rapid movement of technology from human “in-the-loop” weapons systems toward “out-of-the-loop” systems is attracting international attention and concern.
Human Rights Watch and the Harvard program also examined the rules requiring control in various areas of international law, including disarmament, and how they could provide insight into the use of the term in the context of autonomous weapons. Bans on mines, biological weapons, and chemical weapons show the value disarmament law has placed on control of weapons. A requirement for meaningful human control over lethal force would in effect prohibit the use of fully autonomous weapons and thus achieve a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons, the organizations said.
The report will be distributed at the third international meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the UN in Geneva from April 11 to 15. Many of the 122 countries that have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons are expected to attend this meeting of experts on the subject, which Germany is chairing. The meeting continues deliberations on the matter held in April 2015 and May 2014.
Human Rights Watch coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which believes that work in the Convention on Conventional Weapons forum should lead to new international law prohibiting fully autonomous weapons. The Convention on Conventional Weapons preemptively banned blinding lasers in 1995.
“Humans should retain control of weapons systems and individual attacks, not only of overall operations,” said Docherty, who is also senior arms division researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Mandating human control would help avoid threats to the fundamental moral principles over the decision to use force.”
Fully autonomous weapons would lack the human capacity to feel empathy, which can act as a key check on killing, the organizations said. Ceding human control over decisions about who lives and who dies would also deprive people of their inherent dignity, as inanimate machines can neither truly comprehend the value of human life nor the significance of its loss.
Mandating meaningful human control would close the accountability gap that would be created by the use of fully autonomous weapons. It would ensure that someone could be punished for an unlawful act caused by the use of the weapon. With a legal requirement for human control, a commander could be held criminally liable for using any weapon without such control.
Meaningful human control over the use of weapons is also consistent with and promotes compliance with the principles of international humanitarian law, notably distinction and proportionality. Distinction requires the ability to understand an individual’s behavior and proportionality requires human judgment to weigh civilian harm and military advantage. Human control is also crucial to upholding human rights law. Two UN special rapporteurs said in February that: “Where advanced technology is employed, law enforcement officials must remain personally in control of the actual delivery of use of force.”
Since the international debate over full autonomy in weapons systems began at the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting in 2013, almost 30 countries have specifically addressed the concept of human control in their statements, largely characterizing it as meaningful, appropriate, or effective. Many of these countries explicitly support requiring human control and most have called for more in-depth discussions of the topic.
The concept of meaningful human control is also gaining currency outside of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. For example, a 2015 commentary on the right to life issued by the treaty body of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights found that: “Any machine autonomy in the selection of human targets or the use of force should be subject to meaningful human control.”
Countries participating in the Geneva meeting will not make any formal decisions. The meeting aims to build a common base of knowledge about technical, ethical, legal, operational, security, and other concerns relating to the weapons. However, they “may agree by consensus on recommendations for further work for consideration” by the treaty at its Fifth Review Conference, a multilateral meeting held every five years, in December 2016.
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Mary Wareham, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch arms division, serves as the campaign’s global coordinator. The international coalition of more than 60 nongovernmental organizations is working to preemptively ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons.
“Countries should not only dedicate more time to considering concerns about killer robots but also commit to pursue a timely and tangible outcome,” Docherty said. “Substantive work will only be possible if countries adopt policy and legislative measures to retain human control of weapons before the technology advances too far.”
The following International Human Rights Clinic students helped research and write the report under Docherty’s supervision: Anna Joseph, JD ’16; Josiah Kollmeyer, JD ’17; Lan Mei, JD ’17; and Kristen Zornada LLM ’16. Docherty, Mei, and Zornada are at the United Nations in Geneva this week to participate in the Convention on Conventional Weapons meeting and to present their paper.”
March 10, 2016
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This post originally appeared in Just Security
Is a driver speeding toward a military checkpoint launching a suicide attack or racing his pregnant wife to the hospital? Is a local man digging on a roadside at night planting an improvised explosive device (IED) or working his farm when the temperature is cooler? Is a resident who jumps up when troops burst into his home at 2am reaching for a gun or reacting in fear? In Afghanistan and Iraq, US troops have had to answer such questions repeatedly, often in split-second time. Civilian and military lives have depended on the accuracy of their determinations.
Under the US Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE), troops are allowed to fire in self-defense if they encounter someone demonstrating hostile intent, i.e., the “threat of imminent use of force.” Identifying such a threat presents challenges, however, especially when enemy forces blend in with the local population. Mistaken determinations of hostile intent were a major cause of civilian casualties attributable to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014. Tackling Tough Calls, a new report by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, examines this problem. Drawing on interviews with combat veterans and current servicemembers as well as open source research, it shows how the US military could better protect civilians from such errors without jeopardizing the lives of its troops.
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