Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
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May 21, 2018
Listen: ACCPI’s Bonnie Docherty Discusses Humanitarian Disarmament Career Path on Leading Questions Podcast
Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative Associate Director Bonnie Docherty spoke with the Harvard Law Record‘s Hannah Solomon-Strauss, JD’18, and Evelyn Douek, SJD Candidate, on their Leading Questions podcast. Docherty discussed her career path from history student to journalist to a teacher and lawyer that most recently helped advise the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in their Nobel Peace Prize-winning efforts in humanitarian disarmament.
When asked what drove her when her goals—such as the historic treaty banning cluster munitions in 2008—felt like a “long shot,” Docherty responded: “I think it was partly having seen the effects of these weapons, both [in] Afghaniston, Iraq, and in Lebanon. And knowing first-hand what they did really did keep me motivated. So intellectually I was motivated by the challenge of crafting treaty text and that was really exciting once we got in the negotiations. But I think [it is] important in this work to remember the humans and not to get lost in the advocacy or the legal details. […] If you remember the humans, it keeps you going.” Below is the full audio of the conversation.
April 16, 2018
This piece by Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, originally ran in The Guardian, under the headline “We’re Running Out of Time to Stop Killer Robots”
It’s five years this month since the launch of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of non-governmental groups calling for a ban on fully autonomous weapons. This month also marks the fifth time that countries have convened at the United Nations in Geneva to address the problems these weapons would pose if they were developed and put into use.
The countries meeting in Geneva this week are party to a major disarmament treaty called the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. While some diplomatic progress has been made under that treaty’s auspices since 2013, the pace needs to pick up dramatically. Countries that recognise the dangers of fully autonomous weapons cannot wait another five years if they are to prevent the weapons from becoming a reality.
Fully autonomous weapons, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control, do not yet exist, but scientists have warned they soon could. Precursors have already been developed or deployed as autonomy has become increasingly common on the battlefield. Hi-tech military powers, including China, Israel, Russia, South Korea, the UK and the US, have invested heavily in the development of autonomous weapons. So far there is no specific international law to halt this trend.
Experts have sounded the alarm, emphasising that fully autonomous weapons raise a host of concerns. For many people, allowing machines that cannot appreciate the value of human life to make life-and-death decisions crosses a moral red line.
Legally, the so-called “killer robots” would lack human judgment, meaning that it would be very challenging to ensure that their decisions complied with international humanitarian and human rights law. For example, a robot could not be preprogrammed to assess the proportionality of using force in every situation, and it would find it difficult to judge accurately whether civilian harm outweighed military advantage in each particular instance.
Fully autonomous weapons also raise the question: who would be responsible for attacks that violate these laws if a human did not make the decision to fire on a specific target? In fact, it would be legally difficult and potentially unfair to hold anyone responsible for unforeseeable harm to civilians. Continue Reading…
April 10, 2018
Understanding Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation Under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The humanitarian impact of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) depends on both its comprehensive ban on nuclear weapons and its obligations to assist victims and remediate the environment affected by use and testing. The former aims to prevent future harm, while the latter addresses harm that has already occurred.
The Clinic is releasing new papers on victim assistance and environmental remediation in order to increase awareness of these elements of the treaty. The short publications provide an overview of the provisions in the TPNW and guidance from other humanitarian disarmament treaties as to how they might be implemented.
The TPNW’s so-called “positive obligations” establish a framework of shared state responsibility for helping victims and cleaning the contaminated environment
During last year’s treaty negotiations at the United Nations, the Clinic worked closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. A team from the Clinic, along with advocates from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, played a leading role in ensuring that the treaty included the positive obligations.
March 2, 2018
The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) is thrilled to announce the launch of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI), which aims to reduce the harm caused by armed conflict through targeted advocacy, leadership development, and the generation of innovative solutions.
