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February 16, 2022

HLS Student Sondra Anton Testifies Before Congress on Accountability in Sri Lanka

By Sarah Foote

On December 8, 2021, Sondra Anton, JD ’22, testified in front of members of the United States House of Representatives at a congressional hearing held by the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission focused on human rights in Sri Lanka. Anton’s testimony focused on efforts to hold state security forces accountable for international law violations against the Tamil population during the final stages of the country’s internal armed conflict in 2008-2009.

Anton relayed information on the crimes and human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan government and military forces in the last months of the 26-year-long war that ended in May 2009. She recounted how tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed during this period in one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Anton also stressed how survivors of these atrocities are still displaced and family members are often met with opposition and threats from the government there while searching for their missing relatives. Her testimony also observed that the same officials accused of orchestrating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during this period are back in power today.

Anton first joined the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) in Fall 2020. “I came to law school with the specific purpose of pursuing a career focused on seeking justice and accountability in conflict and post-conflict societies. I chose Harvard in large part because of the amazing work that the Clinic had done in this area on behalf of survivors of mass atrocity,” Anton said, specifically citing the IHRC’s involvement in the historic Mamani vs. Sanchez de Lozada and Sánchez Berzaín case, a case that came to the Clinic at the initiative of then student Thomas Becker.

“The Clinic encourages students to take initiative and build expertise in areas that they are passionate about,” said Professor Tyler Giannini, a Director of the IHRC. “Since bringing the Sri Lanka work to the Clinic, Sondra has made a tremendous contribution and driven our efforts forward in this space.”  

While providing testimony, Anton noted that the United States should play a larger role in bringing Sri Lankan perpetrators to justice. Anton also identified ways the United States could strengthen its efforts while ensuring survivors’ voices are heard and by taking steps such as collection and preservation of evidence of these crimes. She said that the United States and other international communities must work together to bring the perpetrators to justice and provide important and necessary resources for the survivors.

Head shot of Sondra Anton wearing a black dress and standing in Harvard Law School courtyard.
Sondra Anton, JD ’22
Photo by Lorin Granger

“There are so many issues facing Sri Lanka today that were highlighted during the panel, such as the frightening rise in anti-Muslim violence and the resurgence of extreme ethno-nationalist violence under the current regime. By specifically addressing state-sponsored impunity for 2009-era crimes from an international human rights and criminal law perspective, my testimony sought to paint a fuller picture to lawmakers and the public about how salient the past is to the present on the island,” Anton said.

Both Anton and Giannini agree that more work needs to be done to help Tamil survivors of mass atrocity in Sri Lanka.

“Law is but one tool that can help recognize the fundamental human dignity that has been repeatedly denied to Tamils by successive Sri Lankan governments since independence,” Anton said in her testimony.

Anton will graduate in May and plans to do a post-graduate fellowship related to international accountability. She says that advances in international criminal law and renewed attention on Sri Lanka at the United Nations, including an increased investigative capacity in international crimes, will hopefully make it harder for Sri Lankan war criminals to run out the clock on justice.

“Whether through platforms like congressional hearings or in a court of law, I plan to use my training as a human rights lawyer to fight to ensure survivors’ calls for truth and justice do not go unanswered,” said Anton.

To read a copy of Anton’s complete statement to Congress click here.

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February 9, 2022

Humanitarian Disarmament in 2022: Negotiations, Implementation, and a Fresh Start

By Bonnie Docherty, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch 

From the Humanitarian Disarmament website


While the year 2021 ended on an intense and draining note, with the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), 2022 has begun slowly for humanitarian disarmament. The COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to affect progress in the field, has postponed planned negotiations and milestone meetings.

Nevertheless, barring further pandemic-related interference, the new year promises to advance several key humanitarian disarmament issues. It should produce a new political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, see states parties convene for their first meeting under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and mark a turning point in efforts to address the threats posed by autonomous weapons systems. 

Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

A new international instrument is on the horizon for dealing with the use in populated areas of explosive weapons, such as mortars, artillery shells, rockets, and air-dropped bombs. This method of war causes extensive civilian harm both at the time of attack and long after. That harm is exacerbated when the explosive weapons have wide area effects because they are inaccurate, have a large blast or fragmentation radius, or deliver multiple munitions at once. 

Ireland initiated a process in 2019 to develop a political declaration to protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Draft versions of the declaration recognized the harm this practice inflicts and included commitments for restricting the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, providing victim assistance, and collecting data. 

While the latest draft should be strengthened, the negotiations for the final version have been at the mercy of COVID-19. The consultations to conclude the document, originally scheduled for late March 2020, were the first major disarmament meeting to fall victim to the global pandemic. After at last being able to reschedule the consultations for February 2022, Ireland was compelled to postpone them once again when the Omicron variant meant that the relevant state and civil society representatives would be unable to attend an in-person meeting in Geneva. 

Although a new date has not yet been set, Ireland reportedly aims to hold the negotiations in the first half of 2022. If it succeeds, humanitarian disarmament will have another instrument in its toolbox—a political commitment that addresses one of the most significant humanitarian concerns of contemporary armed conflict.  

Semenivka's psychiatric hospital in ruins.
A team from the International Human Rights Clinic documented the destruction of Semenivka’s psychiatric hospital during their 2016 investigation of the effects on health care of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Ukraine. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, September 18, 2016.

Nuclear Weapons

In addition to celebrating the “Banniversary” of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first anniversary of its entry into force, on January 22, states and civil society have been busy preparing for the treaty’s First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP). The meeting was previously moved from January to March 2022, and Austria, president of the meeting, recently announced it will need to be rescheduled again, most likely until mid-year. 

