Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

July 25, 2017

Banning the Bomb: Reflections on the UN Negotiations for the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty


By Carina Bentata Gryting JD ’18, Molly Doggett JD ’17, Lan Mei JD ’17, and Alice Osman LLM ’17


Carina Bentata Gryting and Alice Osman in the UN General Assembly Hall where the negotiations opened in March 2017.

Signing up for the International Human Rights Clinic in spring 2017, we could not have imagined that it would lead us to the United Nations and global negotiations to ban nuclear weapons. With Bonnie Docherty and Anna Crowe as our clinical supervisors, we worked alongside London-based organization Article 36 as well as the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the civil society coalition at the conference. We had the unique opportunity to not only witness, but also actually participate in, norm-building at the international level.

It was at times difficult to explain to those not involved in the negotiations why the ban treaty was an important or even a sensible cause. Many people questioned the impact of a treaty being boycotted by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. For those of us participating in the negotiations, however, the purpose behind the treaty was complex but clear.

Nuclear weapons should no longer be the only weapon of mass destruction not prohibited by international law. A categorical ban on nuclear weapons would increase the stigma surrounding the weapons and ramp up pressure on nuclear states to work towards eliminating their arsenals. Moreover, a strong humanitarian motivation drove the treaty. Prior conferences on the impact of nuclear weapons had led many countries to declare the catastrophic effect of nuclear weapons incompatible with any legal or practical purpose. Countries like the Marshall Islands, Algeria, and Kazakhstan suffered from years of testing and their populations have experienced decades-long harm. Victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, known as Hibakusha, along with their children and grandchildren, still deal with the health and environmental consequences of atomic bombs today. Survivors of this use and testing offered compelling testimony for why nuclear weapons should be banned.

Our team focused on ensuring that the treaty not only prohibited nuclear weapons but also held true to its humanitarian purpose by directly addressing the horrific effects of nuclear weapon use and testing. Throughout the spring semester, we prepared papers, released at the negotiations, that made the case for including relevant provisions in the ban treaty. We argued that states parties should have the obligation to remediate environments affected by nuclear explosions and to provide assistance to victims within their territories. Other states parties should in turn help affected states implement their responsibilities. These “positive obligations” would not merely mitigate hypothetical future instances of nuclear weapon use, but would require states to deal with the significant ongoing impact of historic detonations. Existing humanitarian disarmament treaties, such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, provided precedent for such provisions.

At first, it seemed unclear exactly how our research and advocacy could possibly influence the final text of the treaty. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had a limited status at the negotiations, and indeed, during the three-week session in June and July, the breakout working groups discussing specific articles were closed to civil society members. This was an unfortunate and unexpected development, especially given that the president of the conference, along with many states, had thanked civil society for its contributions and acknowledged that the negotiations likely would not have come about without its efforts. Furthermore, several smaller states, whose UN missions in New York had only two or three officers, relied on civil society to provide them with information about the headway of the negotiations.

While disappointed at not having full access to the negotiating rooms, we continued to make our voices heard. We presented diplomats with papers laying out our legal and policy arguments. We regularly met with diplomats over lunch or coffee to receive updates about the progress of negotiations and to analyze key developments. We did real-time research on the concerns states had about our positions and figured out ways to address them. The publications we had disseminated at the opening of the negotiations served as a foundation for our advocacy efforts: they helped us articulate our positions to both state delegates and fellow civil society actors and formed the basis of presentations, talking points, newsletter articles, and model treaty language. It was extremely rewarding to know that the work we had put in throughout the semester was able to assist Article 36 and the broader civil society coalition.

The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.

Our work ultimately had a tangible impact on the content of the treaty. A year ago, few people were thinking about including positive obligations in the prohibition convention, and the first draft of the text, released in May, was weak. But the final version included all the obligations for which we had advocated.

The last moments of the negotiations on July 7 were a dramatic affair. Against the hopes of most governments and civil society, the Netherlands objected to adopting the new treaty by consensus. In the final vote, though, overwhelming support for the treaty bolstered its credibility equally well: 122 states voted in favor of the ground-breaking convention, with only the Netherlands voting against and Singapore abstaining.

Joining the celebrations of jubilant state delegates and civil society advocates, many of whom had been campaigning against nuclear weapons for decades, was an unforgettable experience. We all felt extremely grateful to have had the chance to be a part of this passionate community of disarmament activists during what was a major moment in the history of efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

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June 27, 2017

Addressing Human and Environmental Impacts of Nuclear Weapons in New Ban Treaty

Posted by Alice Osman and Molly Doggett


Bonnie Docherty, associate director for armed conflict and civilian protection at the clinic, delivering statement to countries negotiating nuclear weapon ban treaty at the UN in New York. Photo courtesy of ICAN.

Member states of the UN General Assembly are currently engaged in historic negotiations of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. At this point, nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not subject to a categorical prohibition in international law. A team from the International Human Rights Clinic, which is participating in the negotiations in New York, has joined the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in urging countries to adopt a strong treaty that is focused on preventing and remediating the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapon use and testing.

Prohibitions on the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of nuclear weapons are necessary but insufficient components of the new treaty. In order to address the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons effectively, states parties must also adopt positive obligations to provide assistance to victims in their territory and to remediate environmental contamination caused by nuclear weapon use and testing. In partnership with London-based NGO Article 36, our clinical team has released papers arguing for the inclusion of victim assistance and environmental remediation treaty provisions.

