Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
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April 30, 2019
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
As countries engage in national debates about joining the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons, they should focus on the treaty’s humanitarian and disarmament benefits.
To inform these discussions, the International Human Rights Clinic has released a new briefing paper and two government submissions that highlight the advantages of ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and seek to alleviate concerns some states may have.
Countries affected by nuclear weapon use and testing have much to gain from the TPNW’s provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation. In a 9-page paper, the Clinic presents 10 myths and realities regarding the TPNW’s so-called “positive obligations.” It aims to raise awareness of these provisions and correct misconceptions and misrepresentations about their content.
The briefing paper explains how the TPNW spreads responsibility for assisting victims and remediating contaminated areas across states parties. While affected states should take the lead for practical and legal reasons, other states parties should support their efforts with technical, material, or financial assistance.
The paper also shows how the positive obligations can be effectively implemented and make a tangible difference, despite the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.
In recent government submissions, the Clinic has addressed the situation of countries that are members of or partners with NATO. It has called on Iceland and Sweden in particular to join the TPNW, but the arguments apply to any states in a comparable position.
Ratifying the TPNW would further these countries’ long-standing support of nuclear disarmament and promote compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, members or partners of NATO or a similar alliance should not face legal obstacles to joining the TPNW. While a state party to the TPNW would have to renounce its nuclear umbrella status, it could continue to participate in joint military operations with nuclear-armed states.
As of April 30, 2019, the TPNW had 70 signatories and 23 states parties. It will enter into force when 50 states have become party.
Clinical students Molly Brown JD ’19, Maria Manghi JD ’20, and Ben Montgomery JD ’20 worked on these publications under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection.
April 2, 2019
This week, the International Human Rights Clinic published “Interpreting The Arms Trade Treaty: International Human Rights Law and Gender-Based Violence in Article 7 Risk Assessments” with Clinic partner Control Arms. Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law Anna Crowe LLM ’12 presented the paper in Geneva today at a preliminary meeting of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.
The paper takes a close look at the human rights risk assessment Article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty requires States Parties to undertake whenever an arms export is proposed. Article 7 requires States Parties to assess the potential that any proposed exports could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law, including serious acts of gender-based violence (GBV). Within that assessment, States Parties must also consider the potential that the weapons would contribute to or undermine peace and security. If there is an overriding risk of harm, the export must be denied.
The paper provides interpretive guidance on a number of key terms in the Arms Trade Treaty with a focus on considering gender and risks of GBV in each part of the Article 7 risk assessment, particularly with respect to serious violations of international human rights law.
Clinical students Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19 and Terry Flyte LLM ’19 joined Crowe in Geneva. Jillian Rafferty JD ’20, Natalie Gallon JD ’20, and Elise Baranouski JD ’20 are co-authors of the paper, along with Kapoor.
December 15, 2018
Defense Alliance with US not Legal Bar to Ratifying New Treaty
(Cambridge, MA, December 14, 2018) – Australia’s alliance with the United States need not stand in the way of Australia joining the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released today.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) would require Australia to end its reliance on US nuclear arms for defense. But it would not undermine the countries’ broader collective security agreement established under the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.
“Australia has long claimed to support nuclear disarmament,” said Bonnie Docherty, lead author of the report and the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “Joining the ban treaty would advance that goal without creating insurmountable legal obstacles to ongoing military relations with the US.”
The 13-page report “Australia and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” explains why Australia can renounce its nuclear defense arrangement with the US (under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”) while maintaining military ties to its ally. The report also shows the compatibility of the treaty with Australia’s disarmament commitments under other treaties and policies.
The Labor Party is expected to discuss the TPNW at its national conference from December 16 to 18, 2018. The conference will provide a forum for Labor to develop a new party platform. In its last platform, adopted in 2015, the Labor Party called for negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Continue Reading…
November 16, 2018
(Geneva, November 14, 2018) – Countries at an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, faced with evidence of 30 new incendiary weapons attacks in Syria, should agree to strengthen the international law that governs their use, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released this week.
The 13-page report, “Myths and Realities About Incendiary Weapons,” counters common misconceptions that have slowed international progress in this area. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. While often designed for marking and signaling or producing smokescreens, incendiary weapons can burn human flesh to the bone, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. They also start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.
“The excruciating burns and lifelong disabilities inflicted by incendiary weapons demand a global response,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Simple changes in international law could help save civilian lives during wartime.”
The report details the exceptionally cruel harm caused by incendiary weapons, explains the shortcomings of existing law, and lays out steps countries should take in response. The report, designed as an accessible overview of the incendiary weapons issue, was jointly published with Human Rights Watch.
Countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are scheduled to address incendiary weapons at the UN in Geneva from November 19 to 23. Protocol III to this treaty imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it does not provide sufficient protections for civilians.
October 12, 2018
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Humanitarian disarmament has become a highly effective and firmly established means of dealing with arms-induced human suffering. This year, it has celebrated many milestones that highlight its achievements. These milestones have also generated forward-looking discussions about how civil society campaigns can best work together to advance humanitarian disarmament’s overarching aim.