Whenever it takes place, the 1MSP will be a crucial moment in the life of the TPNW. It provides states parties the opportunity to set priorities for the years ahead and to begin the process of turning the treaty’s obligations into actions. 

Discussions around the TPNW’s “positive obligations” for victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation and assistance will be particularly important for advancing the humanitarian disarmament agenda. These obligations ensure that the treaty provides a comprehensive response to the consequences of nuclear weapons, i.e., addressing the harm from past use and testing as well as preventing future harm. The 1MSP’s declaration and action plan should commit states parties to establishing an implementation framework, approving an intersessional workplan, developing reporting guidelines, and including affected communities at all stages. 

A working paper from Kazakhstan and Kiribati, which Austria appointed co-facilitators of the 1MSP’s work on the positive obligations, recommended addressing these and other measures in the 1MSP’s outcome documents. Many states parties and civil society organizations expressed their support in written submissions, and consultations are ongoing.      

Other important areas that the 1MSP will deal with include universalization and deadlines and verification procedures for dismantling nuclear arsenals. 

Killer Robots

For killer robots, the significance of 2022 is the opportunity it presents for supporters of a new treaty to change direction. 

Weapons systems that select and engage targets based on sensor processing rather than human inputs raise a host of moral, legal, accountability, and security concerns. As a result, the majority of states at the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference called for negotiations to create a new legally binding instrument on the topic. Most called for a combination of prohibitions on weapons that lack meaningful human control, prohibitions on autonomous weapons systems that target people, and restrictions on all other autonomous weapons systems to ensure that they are never used without meaningful human control.  

The failure of the conference to adopt a negotiation mandate underscored the shortcomings of that forum and the inability of this consensus body to make real progress on a matter of grave and urgent humanitarian concern. After eight years, CCW discussions on lethal autonomous weapons systems have more than run their course.

It is time, therefore, for states that support a legally binding instrument on these emerging weapons to pursue negotiations in an alternative forum. They can look for models to the origins of other humanitarian disarmament treaties, notably the independent processes that led to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the UN General Assembly process that led to the TPNW.

Many states said that they could not consider alternative forums until after the Review Conference, but that moment has passed and the CCW has failed to produce results. This year presents a clean slate. It is time for all supporters of a treaty to shift their sights and for champion states to step up and take the lead on a new process.  

While the pandemic is likely to play a role in the timing of progress this year, humanitarian disarmament—not a global disease—should determine 2022’s developments. 

Participants in the negotiations of the explosive weapons political declaration should ensure the final draft maximizes civilian protection. States, international organizations, civil society groups, and survivors should work together to produce strong 1MSP outcome documents that help the treaty live up to its humanitarian potential in practice. Finally, proponents of a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems should start fresh and focus on what process can best lead them to the strongest humanitarian outcome.   

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February 2, 2022

From ‘8888’ to ‘2121’: A New Generation of Resistance in Myanmar

(Editor’s Note: This article is the latest in a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar, which brought together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).

From the Just Security website.

by Tyler Giannini, Justin Cole and Emily Ray

Today, Feb. 1, 2022, marks the one-year anniversary of the Myanmar military’s attempt to wrest political control of the country away from its elected officials. Not every military attempt to impose its will on a country is a generational moment, but this one was. The actions of the military (known as the Tatmadaw) last year sparked an unprecedented series of events that are still rippling across the nation. The resistance to the military’s attempt[1] to take control started with the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a mass movement led by youth and joined by workers who stayed home and consumers who boycotted military-owned businesses to protest the takeover. A movement on this scale has not been seen in a generation. Other developments over the past year are entirely unprecedented in Myanmar. This past year thus marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. The shape of that new era is still being determined by the people of Burma, who are writing their next chapter with each passing day.

To understand the importance of Feb. 1, 2021 (“1221” or “2121,” depending on which date convention is used), we first must look back. For Burma followers, the start of the era proceeding 2021 can be traced to the 8888 Uprising (named for another significant date, Aug. 8, 1988, when that mobilization began), which saw a military crackdown against mass street protests across the country. The 8888 Uprising was the beginning of the end of the Ne Win era, a period of military rule which began decades earlier. Yet in the wake of 1988, the military dictatorship continued — first as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), a name which aptly captured the mass human rights abuses perpetrated by this military junta, and then, with a 1997 rebrand, as the State Peace and Development Council. Despite these cosmetic tweaks, little else changed. The consolidation of power by Than Shwe as the main military strongman in the early 2000s only demonstrated the continued military dominance. Even after the 2008 constitution and three subsequent national elections, including 2010 which featured a boycott by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the military was ever present, and the hopes of a full transition to democracy and peace failed to materialize. (For a fuller discussion of the history of democracy movements in Myanmar, see here).

A woman walks past pigeons flying near a tree along a footpath in Yangon.
A woman (R) walks past pigeons flying near a tree along a footpath in Yangon on January 27, 2022. (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

Yet this post-1988 era was never really defined by the military leader as it had been during Ne Win’s time. Instead, the 1988 to 2021 period was defined by its opposition leader. When history is written in the years to come, it will be known as the era of Aung San Suu Kyi. From her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights” while under house arrest and her leadership of the NLD as it earned landslide national victories in 1991, 2015, and 2020, to her silence on the ongoing persecution and coordinated campaigns of violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority, Aung San Suu Kyi shaped this era of Burma in a way no other figure did.

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