March 2, 2018

Bonnie Docherty Launches Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative


The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) is thrilled to announce the launch of the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI), which aims to reduce the harm caused by armed conflict through targeted advocacy, leadership development, and the generation of innovative solutions.

Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, talking with colleagues.

The ACCPI will be led by Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law and Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, who is an internationally renowned leader in the field of humanitarian disarmament. Docherty has worked at the heart of almost every major civil society campaign to ban inhumane and indiscriminate weapons, or curtail their use to minimize the impacts on civilians. She was a critical player in the 2008 cluster munitions ban, as well as the nuclear weapons ban, adopted in July of last year.

“Today’s armed conflicts are causing countless civilian casualties, destroying infrastructure and the environment, and driving people from their homes,” said Docherty, who also works as a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “This initiative represents a unique opportunity to provide focused support to the movement dealing with these issues, as well as to students interested in making a career in the field.”

Since she arrived at the Clinic in 2005, Docherty has put clinical students at the heart of her advocacy, supervising them on everything from field research in Lebanon to lobbying at the UN. Under her leadership, and through her mentorship, students have gone on to work as field researchers, advocates in peace negotiations, and policy analysts, actively working to protect civilians from the effects of armed conflict.

In the years to come, the ACCPI will create a formal track for HLS students who want to pursue careers in civilian protection. That track will expand on existing offerings, including specialized courses, clinical projects, and trainings; it will also build a career development program that links students with relevant organizations, a network of alumni, and funding for internships and fellowships.

“So many of us have learned the tools of the trade by Bonnie’s side,” said Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law, who is actively involved in the ACCPI. “This initiative will strengthen the movement by creating even more opportunities for students to develop into leaders.”

The ACCPI will go broad as well as deep, tackling issues as diverse as environmental damage, refugee rights, and world heritage in times of armed conflict. One of its main areas of focus will be humanitarian disarmament, which strives to end the civilian suffering that certain weapons cause.

This Monday, March 5, the ACCPI’s inaugural conference, “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead,” will bring dozens of international experts together to discuss how the movement has developed over the past two decades, and to explore where it should go from here. With its focus on collaboration and innovation, the conference is a window into one of the ACCPI’s central priorities: generating fresh perspectives and creative strategies for lessening the harms of war.

The mostly closed-door conference will include two public events: a keynote conversation with leaders of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaigns to ban nuclear weapons and landmines; and a panel that examines current issues in humanitarian disarmament, including efforts to end the urban use of certain explosive weapons, reduce the environmental impact of armed conflict, ban killer robots, and control the unlawful arms trade.

During her time in the Clinic, Docherty herself has gone deep on almost all of these issues, documenting the effects of explosive weapons in Ukraine, teaching about the environmental impacts of war, and making the case for preemptively prohibiting killer robots. Together with Crowe, she led a clinical team during the nuclear ban treaty negotiations last summer; supervisors and students successfully advocated for the treaty to include “positive obligations” that require countries to assist victims and clean up the environment affected by nuclear weapons.

The ACCPI will build on this body of work, focusing on effecting change through advocacy in two areas. First, it will ramp up existing efforts to create new international instruments that protect civilians from problematic weapons. Second, the initiative will promote the development of norms in unsettled areas of law and practice, whether hotly contested or at the intersection of multiple legal frameworks.

Throughout, the ACCPI will adopt an interdisciplinary approach that draws on multiple legal bodies to achieve its ends. It will look to international human rights law, the focus of IHRC and a body of law applicable at all times. It will use international humanitarian law, applicable in times of armed conflict. It will also rely on humanitarian disarmament law, which incorporates elements of both of the above.

In these ways and others, the ACCPI will occupy a distinct niche on Harvard’s campus, combining cutting-edge advocacy with student involvement in all aspects of the work. It is the kind of work that will make Harvard a center for excellence on civilian protection from armed conflict. And her colleagues know: There is no better person to lead it than Docherty, a pioneer from the very start.

“The depth of Bonnie’s impact on her field over the past fifteen years has been remarkable, and she’s done it all with such humility,” said Tyler Giannini, Co-Director of the International Human Rights Clinic. “She’s a tireless advocate, and given the state of armed conflict today, we’re elated to see her launch and lead this critically important initiative.”

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