Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
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May 21, 2017
A disarming leader: Bonnie Docherty recognized for contributions to human rights, clinical community
A post by Cara Solomon
When Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, began the daunting work of documenting torture and mass hangings in a Syrian prison, she was prepared. She knew how to interview survivors of trauma. She knew how to protect the security and confidentiality of witnesses. She knew, when her 50th interview was done, just how to connect the dots.
“There I was, with my pieces of paper all around me, with different highlighters for each different fact I was trying to establish,” said Nicolette, a researcher for Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “That’s basically me modeling what Bonnie taught me to do.”
Over the course of her career, as Bonnie Docherty has emerged as an international expert on civilian protection in armed conflict, she has also mentored scores of clinical students, from field researchers in conflict zones to advocates inside the halls of the UN in Geneva.
Her biggest alumni fans call themselves “the Bonnie mafia.” When they heard of her recent promotion to Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection at the International Human Rights Clinic, the reaction could best be summed up in one word: jubilation.
“This is the best news I’ve heard in a while,” said Lauren Herman, JD ’13, a fellow at Make the Road, NJ, an immigrants’ rights organization. “I am just thrilled for Bonnie and the Clinic and all of Harvard.”
The promotion gives Bonnie room to deepen and expand her work on civilian protection. She plans to increase support for civil society organizations working in the field, create a track for students interested in careers in civilian protection, and provide a forum for experts to develop practical innovations.
A senior researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch as well as a Harvard lecturer on law, she’ll continue to dedicate much of her time to humanitarian disarmament, which seeks to eliminate civilian suffering from problematic weapons. It’s an area Bonnie has been working in for 16 years.
“It’s a time of great expansion in humanitarian disarmament, but also a time of challenges,” said Bonnie. “I’m hoping we can bolster the advocacy of the NGOs, and provide some fresh thinking.”
Nobody is better poised to do that work. With her experience in the field, and her expertise in international humanitarian law, she is, her colleagues say, unquestionably one of the keenest legal minds in the humanitarian disarmament movement — known for her deep knowledge, her sharp legal analysis, and her strategic thinking.
“If someone asks you who is the best lawyer in the world to go to on cluster munitions — and now killer robots — Bonnie is at the top of the list,” said Steve Goose, who heads the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch.
Bonnie never imagined this career for herself. In college, she immersed herself in the study of history, partly for the love of individual stories, convinced she would pursue a PhD. Then she decided she wanted to see history unfold in real time, and turned towards journalism.
It was there, as a reporter for the Middlesex News, that she saw the aftermath of war up close. When the Department of Defense offered media trips to embed with the US-NATO peacekeepers in Bosnia in 1998, Bonnie, whose job included covering an Army lab in Natick, lobbied her editor to go.
The ten-day trip was a series of firsts: working with a translator, interviewing victims of human rights abuses, going on patrol with the military, seeing the remnants of weapons of war. Along the way, she picked up tricks of what would later become her trade — interviewing an Air Force pilot in a pitch-black cockpit, for example, scribbling her notes in the dark.
“I just tried to space the notes out broadly enough, and kept flipping pages quite aggressively — and hoped,” she said.
She’d applied to Harvard Law School months earlier, partly because she was tired of asking other people to answer her legal questions. In typical Bonnie form, she wanted to study the source of the information for herself. Then, the week she left for Bosnia, she got the acceptance letter.
And so, with the curiosity of a journalist and the long view of a historian, Bonnie went to law school, studying human rights and international humanitarian law, and landing at Human Rights Watch after graduation. Her first day on the job was September 12, 2001.
Over the years, Bonnie has documented human rights abuses and civilian casualties in some of the world’s most dangerous conflict zones, at some of the most dangerous times, from Afghanistan in 2002 to Baghdad in 2003, three weeks after the city fell.
In 2005, when she interviewed for the job of clinical fellow at the International Human Rights Clinic, she called in on a rental cell phone during a layover on the way to a three-week mission in Darfur.
With clinical students in tow, she’s investigated the use of cluster munitions in Lebanon; documented the ongoing needs of civilian victims of Nepal’s armed conflict; and most recently, examined the use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Ukraine.