In March, Harvard Law School’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) assembled 25 humanitarian disarmament leaders from around the world for a two-day conference in which they could reflect on the state of the field and strategize about its future. The ACCPI has produced a summary of the conference and its conclusions in a new 27-page report Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead. It has also launched the website humanitariandisarmament.com, which will serve experts and the public alike.
Humanitarian disarmament seeks to prevent and remediate harm caused by arms and related activities through the establishment of norms. It is a people-centered approach, driven by civil society campaigns, that focuses on human rather than national security. Continue Reading…
August 21, 2018
Killer Robots Fail Key Moral, Legal Test
Principles and Public Conscience Call for Preemptive Ban
(Geneva, August 21, 2018) – Basic humanity and the public conscience support a ban on fully autonomous weapons, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Countries participating in an upcoming international meeting on such “killer robots” should agree to negotiate a prohibition on the weapons systems’ development, production, and use.
The 46-page report, “Heed the Call: A Moral and Legal Imperative to Ban Killer Robots,” finds that fully autonomous weapons would violate what is known as the Martens Clause. This long-standing provision of international humanitarian law requires emerging technologies to be judged by the “principles of humanity” and the “dictates of public conscience” when they are not already covered by other treaty provisions.
“Permitting the development and use of killer robots would undermine established moral and legal standards,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Countries should work together to preemptively ban these weapons systems before they proliferate around the world.”
The 1995 preemptive ban on blinding lasers, which was motivated in large part by concerns under the Martens Clause, provides precedent for prohibiting fully autonomous weapons as they come closer to becoming reality.
The report was co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is a senior arms researcher. Human Rights Watch co-founded and serves as coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
More than 70 governments will convene at the United Nations in Geneva from August 27 to 31, 2018, for their sixth meeting since 2014 on the challenges raised by fully autonomous weapons, also called lethal autonomous weapons systems. The talks under the Convention on Conventional Weapons, a major disarmament treaty, were formalized in 2017, but they are not yet directed toward a specific goal.
The Clinic and Human Rights Watch urge states party to the convention to agree to begin negotiations in 2019 for a new treaty that would require meaningful human control over weapons systems and the use of force. Fully autonomous weapons would select and engage targets without meaningful human control.
To date, 26 countries have explicitly supported a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. Thousands of scientists and artificial intelligence experts, more than 20 Nobel Peace Laureates, and more than 160 religious leaders and organizations of various denominations have also demanded a ban. In June, Google released a set of ethical principles that includes a pledge not to develop artificial intelligence for use in weapons.
At the Convention on Conventional Weapons meetings, almost all countries have called for retaining some form of human control over the use of force. The emerging consensus for preserving meaningful human control, which is effectively equivalent to a ban on weapons that lack such control, reflects the widespread opposition to fully autonomous weapons.
The Clinic and Human Rights Watch assessed fully autonomous weapons under the core elements of the Martens Clause. The clause, which appears in the Geneva Conventions and is referenced by several disarmament treaties, is triggered by the absence of specific international treaty provisions on a topic. It sets a moral baseline for judging emerging weapons.
The groups found that fully autonomous weapons would undermine the principles of humanity, because they would be unable to apply either compassion or nuanced legal and ethical judgment to decisions to use lethal force. Without these human qualities, the weapons would face significant obstacles in ensuring the humane treatment of others and showing respect for human life and dignity.
Fully autonomous weapons would also run contrary to the dictates of public conscience. Governments, experts, and the broader public have widely condemned the loss of human control over the use of force.
Partial measures, such as regulations or political declarations short of a legally binding prohibition, would fail to eliminate the many dangers posed by fully autonomous weapons. In addition to violating the Martens Clause, the weapons raise other legal, accountability, security, and technological concerns.
In previous publications, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch have elaborated on the challenges that fully autonomous weapons would present for compliance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law, analyzed the gap in accountability for the unlawful harm caused by such weapons, and responded to critics of a preemptive ban.
The 26 countries that have called for the ban are: Algeria, Argentina, Austria, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, China (use only), Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, Guatemala, the Holy See, Iraq, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, the State of Palestine, Uganda, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which began in 2013, is a coalition of 75 nongovernmental organizations in 32 countries that is working to preemptively ban the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. Docherty will present the report at a Campaign to Stop Killer Robots briefing for CCW delegates scheduled on August 28 at the United Nations in Geneva.
“The groundswell of opposition among scientists, faith leaders, tech companies, nongovernmental groups, and ordinary citizens shows that the public understands that killer robots cross a moral threshold,” Docherty said. “Their concerns, shared by many governments, deserve an immediate response.”