We have been encouraged to see that the draft text of the treaty contains provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation. However, stronger and more comprehensive provisions are necessary to ensure that the needs of victims and the environment are effectively met. We are advocating for a clear obligation on affected states parties to remediate contaminated areas; currently environmental remediation measures are merely optional. In addition, the draft text does not require all affected states parties to assist victims in their territory, and thus is inconsistent with human rights law. We are calling for strong obligations on other states parties to help affected countries meet their positive obligations.

Many countries have agreed on the need for victim assistance and environmental remediation. The main point of debate has centered on the question of who should bear the responsibility for these obligations. Some delegations have suggested that states that use or test nuclear weapons (“user states”) should bear primary responsibility for providing assistance to victims and remediating the environment. By contrast, a number of other states, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and ICAN have argued for placing primary responsibility for these activities on affected states.

We believe that responsibility for positive obligations must lie with affected states for both legal and practical reasons. First, victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations aim to ensure that the rights of people living in affected areas are protected and realized. It is a basic premise of international human rights law that each state is responsible for protecting and fulfilling the rights of individuals within its own territory. This allocation of responsibility also respects the sovereignty of affected states parties, who can set priorities and develop plans for victim assistance and environmental remediation within their territories.

Second, because of their proximity and access to victims and contaminated areas, affected states are in the best position to deliver aid to victims and to undertake environmental remediation. Moreover, there is a serious risk that placing the primary responsibility on user states, which are unlikely to join the treaty in the immediate future, will leave the needs of victims and the environment unaddressed.

Alice Osman, LLM ’17, and Molly Doggett, JD ’17, working hard at the nuclear weapon ban negotiations. Photo by Bonnie Docherty.

Finally, affected state responsibility for victim assistance and environmental remediation follows the precedent of other humanitarian disarmament treaties, such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Mine Ban Treaty.

Some countries have expressed concerns that heavily affected states with limited resources would be unable to meet their positive obligations. But affected states should not face the task of implementation alone. The strong international cooperation and assistance provision for which we are advocating would require other countries party to the treaty (including user states) to contribute to victim assistance and environmental remediation efforts. This arrangement would ensure that the treaty does not place an undue burden on affected states, while guaranteeing that the needs of the victims are in fact met.

Only seven days of negotiations remain. We will continue to engage with delegates to ensure that states fully understand the importance of positive obligations and that international assistance can decrease the burden on affected states. We are hopeful that the next version of the text will address these issues and better meet the humanitarian goals of the convention.

The Clinic’s nuclear weapons team includes: Carina Bentata Gryting, JD ’18, Molly Doggett, JD ’17, Lan Mei, JD ’17, and Alice Osman, LLM ’17. The team was supervised by Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director for Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, and Clinical Instructor Anna Crowe.

For a full discussion of victim assistance and environmental remediation obligations, see:

Victim Assistance in the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty: A Comprehensive and Detailed Approach
(June 2017, Briefing paper)

Environmental Remediation in the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty: A Comprehensive and Detailed Approach (June 2017, Briefing paper)

For a summary of our arguments and recommendations:

Key Points: Victim Assistance in the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty (June 2017, Working paper)

Key Points: Environmental Remediation in the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty (June 2017, Working paper)

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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.

Bonnie on a fact-finding mission in Iraq.

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.”

Bonnie consults with NGO delegates at a UN conference on cluster munitions in Geneva. Photo by Gemima Harvey/CMC

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.

Bonnie with Anna Crowe, LLM ‘12, now a clinical instructor

Almost above all, it was her humility that struck Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, when she arrived in the Clinic, knowing Bonnie only by reputation. Anna was prepared to be intimidated. And then, surprisingly, she wasn’t.

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.”

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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.

Download the full report.
Download the summary and recommendations.

For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty: bdocherty@law.harvard.edu

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April 14, 2017

Bonnie Docherty promoted to Associate Director for Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection


BonnieCakeToday, 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.

 

JillandLisa

 

AnnaBonnie

 

Eating

 

BonnieTyler

 

BonnieYee

 

MountainDew

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April 4, 2017

VIDEO: “Banning nuclear weapons” event, featuring two leaders in the disarmament field


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.

 

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April 3, 2017

Today, April 3: Banning nuclear weapons: A milestone for disarmament


Nuclear Poster_Final-1April 3, 2017


“Banning nuclear weapons: A milestone for disarmament”


12:00 – 1:00 p.m.
WCC 1019

Lunch provided


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.

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March 15, 2017

Disarmament family loses loved and legendary campaigner Bob Mtonga

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 Mtonga-50 ratifications of ATT-2014

Bob Mtonga celebrates the ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty by 50 countries in 2014.

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

Tracking a remnant of war in Kosovo

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.

Damage from depleted uranium penetrators in Gjakova/Đakovica. Credit: Naomi Toyoda /  ICBUW

Damage from depleted uranium penetrators in Gjakova/Đakovica. Credit: Naomi Toyoda / ICBUW

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.

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February 9, 2017

Student perspective: Reflections of a newcomer to the CCW Review Conference


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.

Screen Shot 2017-02-09 at 12.25.30 PMI 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…

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