From the very beginning, she thrived on the work.
“It’s a chance to make a difference in the world, which I always wanted to do,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity to be a part of history.”
What Bonnie saw out in the field then pushed her into another world, of diplomats and treaty negotiations. She began working intensively, often in Clinic-Human Rights Watch collaborations, to ban weapons that disproportionately affect civilians.
She’s been a leader in efforts to ban fully autonomous weapons, otherwise known as “killer robots,” and to strengthen international law on incendiary weapons. Perhaps most famously, she’s known as the legal expert behind the campaign for an absolute prohibition on cluster munitions, which started as a dream, and a decade later led to a treaty.
“It’s just amazing that someone is so capable of teaching and doing and showing students the ropes in those very different worlds,” said Brian Kelly, JD ’14, who now works at the U.S. Department of State. “I still reach out to her with questions.”
The process of improving civilian protection is slow moving and full of setbacks. To stay the course, she says, you need patience and stamina and plenty of faith.
For her part, Bonnie takes inspiration from studying the patterns of history. And then there’s always her memory of that day in 2008 when almost 100 countries gathered in Oslo to sign the treaty banning cluster munitions.
“It does give me patience when I’m doing all my other work to say: I know this can lead somewhere,” Bonnie said.
By the time the ban on cluster munitions was signed, Bonnie had been a teacher in the International Human Rights Clinic for three years. So when it happened, she had students by her side. Chris Rogers, JD ’09, was one of them.
It was a day he will never forget.
“You had individuals who were really part of a movement for years, from victims of cluster munitions in Cambodia to arms control groups in Latin America and the Middle East to human rights organizations in Europe,” said Rogers, now a senior policy analyst with the Open Society Foundations’ Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia Program. “For me, someone who was just starting out in his career in this field, to see such an impressive victory by civil society, it was very influential.”
Ask any student under Bonnie’s supervision, and they’ll tell you: they learn on the job. They’re up all night with her drinking Diet Mountain Dew and parsing treaty language before a meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. They’re preparing presentations on the dangers of killer robots for UN side events.
Ask Ken Rutherford, co-founder of the Landmine Survivors Network, and he’ll tell you: Bonnie’s students are rock stars.
“They’re not traveling around the world trying to get free cups of tea,” said Ken, a professor of political science at James Madison University. “They’re singularly focused on niche areas of international humanitarian law that need to be re-evaluated, re-examined, and opened up for further discussion or refinement.”
By now, inside the tight-knit community of advocates that work on protecting civilians in armed conflict, there’s an expectation of excellence from Bonnie.
It’s just a given: Every few months, she and her students will churn out a meticulously researched publication. It will be on a topic foundational enough, or cutting edge enough, to push any given campaign forward.
Bonnie will draw large crowds to her side events at international weapons conferences. And you will see in the audience so many nodding heads, as she lays out in a straightforward and compelling manner the case for what civilians need.
“Sometimes we take it for granted,” said Miriam Struyk, Program Director of Security and Disarmament at PAX, who grew up in the humanitarian disarmament movement alongside Bonnie. “But we shouldn’t, because it’s still remarkable.”
When Bonnie joined the Clinic, she had eight projects, 16 students, and very little teaching experience. She was something of an introvert then, as she is now, and she wondered: Would she connect?
Her colleagues in the Clinic knew she would. Her passion, her dedication, and her caring caring were all contagious.
“Bonnie’s just a natural,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of the Clinic. “From the very beginning, the students have been inspired to follow her lead.”
Quiet and understated, Bonnie is not the kind of advocate whose voice swells when she talks about victims. Her caring comes through in other ways — in the literature she assigns her students to read, in the tributes she writes to beloved colleagues who have passed away.
Here was a human rights advocate who strayed so far from the stereotype in her mind. Someone who had made a career, and a community for herself, by being superb at her job, and generous.
“You don’t need to be this showy person who’s constantly hustling and advocating for themselves, which is a little bit how I imagined it had to be,” said Crowe, now a clinical instructor and lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. “That was one of the major revelations of the year.”
More than a decade after she began teaching, the “Bonnie mafia” now stretches far and wide, roughly 40 alumni strong. Some work in government. Others at law firms. Many have moved into the fields of disarmament, or civilian protection, or other areas of human rights advocacy.
