Blog: Gaza

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May 12, 2015

From Bosnia to Somalia: Classifying “Involvement” in Armed Conflict

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

The laws governing armed conflict may seem simple on the surface. Soldiers can be targeted; civilians cannot. But the line between these groups is blurry and can have life-and-death implications.

Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians can be intentionally killed if they “directly participate in hostilities.” But what does direct participation mean? What if a civilian feeds combatants, drives members of an armed group, provides equipment or intelligence, or takes up arms to protect family members? Does it matter if involvement was voluntary or forced? Do such actions mean the civilian can be lawfully targeted?

CIVICCoverA new 84-page report, to which the International Human Rights Clinic contributed a case study, takes a fresh look at this contentious issue. The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict, released Tuesday by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documents the experiences of people in four former or current conflict zones: Bosnia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. It does not seek to come up with a conclusive definition of direct participation in hostilities. Instead, it aims to inform the debate among military commanders, lawyers, academics, and other experts by adding the voices of those who have lived through war.

The report finds that civilians become involved in conflict in a number of ways, ranging from fighting to providing logistical support to membership in civil defense forces or political parties. While sometimes voluntary, their involvement is often motivated by threats from armed groups or the need to survive. The people CIVIC interviewed had varied understandings of who is a civilian and who is a combatant and found it difficult to delineate the difference. They agreed, however, that the legal status that derives from involvement can not only determine whether civilians are targeted but also affect their lives long after a conflict ends.

On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.

On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.

In 2013, I led a four-person team, including Lara Berlin, JD ’14, Luca Urech, Fletcher ’13, and Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, on a field mission to Bosnia, where we documented people’s experiences during the war. Later, as a post-graduate fellow at CIVIC, Boehland conducted investigations in three other conflict zones and served as lead author of the final report.

Testimony from those who lived through the Bosnia war of 1992-1995 highlighted the challenge of classifying involvement in a conflict. Some Bosnians told the Clinic’s research team that everyone during the armed conflict was a soldier, while others contended they were all civilians. A 40-year-old gardener from Srebrenica said, “The line between soldiers and civilians in war is invisible. . . . There is almost no line, no distinction.”

Residents of Sarajevo, for example, frequently fought on the front lines on certain days, but took off their uniforms and returned to their families on others. A woman who had lived through the city’s siege captured the confusion about the nature of these people’s involvement: “Many killed [during the conflict] were actually civilians, but I don’t know how to distinguish them. If my uncle is on duty, he’s one thing, but when he’s in line for bread, what is he?”

The stories of Bosnians and others in this report illustrate the modes, motivations, and complexities of people’s involvement in armed conflict. Experts and policymakers would do well to heed these realities as they continue their deliberations about the meaning of direct participation in hostilities.

*****

NOTE: Boehland last week also released a report for Amnesty International, for which she now works, entitled “Death Everywhere”: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Aleppo, Syria. The report documents that Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups have bombarded homes and civilian areas, detained and tortured residents, and created appalling living conditions. Boehland’s recent publications on civilian protection exemplify the work the Clinic hopes its graduates will take on and represents the best of human rights advocacy.

September 22, 2014

Tonight, Sept. 22: “Gaza, International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights”

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.

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August 20, 2014

HRP Alumni in the News

Posted by Cara Solomon

We use all kinds of strategies here at the International Human Rights Clinic to push for change. Litigation. Treaty negotiation. Documentation and reporting.

As Communications Coordinator, I’ve always been partial to advocacy. Media advocacy, to be more precise. This summer, our alumni are putting it to great use in outlets all over the world.

On Monday, The Huffington Post ran a column by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, a Satter fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documenting the devastating toll the conflict in Gaza is taking on civilians. For the column, Nicolette spoke by phone with Gazans she met last year while researching civilian perspectives on involvement, status, and risk in armed conflict, including in Libya, Bosnia, and Somalia.

In “No Safe Place in Gaza,” she writes:

A young woman described the crippling fear she had experienced over the last four weeks: “The worst of all is the night time,” she said. “There is no power, no electricity, and there are tens of drones in the sky. Whenever you hear a rocket, you think it’s targeting your house. You are running from one room to another. I know this is silly — if your house is hit, it won’t matter which room you were in.”

Each night, her family of six gathered on mattresses that they had pulled together in the middle of the living room, “far away from the windows, so that they don’t break,” she said. This way, if their house was hit, the whole family would be killed together. “We don’t want one of the family to survive and then have to grieve for the rest of us,” she said.