The ACCPI will be led by Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, who is an internationally renowned leader in the field of humanitarian disarmament. Docherty has worked at the heart of almost every major civil society campaign to ban inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, or curtail their use to minimize the impacts on civilians. She was a critical player in the 2008 cluster munitions ban, as well as the nuclear weapons ban, adopted in July of last year.
“Today’s armed conflicts are causing countless civilian casualties, destroying infrastructure and the environment, and driving people from their homes,” said Docherty, who also works as a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “This initiative represents a unique opportunity to provide focused support to the movement dealing with these issues, as well as to students interested in making a career in the field.”
Since she arrived at the Clinic in 2005, Docherty has put clinical students at the heart of her advocacy, supervising them on everything from field research in Lebanon to lobbying at the UN. Under her leadership, and through her mentorship, students have gone on to work as field researchers, advocates in peace negotiations, and policy analysts, actively working to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict.
In the years to come, the ACCPI will create a formal track for HLS students who want to pursue careers in civilian protection. That track will expand on existing offerings, including specialized courses, clinical projects, and trainings; it will also build a career development program that links students with relevant organizations, a network of alumni, and funding for internships and fellowships.
“So many of us have learned the tools of the trade by Bonnie’s side,” said Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, who is actively involved in the ACCPI. “This initiative will strengthen the movement by creating even more opportunities for students to develop into leaders.”
The ACCPI will go broad as well as deep, tackling issues as diverse as environmental damage, refugee rights, and world heritage in times of armed conflict. One of its main areas of focus will be humanitarian disarmament, which strives to end the civilian suffering that certain weapons cause.
This Monday, March 5, the ACCPI’s inaugural conference, “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead,” will bring dozens of international experts together to discuss how the movement has developed over the past two decades, and to explore where it should go from here. With its focus on collaboration and innovation, the conference is a window into one of the ACCPI’s central priorities: generating fresh perspectives and creative strategies for lessening the harms of war.
The mostly closed-door conference will include two public events: a keynote conversation with leaders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigns to ban nuclear weapons and landmines; and a panel that examines current issues in humanitarian disarmament, including efforts to end the urban use of certain explosive weapons, reduce the environmental impact of armed conflict, ban killer robots, and control the unlawful arms trade.
During her time in the Clinic, Docherty herself has gone deep on almost all of these issues, documenting the effects of explosive weapons in Ukraine, teaching about the environmental impacts of war, and making the case for preemptively prohibiting killer robots. Together with Crowe, she led a clinical team during the nuclear ban treaty negotiations last summer; supervisors and students successfully advocated for the treaty to include “positive obligations” that require countries to assist victims and clean up the environment affected by nuclear weapons.
The ACCPI will build on this body of work, focusing on effecting change through advocacy in two areas. First, it will ramp up existing efforts to create new international instruments that protect civilians from problematic weapons. Second, the initiative will promote the development of norms in unsettled areas of law and practice, whether hotly contested or at the intersection of multiple legal frameworks.
Throughout, the ACCPI will adopt an interdisciplinary approach that draws on multiple legal bodies to achieve its ends. It will look to international human rights law, the focus of IHRC and a body of law applicable at all times. It will use international humanitarian law, applicable in times of armed conflict. It will also rely on humanitarian disarmament law, which incorporates elements of both of the above.
In these ways and others, the ACCPI will occupy a distinct niche on Harvard’s campus, combining cutting-edge advocacy with student involvement in all aspects of the work. It is the kind of work that will make Harvard a center for excellence on civilian protection from armed conflict. And her colleagues know: There is no better person to lead it than Docherty, a pioneer from the very start.
“The depth of Bonnie’s impact on her field over the past fifteen years has been remarkable, and she’s done it all with such humility,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the International Human Rights Clinic. “She’s a tireless advocate, and given the state of armed conflict today, we’re elated to see her launch and lead this critically important initiative.”
February 26, 2018
March 5 – 6, 2018
“Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead”
Inaugural Conference of the Armed Conflict
and Civilian Protection Initiative
at Harvard Law School
12 – 1:30 p.m.
Austin 100 (North), Harvard Law School
Lunch will be served.