Many owe their first job to her, and often, the job after that. To them, Bonnie’s influence cannot be overstated.
“Without Bonnie, I wouldn’t be who I am and doing the work I am doing today,” said Rogers. “There is a direct line between Bonnie and the laws and policies I’ve helped to pass in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
Those words come from a letter several alumni wrote to the senior leadership of Harvard Law School a few years ago, calling attention to the ways in which Bonnie prepared them to practice law, and strengthened the contributions they would make to the world. It gave Bonnie goose bumps to read it. She’d never heard some of those stories before.
When she was promoted this spring, Bonnie got to hear it all again, in notes that came from all corners of the country and the world. It’s something far more than praise to her; it’s a gift.
“They’ve made such a difference in my life,” said Bonnie. “It’s nice to think I could give them something in return.”
May 18, 2017
Clinic and PAX document harm to health care in Ukraine caused by use of explosive weapons in populated areas
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Since armed conflict broke out in Ukraine in 2014, the use of explosive weapons has directly damaged hospitals, destroyed ambulances, and killed or injured health workers. It has also indirectly affected the health care system by shutting down infrastructure—causing loss of electricity, heat, water, and communications—and creating travel risks for ambulances, medical personnel, and civilians in need.
These impacts have interfered with the provision of health care to local civilians and forced many to go without.
A new report, Operating under Fire: The Effects of Explosive Weapons on Health Care in the East of Ukraine, documents the situation, drawing on field research conducted in communities along the front line. The report was jointly released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Dutch peace organization PAX.
As the report makes clear, the harm attributable to explosive weapons’ use in populated areas has infringed on the availability, quality, and accessibility of health care, which are three elements of the right to health.
For example, structural damage and shattered windows have forced hospitals to abandon buildings and cut back on services. Doctors have treated patients in frigid conditions and operated by operated by candlelight due to heat and power outages. Health workers and civilians alike have had to dodge shells and risk their lives to reach local clinics.
The health care problems have exacerbated the conflict-related difficulties faced by civilians in the east of Ukraine. They also exemplify one of the many humanitarian problems associated with using explosive weapons in populated areas.
Explosive weapons encompass a range of munitions, including air-dropped bombs, artillery projectiles, rockets, and missiles. Especially when such weapons have wide area effects and are used in cities and towns, they are likely to hit civilians and the infrastructure upon which their lives depend.
In addition to spotlighting the impacts on health care in Ukraine, Operating under Fire makes the case for an international political commitment that would help minimize future harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty: firstname.lastname@example.org
April 14, 2017
Today, we have the most wonderful news: our beloved Bonnie Docherty has been promoted to Associate Director for Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection! Bonnie has been a leader in the disarmament movement since 2001, working to ban everything from cluster munitions to killer robots to nuclear weapons- and developing a generation of students into advocates along the way.
More on this in an article to come. In the meantime, here she is today, being celebrated by some of her many fans, all of whom raised a plastic glass of Diet Mountain Dew in her honor. Congratulations, Bonnie! You do us proud.
April 4, 2017
Just days after the historic nuclear ban treaty negotiations at the UN, we were so pleased to welcome two leaders in the disarmament field to HLS: Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and Richard Moyes, managing director of Article 36. They offered their perspectives on the process that led to treaty negotiations; reflected on the opening session in March; and talked about the work still to be done and their hopes for the final outcome.
See below for video of the event, which was moderated by their colleague and ours, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty.
April 3, 2017
“Banning nuclear weapons: A milestone for disarmament”
12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
Please join us for a conversation with two disarmament leaders, who will be coming straight from the UN’s groundbreaking negotiations of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), and Richard Moyes, managing director of Article 36, have played significant roles in reframing the nuclear weapons debate as a humanitarian issue rather than a national security one. That shift helped drive the UN General Assembly to break a decades-long stalemate and commit to banning nuclear weapons. Fihn and Moyes will offer a civil society perspective on the process that led to treaty negotiations and reflect on the opening session in March. They will also talk about the work still to be done and their hopes for the final outcome.
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…
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