At the end of the column, Nicolette lists several strategies the Israeli government and Hamas could use to limit civilian suffering.

Closer to home, as police in combat gear clashed last week with protesters in Ferguson, MO, Sara Zampierin, JD ’11, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was quoted in a New Yorker article, “The Economics of Police Militarization.” The article attributed some of the tension in Ferguson to the underlying problem of “criminal justice debt,” which can often pit law enforcement against residents.

Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees…What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.

From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free.

And earlier this summer, Clara Long, JD ’12, an immigration and border policy researcher with Human Rights Watch, waded into the heated debate over the surge of migration at the southeastern US border. In an Op-Ed she co-authored for The Guardian, Clara railed against the Obama administration’s plans to open more family detention centers. The headline read: “Obama pledged to limit the practice of detaining minors. What happened?”

It appears that the White House has come to view being “thoughtful and humane” as a political liability. The new move to ramp up family detention comes in response to criticism that the administration’s lax immigration enforcement “created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally”, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it last week.

Obama’s move is all the more disappointing because effective alternatives to detention exist and are used in countries facing similar migration surges. Countries like Italy and Malta, prime entrances for migrants to the EU, have open reception facilities where migrant and asylum-seeking families can come and go at will – and Malta pledged to end immigration detention of children altogether in 2014. Though neither country has a spotless record – Italy summarily returns to Greece some unaccompanied migrant children and Malta sometimes detains unaccompanied migrant kids while authorities try to figure out their ages – their examples show that detaining kids with families is a choice, not a necessity.

Clara wrote another column for The Guardian on border removals in April.

In response to this flurry of activity, we at HRP have just two things to say: Thank you. And well done.

October 3, 2011

Today: Raji Sourani, Director of Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, on Accountability for Gaza

Posted by Meera Shah

Today, Raji Sourani, one of the foremost human rights lawyers and advocates in the Middle East, will come to speak at Harvard Law School.  Personally, as  someone who worked in the Middle East for several years, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to meet him.  The founder of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City in 1995, Sourani began his human rights career challenging Israeli prison conditions and defending Palestinians facing deportation in Israeli military courts.  As a human rights defender, he was detained by Israeli authorities on multiple occasions, prompting Amnesty International to name him one of their Prisoners of Conscience in both 1985 and 1988.

With the creation of the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s, Sourani’s work took on another dimension, exposing and documenting human rights violations on the part of both Israeli and Palestinian officials.  While this even-handedness was not always popular, it demonstrates Sourani’s commitment to a universal standard.

This principled stance and the courage to speak out continue to drive Sourani’s work.  Today, he will be talking about the need for accountability for violations committed as part of Israel’s offensive in late 2008 and the human rights implications of the ongoing closure of the Gaza Strip.  I hope you will join us for this important and timely discussion!

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February 25, 2011

Decades after Dresden, We Must Do More to Protect Civilians from Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Joe Phillips, JD '12

This month marks the 66th anniversary of the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany—an event that demonstrated to the world the devastating power of incendiary weapons.  From February 13 to 15, 1945, British and U.S. forces dropped hundreds of tons of incendiary and high explosive bombs on the mostly undefended cultural center of Dresden, where thousands of people had sought refuge from the Eastern Front.  The resulting firestorm destroyed 1,600 acres of the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 to 100,000 people.

Based on his firsthand experience, Kurt Vonnegut describes the scene in his novel, Slaughterhouse-Five:

“Dresden was one big flame.  The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn. . . . One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design.”

During World War II, incendiary weapons generally brought to mind the firebombs used to destroy residential city centers.  Over time, the nature of armed conflict has changed, as has the design of certain incendiary weapons, but militaries continue to use them—often at serious risk to civilians.

The scorched children’s playroom inside Gaza City’s Al-Quds hospital was destroyed during a white phosphorus attack on January 15, 2009. © 2009 Marc Garlasco/Human Rights Watch

In 2004, the United States launched incendiary shells into the city of Fallujah, Iraq; witnesses reported seeing charred bodies of Iraqi civilians, echoing the scenes in Dresden in 1945.  More recently, when Israel used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008, the substance both injured civilians and set fire to a school, a hospital, and other non-military buildings.

The International Human Rights Clinic has worked for several years to protect civilians through campaigning for a ban on cluster munitions; now, with Human Rights Watch, we are broadening our focus to push for stronger protections from incendiary weapons. Existing law is not enough.

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