Blog: Bonnie Docherty
November 11, 2014
Ukraine, Syria: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians
Stronger International Law Needed for Weapons That Burn
(Geneva, November 11, 2014) – Evidence of the use of incendiary weapons in Ukraine and Syria highlights the need for stricter law to govern these weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
The 16-page report, “Incendiary Weapons: Recent Use and Growing Opposition,” details incendiary weapon attacks in Ukraine and Syria and illustrates the increasing stigma against the weapons. Incendiary weapons can cause excruciatingly painful thermal and respiratory burns. Victims who survive often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage due to extensive scarring and disfigurement.
“Weapons that cause terrible burns and disfigure survivors have been used against towns in both Syria and Ukraine,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The recent attacks with incendiary weapons show it’s past time for nations to reassess and strengthen international law on these cruel weapons,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer in the Harvard clinic.
The report is being distributed at the annual meeting of countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 10-14, 2014. Protocol III of the treaty bans certain use of incendiary weapons, but its loopholes and inconsistencies have not been addressed since the law was created more than 30 years ago.
Human Rights Watch researchers will present the report’s findings at a CCW side event at 2 p.m. on November 12 in Room XXIV at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Human Rights Watch documented attacks with incendiary Grad rockets on two towns in Ukraine, although the organization was unable to confirm the party responsible. In Syria in 2014, government forces have continued their use of incendiary weapons and have also dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs containing incendiary components.
All countries and especially CCW states parties should condemn such use of incendiary weapons and express support for revisiting and amending the protocol, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said. Continue Reading…
September 22, 2014
September 22, 2014
“Gaza, International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights”
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Wasserstein B010 Singer Classroom
Harvard Law School
Please join us for a panel discussion with Harvard faculty: Professor Duncan Kennedy, Harvard Law School; Professor Jennifer Leaning, Harvard School of Public Health; Naz Modirzadeh, Director, Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, Harvard Law School; and moderated by Bonnie Docherty, Senior Clinical Instructor, International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School.
This event is being co-sponsored by the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School.
September 3, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
This afternoon, the International Human Rights Clinic released a joint report with Human Rights Watch urging countries to enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions. The report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” was researched and written primarily by Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty, as well as clinical students Amy Tan, Fletcher ’14, and Nick Sansone, JD ’15.
Bonnie presented the report in Costa Rica today at the annual meeting of countries that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. For more information, see below for the press release from Human Rights Watch.
Cluster Munitions Ban: National Laws Needed
Annual Treaty Meeting Opens in Costa Rica
(San Jose, Costa Rica, September 3, 2014) – Countries around the world should enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at an international meeting of nations party to the treaty.
The 81-page report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” urges countries to pass robust national legislation as soon as possible to carry out the provisions of the treaty. The report describes the elements of a comprehensive law and highlights exemplary provisions in existing laws. The report was jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
“To maximize the global cluster munition treaty’s impact, all countries should adopt national laws that apply its high standards at home,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “Prohibitions that can be enforced in domestic courts can help ensure that these deadly weapons don’t harm civilians.”
Cluster munitions are large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of submunitions. They cause civilian casualties during attacks, especially in populated areas, because they blanket a broad area with submunitions. In addition, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact and thus linger, like de facto landmines, killing or injuring civilians long after the initial attack.
Representatives from governments, UN agencies, and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) are convening in San Jose, Costa Rica, from September 2 through 5, 2014, for the Fifth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. They will discuss a range of matters relating to the status of the convention, including national legislation.
The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions obliges states parties to enact national laws that penalize violations of its absolute prohibition on cluster munitions with imprisonment or fines. The treaty also requires destruction of stocks, clearance of remnants, and victim assistance. As of August 2014, 84 countries were full parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and another 29 countries had signed it.
According to “Cluster Munition Monitor 2014,” an annual report on the status of the treaty, 22 states parties have enacted national legislation dedicated to implementing the convention, while another 19 are in the process of drafting, considering, or adopting national legislation. Twenty-six states parties view other, more general national laws as sufficient to enforce the convention’s provisions.
