Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
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.
October 6, 2017
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
We are thrilled to announce that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), with which we collaborated during the negotiations of a nuclear weapon ban treaty, received the Nobel Peace Prize today. The honor reflects international recognition of the humanitarian approach to disarmament, a movement that strives to minimize civilian suffering from inhumane weapons.
Over the past decade, ICAN has changed the course of nuclear disarmament by shifting the focus from national security to the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences these weapons cause. Their work and the invaluable advocacy of survivors of nuclear weapons use in conflict and testing helped lead to an international ban on the weapons this summer.
The International Human Rights Clinic joined ICAN and UK-based disarmament organization Article 36 in the efforts for the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Supervisors Bonnie Docherty and Anna Crowe, along with a team of four students, provided legal support to the campaign during the treaty negotiations at the United Nations in New York. They also advocated successfully for the inclusion of obligations to assist victims and remediate the environment harmed.
More than 120 countries adopted the treaty in July. Fifty-three have signed the treaty since it opened for signature last month. In so doing, those countries have committed to abiding by the object and purpose of the instrument.
Civil society will now turn its attention to urging more states to sign and ratify the ban treaty. The Clinic in particular will work for strong interpretation and implementation of its provisions.
In their statement announcing the award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wrote, “It is [our] firm conviction . . . that ICAN, more than anyone else, has in the past year given the efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons a new direction and new vigour.”
The committee also praised ICAN for filling a legal gap. Before the treaty, the other weapons of mass destruction—chemical and biological weapons—as well as several indiscriminate conventional weapons had been banned. Yet there were no global restrictions on the use of the world’s deadliest arms.
Although the nuclear weapons states and most of NATO boycotted the negotiations, the treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize highlight the value of declaring nuclear weapons to be illegal as well as immoral. They also increase the stigma against the weapons and show that progress in nuclear disarmament is possible.
The Clinic has long been involved with humanitarian disarmament. It contributed to the negotiations of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and is currently working to ban or strengthen international law on fully autonomous weapons, incendiary weapons, and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
At a time of heightened tensions between nuclear powers, ICAN’s well-deserved recognition reinforces our conviction that humanitarian disarmament is more essential and achievable than ever. We look forward to continuing this vital work.
The Clinic team consisted of Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, Clinical Instructor Anna Crowe, Carina Bentata Gryting, JD ’18, Molly Doggett, JD ’17, Lan Mei, JD ’17, and Alice Osman, LLM ’17. For the students’ impressions of the negotiations, see this post.
July 25, 2017
By Carina Bentata Gryting JD ’18, Molly Doggett JD ’17, Lan Mei JD ’17, and Alice Osman LLM ’17
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.
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.
June 27, 2017
Posted by Alice Osman and Molly Doggett
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.
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)
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.”