Please join us for a conference that brings together international experts in humanitarian disarmament, a movement that strives to end civilian suffering caused by inhumane and indiscriminate weapons. Drawing on first-hand experience in creating international law, conference participants will discuss how the movement has developed over the past two decades and explore where it should go from here.
The conference will include two public events: a keynote conversation with leaders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigns to ban nuclear weapons and landmines; and a panel that examines current issues in humanitarian disarmament, including efforts to end the urban use of certain explosive weapons, reduce the environmental impact of armed conflict, ban killer robots, and control the unlawful arms trade.
Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead will launch the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, which is housed in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). The conference is co-organized by IHRC, the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
December 20, 2017
The Nobel Peace Prize Celebrations: Recognition and Reinvigoration for Humanitarian Disarmament Advocates
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
On December 10, 2017, at 1 p.m., uniformed musicians on the grand staircase of Oslo City Hall brought their gleaming trumpets to their lips and the audience to its feet. The clarion salute they sounded heralded the arrival of the king and queen of Norway and a new era of nuclear disarmament.
In front of dignitaries, diplomats, and dozens of civil society campaigners, myself included, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
The award honors ICAN for having “given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour.” In particular, the prize recognizes the civil society coalition’s “ground-breaking” work to realize a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
More than 70 years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons makes clear that nuclear weapons are illegal as well as immoral and increases the stigma against them. It also shows that real progress in nuclear disarmament is possible.
I had the honor of attending the Nobel ceremony as part of ICAN’s delegation because, along with Clinical Instructor Anna Crowe and a team from the International Human Rights Clinic, I partnered closely with ICAN during last summer’s treaty negotiations. We provided legal advice and successfully lobbied for obligations to address the humanitarian and environmental harm caused by nuclear weapons.
I can best describe my four days in Oslo as magical. In addition to the ceremony, the celebrations included a torchlight parade, a concert in ICAN’s honor, and the opening of a museum exhibition on the coalition. Nobel Peace Prize banners hung from street lamps on the city’s main boulevard, and the lights on a Ferris wheel alternated flashing the Nobel medal and the ICAN logo.
The experience was made all the more meaningful because I shared it with friends from around the world with whom I’ve advocated for humanitarian disarmament for more than 15 years.
The genesis of the nuclear weapon ban treaty exemplifies the power of a humanitarian approach to disarmament. After the 1996 adoption of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, there was minimal progress in advancing the law on nuclear weapons; international discussions continued but produced no tangible results.
In 2010, ICAN and other proponents of a new treaty began to reframe nuclear weapons as a humanitarian, rather than national security, issue. Publications from ICAN and its member organizations highlighted the horrific harm caused by use and testing. A resolution from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement called for using “the framework of humanitarian diplomacy” to work toward a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. In 2015, 127 states endorsed the “Humanitarian Pledge,” committing “to promote the protection of civilians against risks stemming from nuclear weapons” and to strive for a world free of nuclear weapons.
This shift in the debate broke the international deadlock. The following year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to initiate treaty negotiations, and on July 7, 2017, 122 states adopted a global ban on nuclear weapons. Only one country voted against, and one abstained.
As I explained at a legal seminar held during the Nobel celebrations, the influence of humanitarian disarmament is evident in the treaty’s text as well as the process behind it. The preamble recognizes the overwhelming human and environmental consequences of the weapons, and acknowledges the disproportionate impact on women and girls and indigenous peoples. Continue Reading…
November 20, 2017
Clinic and HRW Document Use of Incendiary Weapons by Coalition of Syrian Government and Russian Forces
(Geneva, November 20, 2017) – Countries should respond to reports of new use of incendiary weapons in Syria by working to strengthen the international law governing these exceptionally cruel weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 28-page report, “An Overdue Review: Addressing Incendiary Weapons in the Contemporary Context,” documents use of incendiary weapons by the coalition of Syrian government and Russian forces in 2017. It urges countries at a UN disarmament meeting, held in Geneva from November 22 to 24, 2017, to initiate a review of Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). This protocol, which regulates incendiary weapons, has failed to prevent their ongoing use, endangering civilians.