While no single law represents best practice, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Clinic highlighted provisions of existing implementation statutes that offer support for each essential element of legislation. National legislation should incorporate both the prohibitions and the positive obligations to minimize the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions, the groups said. Continue Reading…
June 16, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council took a fresh look at fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Previous international debate had focused on the weapons’ ability to comply with laws of war; the Council, by contrast, examined the issue through the lens of international human rights law, which applies in times of peace as well as armed conflict. In this June 9 post originally published by JURIST, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty argued that killer robots threaten the most fundamental human rights.
Fully autonomous weapons, which could select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, have the potential to revolutionize the nature of warfare, bringing greater speed and reach to military operations. In the process, though, this emerging technology could endanger both civilians and soldiers.
Nations have been considering the multiple challenges these weapons would pose to the laws of war, also called international humanitarian law. But little attention has been given to the implications for human rights law. If these weapons were developed and used for policing, for example, they would threaten the most basic of these rights, including the right to life, the right to a remedy and the principle of human dignity.
Fully autonomous weapons, also known as autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” do not yet exist, but research and technology in a number of countries are moving rapidly in that direction. Because these machines would have the power to determine when to kill, they raise a host of legal, ethical and scientific concerns. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are advocating for a pre-emptive prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 52 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call. Continue Reading…
June 4, 2014
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
As readers of this blog will know, last month Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty traveled with students to Geneva for the first multilateral meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons devoted to fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Below is her re-cap of the week’s events, published originally on May 23, 2014 in the online forum Just Security.
“Taking on ‘Killer Robots'”
New weapons that could revolutionize killing are on the horizon. Lethal autonomous weapons systems, also called fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots,” would go beyond today’s armed drones. They would be able to select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention. In other words, they could determine themselves when to take a human life.
Representatives from 87 countries gathered at the United Nations in Geneva last week to discuss concerns about this technology and possible ways to respond. The conference was the first multilateral meeting dedicated to lethal autonomous weapons systems. It represented a crucial step in a process that should result in a ban on these problematic weapons before it grows too late to change course.
Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are calling for a pre-emptive prohibition on the development, production, and use of these weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 51 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call.
Overall, the talks in Geneva were productive and positive. The conference, under the auspices of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), attracted hundreds of delegates from governments, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and nongovernmental groups, setting a record for a CCW meeting. Participants engaged in four days of substantive discussions about the technical, ethical, legal, and operational concerns raised by fully autonomous weapons.
This “informal meeting of experts” was also noteworthy for its timeliness, unusual for a CCW conference. This meeting took place just a year and a half after Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic issued a groundbreaking report on these weapons, Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, which the UN website credited with bringing the issue to “the international community’s attention.”
The meeting illuminated both areas of emerging agreement and ongoing points of contention. At their next meeting in November, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should show that they are serious about taking action to deal with fully autonomous weapons and adopt a mandate for even deeper discussions in 2015.
Areas of Emerging Agreement
Four promising themes emerged at the recent meeting. First, there was widespread support for continuing discussions. The countries made clear that they saw last week as merely an initial foray into the issue. Many delegates also explicitly recognized the importance of continuing to involve nongovernmental groups, including the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and its member organizations.
Second, a significant number of countries expressed particular concern about the ethical problems raised by fully autonomous weapons. The chair’s final report noted that these countries “stressed the fact that the possibility for a robotic system to acquire capacities of ‘moral reasoning’ and ‘judgment’ was highly questionable.” Furthermore, these machines could not understand and respect the value of life, yet they would be given the power to determine when to take it away. Fully autonomous weapons would thus threaten to undermine human dignity.
Third, many countries emphasized that weapons systems should always fall under “meaningful human control.” While the parameters of this concept will require careful definition, obligating nations to maintain that control is vital to averting a watershed in the nature of warfare that could endanger civilians and soldiers alike.
Finally, countries frequently noted in their statements the relevance of international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law. Human rights law applies in peace and war, and it would govern the use of these weapons not only on the battlefield but also in law enforcement operations. In a new report released last week, Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic found that fully autonomous weapons could contravene the rights to life and a remedy as well as the principle of dignity.
The most contentious part of the discussion surrounded the application of international humanitarian law to fully autonomous weapons. The debate echoed many of the points raised in a second paper that Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic released at the meeting. “Advancing the Debate on Killer Robots” responds directly to 12 critiques of a ban on the weapons.