“Heed the Call: A Moral and Legal Imperative to Ban Killer Robots” is available at:
For more Human Rights Watch and International Human Rights Clinic reporting on killer robots, please visit:
For more information on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, please visit:
For op-eds of the report by Bonnie Docherty, please visit:
Ban ‘Killer Robots’ to Protect Fundamental Moral and Legal Principles, The Conversation
Why We Need a Pre-Emptive Ban on ‘Killer Robots,’ The Huffington Post
For an overview of HRW and IHRC publications on killer robots, please visit:
Reviewing the Record: Reports on Killer Robots
June 25, 2018
Clinic’s Parliamentary Submission Urges Marshall Islands to Reap Benefits of Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The Marshall Islands (RMI), which still suffers from the catastrophic effects of 67 U.S. nuclear tests, has much to gain by joining the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
If it became a state party, the RMI would be entitled to new sources of assistance to address the ongoing human and environmental harm caused by nuclear testing. The RMI would also advance the cause of nuclear disarmament, which the country has historically supported, and become a leader among Pacific and affected states.
While some Marshallese are concerned about the TPNW’s ramifications for the Compact of Free Association between the RMI and the United States, the Compact should not be seen as an insurmountable legal obstacle to joining a treaty that would benefit the Marshallese people and their environment.
The RMI’s parliament (Nitjela) has the power to decide whether to sign and ratify the TPNW. Its Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently considering Resolution 46, which would approve those steps. In July 2017, the RMI joined 121 other countries in voting to adopt the TPNW at the United Nations.
In a submission made to the parliamentary committee this week, the Clinic encourages the Nitijela to approve Resolution 46, and the country to sign and ratify the TPNW. The submission details the advantages of joining the treaty for the RMI and shows how the TPNW can be understood as legally compatible with the Compact. The Clinic has also released a more in-depth analysis of the relationship between the TPNW and the Compact.
The TPNW’s provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation, for which the Clinic advocated actively during the treaty’s negotiations, provide the RMI humanitarian incentives become a party. The treaty mandates a range of assistance for affected individuals, including medical care, psychological support, measures to ensure socioeconomic inclusion, and human rights protections. The treaty also requires measures to reduce environmental contamination and exposure to radioactive materials.
The TPNW spreads responsibility for victim assistance and environmental remediation across the countries that are party to the treaty. Affected countries, such as the RMI, bear the responsibility to lead these efforts, but other states parties in a position to do so are required to help them meet their obligations.
While the Compact grants the U.S. “full authority and responsibility for security and defense matters in or relating to” the RMI, the Clinic’s analysis finds that the RMI’s obligations under the TPNW and the Compact are not per se contradictory. It emphasizes that the Compact requires the U.S. to “accord due respect” to the RMI’s foreign affairs authority and responsibility for its people’s well-being. If the U.S. sought to block the RMI’s ratification of the TPNW or withhold aid in response, it would be failing to honor its commitment in the Compact to respect the RMI’s sovereign right to act in the interests of its people.
In March 2018, the Clinic visited the RMI to discuss the TPNW with government officials, civil society members, and individuals affected by testing. The Clinic based its conclusions and recommendations on those conversations and a close analysis of the TPNW and the Compact.
In addition to requiring victim assistance and environmental remediation, the TPNW includes comprehensive prohibitions on activities involving nuclear weapons. The TPNW has been signed by 59 countries and ratified by 10. It will enter into force when 50 countries complete their ratification.
June 7, 2018
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
As preparations for a US-North Korea summit highlight the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons, proponents of nuclear disarmament should increase their support for the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Momentum has been building. In May alone, three more countries ratified the treaty, bringing the total to 10; another 48 have signed. In addition, several countries have initiated national processes that represent an important step toward coming on board.
In this context, the Clinic is releasing two papers demonstrating why it is legally possible for even allies of nuclear armed states to join the TPNW.
The first paper examines the implications of the TPNW for “nuclear umbrella” states, notably US allies, that wish to join the new treaty. It finds that once a country is party to the TPNW, it may no longer remain under the protection of a nuclear umbrella, i.e., rely on an ally’s nuclear weapons for defense.
In most cases, however, a country may sign and ratify the TPNW without violating its legal obligations under a security agreement with a nuclear armed state. The TPNW would also allow it to continue participate in joint military operations with nuclear armed states as long as it does not assist with prohibited acts, such as possessing, threatening to use, or using nuclear weapons.
A NATO member state that joined the TPNW would therefore have to renounce its nuclear umbrella status, but from a legal perspective, it could remain a part of the existing alliance. The same would be true for other US allies, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
A second Clinic paper focuses specifically on the situation of Sweden, which frequently partners with NATO but is not a member state. Sweden has appointed an inquiry chair to examine how joining the TPNW would affect Sweden’s defense policies and its obligations under other agreements. Sweden was one of 122 nations to adopt the TPNW in July 2017.
The Clinic concludes that if Sweden became a party to the treaty, the country could not assist its allies with prohibited activities involving nuclear weapons. It could, however, maintain its relationships with NATO and the European Union and continue to participate in joint military operations without violating the treaty.
Given Sweden’s historically strong support for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, Sweden should serve as a role model for other countries in a similar position. It should advance the TPNW’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and expedite its entry into force by joining as soon as possible. The treaty will enter into force, i.e., become binding law, once 50 states have become party.
The Clinic participated actively in last year’s negotiations of the TPNW and has worked closely with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
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…
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