“Countries should react to the threat posed by incendiary weapons by closing the loopholes in outdated international law,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, which co-published the report. “Stronger law would mean stronger protections for civilians.”
Docherty, who is also senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, presented the report’s findings at a side event at the United Nations in Geneva today.
Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. They can be designed for marking and signaling or to burn materiel, penetrate plate metal, or produce smokescreens. Incendiary weapons cause excruciating burns, disfigurement, and psychological trauma, and they start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.
For the first time in nearly four decades, countries that are parties to the 1980 treaty have devoted a specific session at their annual meeting to Protocol III. The meeting will also address fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.”
States parties should seize this opportunity to hold robust discussions about the harm caused by incendiary weapons and the adequacy of Protocol III, Human Rights Watch said. They should condemn recent use, support a formal review of the protocol, with an eye to strengthening it, and set aside more time for in-depth discussions in 2018.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented 22 attacks with incendiary weapons across five governorates of Syria by Syrian government forces or their Russian allies. From 2012 to 2016, Human Rights Watch documented at least 68 attacks by the same forces, as well as several cases of severe civilian harm. While Syria is not a party to Protocol III, Russia is.
As recently as November 12, photographs and video reportedly taken in Syria’s Idlib governorate as well as a report from Syria Civil Defense field workers indicate the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons, although Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm these specific attacks.
The continued use of incendiary weapons in Syria shows that countries, including Syria, need to join Protocol III and comply with its restrictions on use in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said. The use also demonstrates the need for stronger norms, which can increase the stigma against the weapons and influence even those not party to the protocol.
Protocol III has two major loopholes. First, its definition excludes multipurpose weapons, such as those with white phosphorus, which may be primarily designed to provide smokescreens or illumination, but can inflict the same horrific injuries as other incendiary weapons. White phosphorus, for example, can burn through human flesh to the bone and reignite days after treatment if exposed to oxygen.
In 2017, the US-led coalition used white phosphorus while fighting to retake Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq from the Islamic State. While Human Rights Watch has not confirmed casualties from these incidents, the New York Times reported that munitions containing white phosphorous hit an internet café, killing approximately 20 people.
Second, while the protocol prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiary weapons in populated areas, it allows the use of ground-delivered models in certain circumstances. All incendiary weapons cause the same effects, however, and this arbitrary distinction should be eliminated. A complete ban on incendiary weapons would have the greatest humanitarian benefits.
In recent years, a growing number of countries have condemned the use of incendiary weapons and called for revisiting or strengthening Protocol III. At the meeting in Geneva, they should expand on their positions, and new countries should add their voices to the debate.
“Existing law on incendiary weapons is a legacy of the US war in Vietnam and a Cold War compromise,” said Docherty. “But the political and military landscape has changed, and it is time for the law to reflect current problems.”
The new report was researched and written by clinical students Allie Brudney, JD ’19, Sofia Falzoni, JD ’19, and Natalie McCauley, JD ’19, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty.
November 9, 2017
Tomorrow, Nov. 10: Addressing the Harms and Curbing the Use of Armed Drones; LGBTQ Rights in the Arab World
Friday, November 10, 2017
“Armed Drones: Addressing Harms and Curbing Use”
A talk by Elizabeth Minor, Advisor, Article 36
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Please join us for a brown bag informal lunch discussion with Elizabeth Minor, an Advisor at UK-based disarmament NGO Article 36. Minor will explore the current state of international action by states and NGOs to address the concerns raised by armed drones. She will also discuss the need to work towards agreement on the limits of the acceptable use of these technologies in order to respond to the harm they cause.
Minor is a researcher and campaigner who has worked for eight years with NGOs and in international coalitions, undertaking policy analysis and advocacy to address armed violence and harm from certain weapons. Most recently with Article 36 she worked to achieve the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.