The meeting revealed a divergence of views about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Critics of a ban argue that problematic use of these weapons would violate existing law and that supplementary law is unnecessary. A new treaty banning the weapons, however, would bring clarity, minimizing the need for case-by-case determinations of lawfulness and facilitating enforcement. It would also increase the stigma against the weapon, which can influence even states not party to a treaty to abide by a ban. In addition, a treaty dedicated to fully autonomous weapons could address proliferation, unlike traditional international humanitarian law, which focuses on use.
The debate about the adequacy of international humanitarian law to deal with fully autonomous weapons is reminiscent of arguments made in earlier Convention on Conventional Weapons meetings about cluster munitions. The adoption of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions by 107 states resolved that dispute. Prohibitions on five other weapons that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm—antipersonnel landmines, blinding lasers, chemical weapons, biological weapons, and poison gas— provide additional precedent for new law. While most states are reserving judgment on the best solution to deal with the problems posed by fully autonomous weapons, five countries called for a ban last week.
Participants in the last week’s meeting also disagreed about when action should be taken. Critics of a ban supported a wait-and-see approach, arguing that improvements in technology could address the obstacles to compliance with international humanitarian law. There are serious doubts, however, that robots could ever replicate certain complex human qualities, such as judgment, necessary to comply with principles of distinction and proportionality. Furthermore, grave ethical concerns, the likelihood of proliferation and a robotic arms race, an accountability gap, and the prospect of premature deployment all suggest a technological fix would not suffice to address the weapons’ problems.
Action should be taken now before countries invest more in the technology and become less willing to give it up. The pre-emptive ban on blinding lasers in Protocol IV to the Convention on Conventional Weapons can serve as a useful model.
Despite some points of disagreement, the meeting advanced efforts to deal with fully autonomous weapons. Nations need to keep up momentum, however, to avoid having such meetings become what some have called a “talk shop.” In the short term, individual countries should establish national moratoria on fully autonomous weapons.
In November, the parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons should adopt a mandate to study the issue in greater depth in 2015. They should agree to hold three to four weeks of formal meetings, known as a Group of Governmental Experts. They should also be clear that the meetings would be a step toward negotiating a new protocol on fully autonomous weapons. Such intense discussions would move the debate forward. They would show that the treaty members are committed to addressing this issue and that the Convention on Conventional Weapons is re-emerging as an important source of international humanitarian law.
May 14, 2014
Posted by Joseph Klingler, JD '14
In Geneva today, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch released the latest in a series of publications calling for a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. The weapons- also called “killer robots”- would be capable of selecting and firing upon targets without any meaningful human control.
The joint paper, entitled “Advancing the Debate on Killer Robots,” systematically rebuts 12 arguments that have been raised by critics of a ban. Its release coincides with a major international disarmament conference dedicated to fully autonomous weapons, being held at the UN in Geneva this week. More than 400 delegates from government, international organizations, and civil society have gathered to discuss the weapons under the framework of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, a treaty that governs problematic weapons.
Clinical students Evelyn Kachaje, JD ’15, and Joseph Klingler, JD ’14, who along with Yukti Choudhary, LLM ’14 helped Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty draft the paper, are attending the talks. The Clinic is working with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, to increase momentum towards an eventual treaty banning fully autonomous weapons.
On Monday, before the conference began, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch released “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots.” The report found that fully autonomous weapons threaten fundamental human rights and principles: the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity.
May 12, 2014
Keep ‘Killer Robots’ Out of Policing
Fully Autonomous Weapons Threaten Rights in Peace, War
(Geneva, May 12, 2014) – Fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” would jeopardize basic human rights, whether used in wartime or for law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, on the eve of the first multilateral meeting on the subject at the United Nations.
The 26-page report, “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots,” is the first report to assess in detail the risks posed by these weapons during law enforcement operations, expanding the debate beyond the battlefield. Human Rights Watch found that fully autonomous weapons would threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity.
“In policing, as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to preemptively ban them now, before it is too late.”
International debate over fully autonomous weapons has previously focused on their potential role in armed conflict and questions over whether they would be able to comply with international humanitarian law, also called the laws of war. Human Rights Watch, in the new report, examines the potential impact of fully autonomous weapons under human rights law, which applies during peacetime as well as armed conflict.
Nations should adopt a preemptive international ban on these weapons, which would be able to identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, Human Rights Watch said. Countries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy in weapons, and precursors already exist.
The release of the report, co-published with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, coincides with the first multilateral meeting on the weapons. Many of the 117 countries that have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons are expected to attend the meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the United Nations in Geneva from May 13 to 16, 2014. The members of the convention agreed at their annual meeting on November 2013 to begin work on the issue in 2014. Continue Reading…
December 3, 2013
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Five years ago this week, 94 countries gathered in Oslo to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The historic ceremony, held in the hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, was a moment of celebration and inspiration.
The groundbreaking treaty banned a class of weapons that cause serious harm to civilians. It also showed that humanitarian disarmament, which prioritizes humanitarian concerns over security interests, had become an established means of governing weapons.
While the anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions offers an occasion to reflect on an earlier success, the past month also marked a breakthrough for those working to prevent future civilian casualties. At an international disarmament conference in Geneva, 117 countries turned their attention toward another threat: fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots.” On November 15, the last day of the conference, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) unanimously agreed to take up the issue next year.
Cluster munitions have caused civilian casualties during and after conflicts for half a century. Fully autonomous weapons, which would target and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, might do the same over the coming decades. They do not exist yet, but technology is moving rapidly in their direction.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) coordinated by Human Rights Watch, has called for a preemptive prohibition of fully autonomous weapons because of their potential to revolutionize warfare and endanger civilians. The International Human Rights Clinic has supported its efforts through several joint advocacy publications with Human Rights Watch, including one released at CCW in November.
CCW is usually a slow-moving forum so the forthcoming discussions do not mean a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons will be negotiated in 2014. But the fact that parties to the convention, including such military powers as China, Russia, and the United States, have acknowledged the importance of the issue is truly remarkable. It is a tribute in large part to the effort of advocates working on the issue, including the Clinic’s students. Continue Reading…
November 13, 2013
Posted by Cara Solomon
Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty is in Geneva today at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, making the case for a pre-emptive ban on fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” By her side are two students from the International Human Rights Clinic: Lara Berlin, JD ’13, and Ben Bastomski, JD ’15.
The Clinic has been working closely with Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than a year on the threat of fully autonomous weapons, which would have the ability to identify and fire on human targets without intervention. Today, they released their latest joint paper on the topic and urged international talks to begin. Thanks to Bonnie, Lara, Ben, and Elina Katz, JD ’14, for their work on the paper.
For more information, read the HRW press release below.
UN: Start International Talks on ‘Killer Robots’
Conventional Weapons Meeting Provides Opportunity for Action
(Geneva, November 13, 2013) – Governments should agree this week to begin international discussions in 2014 on fully autonomous robot weapons, with a view to a future treaty banning the weapons, said Human Rights Watch today.
Human Rights Watch, together with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, issued a report making the case for a pre-emptive ban to government delegates attending the annual meeting in Geneva of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).
“As technology races ahead, governments need to engage now in intensive discussions on the potential dangers of fully autonomous weapons,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Deliberations about killer robots need to include nongovernmental groups, and be underpinned by a clear sense of urgency and purpose if they are to result in concrete action.” Continue Reading…
October 28, 2013
October 31, 2013
“Acknowledge, Amend, Assist:
Addressing Civilian Harm Caused by Armed Conflict and Armed Violence”
12:00 – 4:30 p.m.
Milstein West B
Harvard Law School
The moral imperative to help civilian victims of armed conflict and armed violence has generated widespread international action. While sharing a common goal, the various approaches currently employed sometimes conflict with each other. At this international symposium, representatives of civil society, governments, militaries, and universities will examine similarities and differences among humanitarian responses. Panelists will seek to identify gaps in assistance and areas for future collaboration.
12:00 p.m. “Victim to Survivor: Influencing International Humanitarian Law”
Keynote address by Kenneth Rutherford, Co-Founder of Landmine Survivors Network and Director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University, with introductory remarks from Martha Minow, Morgan and Helen Chu Professor of Law and Dean of Harvard Law School
1:15 p.m. “Legal Frameworks and Context”
Moderator: Bonnie Docherty, Lecturer on Law, Human Rights Program, Harvard Law School
3:00 p.m. “Principles and Practice”
− Robert Ayasse, Afghanistan Operations Team, NATO HQ
− Megan Burke, International Victim Assistance Specialist, International Campaign to Ban Landmines- Cluster Munition Coalition
Moderator: Iain Overton, Director of Policy and Investigations, Action on Armed Violence