This event is part of the International Human Rights Clinic’s work on armed conflict and civilian protection.
“Dismantling Oppressive Structures: LGBTQ Rights in the Arab World”
A panel discussion
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
This event is open to Harvard Law School affiliates only
Over the past ten years, new battle lines have begun to form in much of the Arab world. Quietly, slowly, but firmly, LGBTQ activists across the region have begun to resist the legacy of decades of injustice and discrimination against them visibly and vocally by organizing their ranks and embarking on brave acts of resistance.
This panel will examine the cultural and sociopolitical origins and dynamics of homophobia and transphobia in the Arab world and engage in an open and honest conversation about what queer liberation would look like in this complex region. Panelists will draw on their own experiences as activists and debate solutions to dismantle the existing structures of oppression in a number of contexts, including Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, and Palestine.
The panelists: Sa’ed Atshan, Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College (Palestine); Dalia Al-Farghal, LGBTQ Rights Activist, (Egypt); Senda Ben Jbara, LGBTQ Rights Activist (Tunisia); and Tarek Zeidan, LGBTQ Rights Activist, Helem or Lebanese Protection for LGBTQs (Lebanon).
This event is co-sponsored by Lambda, HLS Advocates, MELSA, and the Human Rights Progam, all at Harvard Law School.
October 26, 2017
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Although I never met Carl Thorne-Thomsen, I’ve known about him for as long as I can remember.
I distinctly recall driving down the road to my grandparents’ home in Lake Forest, IL, as my mother told me about her close high school friend who had died in Vietnam. Carl had opposed the war, she explained, but he felt it was unjust for him to be sheltered from the draft while others with less privilege were sent to fight in Southeast Asia. In a quiet act of protest, he withdrew from Harvard College during his junior year and was drafted in April 1967. Two months after arriving in Vietnam, and 50 years ago this week, he was killed in combat.
Although I was in elementary school at the time of this conversation, Carl’s decision to live—and die—by his principles made a vivid impression on me. Decades later, having spent most of my career on issues of armed conflict, I still find myself compelled. The 50th anniversary of his death motivated me to track down more information through archives and interviews and to write a Vita for Harvard Magazine’s September/October issue.
Carl’s story demonstrates the power of an individual to have a lasting impact. Virtually everyone I interviewed used the word “special” to describe him. Crew teammates and fellow soldiers alike cited the strength of character Carl showed in standing up against the inequity of the draft. On the battlefield, his bravery as a radio operator saved lives. Several Harvard classmates said they had sought out Carl’s name on the Vietnam Wall, and for decades, his commanding officer carried with him a letter Carl’s mother sent after she received the news of his death. An unexpected reward of doing my story was to share with his still grieving family how others remembered him.
My own admiration for Carl has only grown as I have done more research and talked with people who knew him personally. He made sacrifices for his principles yet did so in private way. Many of his classmates and comrades-in-arms did not know until recently how a Harvard student ended up as an enlisted man in Vietnam. Carl hated injustice, and whether on campus or in a combat zone, he treated everyone with the same respect. In the end, he left a legacy of courage and character that remains an inspiration.
October 16, 2017
Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017
“Humanization of Arms Control: Paving the Way for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons”
A book talk by Daniel Rietiker, Senior Lawyer, European Court of Human Rights
12:00- 1:00 p.m.
Lunch will be served
Please join us for a talk with Daniel Rietiker to discuss his recent book, “Humanization of Arms Control: Paving the Way for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” in which he argues for putting human beings, rather than state security, at the center of disarmament law. After laying out the history of this approach in previous treaties, he will examine how it has played out in the negotiations and text of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Dr. Rietiker, a former Visiting Fellow with the Human Rights Program, is a senior lawyer at the European Court of Human Rights, an adjunct professor of public international law at the University of Lausanne (Switzerland), and a member of adjunct faculty at Suffolk University Law School.
This event is part of the International Human Rights Clinic’s work on armed conflict and civilian protection.
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