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January 19, 2022

IHRC’s Bonnie Docherty Shares Thoughts on the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons

By Sarah Foote with Bonnie Docherty

Countries party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major international disarmament treaty, convened last month at the United Nations in Geneva for its Sixth Review Conference. They focused much of their attention on two topics: killer robots, which they refer to as lethal autonomous weapons systems, and incendiary weapons. Students from the International Human Rights Clinic, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, have contributed to civil society efforts to push for negotiations of a new treaty on killer robots, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The Clinic and Human Rights Watch have also spearheaded advocacy to initiate a process to revisit and strengthen CCW Protocol III, which governs incendiary weapons. That protocol has loopholes that undermine its ability to protect civilians from the horrors of incendiary weapons, the source of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering. 

In the conversation below, Bonnie Docherty reflects on the Review Conference, its outcomes, and the next steps for these critical humanitarian issues.

Q. You weren’t able to travel to Geneva for the Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons held last December due to COVID. Were you able to watch the talks?

Bonnie Docherty: I watched all of the sessions from 4 am -12 pm for two and a half weeks through the UN Web TV live stream. Delegates from some countries and organizations did attend in person. However, due to COVID and Omicron, many civil societies representatives and diplomats did not attend for safety reasons. I participated actively through text messages, What’s App, emails, and meetings via Zoom with diplomats and colleagues. I used these tools to advocate for our issues and keep up-to-date with the people on the ground.

Although I could not make remote interventions myself, a Human Rights Watch representative read a statement that expressed our position on killer robots and incendiary weapons. A colleague from Mines Action Canada also delivered a statement I wrote on behalf of eight civil society organizations regarding incendiary weapons.

Lode Dewaegheneire of Mines Action Canada.

Q. What were the most important takeaways from the CCW discussions?

Bonnie Docherty: With regard to incendiary weapons, the outcome of the Review Conference on paper was disappointing because Russia refused to agree to put Protocol III on the agenda for next year. CCW operates by consensus so any one state can block progress. It was very discouraging after our all efforts to put forward a reasonable request—to hold dedicated discussions of the topic next year.

That said, there were powerful and encouraging statements from many states who supported having these discussions. There were impassioned pleas to stop the cruelty that incendiary weapons can cause. These countries understood the true human impact these types of weapons have, and this was important progress. They also recognized victims and the harm they have suffered.

Regarding autonomous weapons systems, the Review Conference made clear that progress on this issue cannot be made in a consensus body. Hopefully, the failure of the Conference to agree to negotiate a legally binding instrument will inspire states to go to a different forum and adopt a new treaty to make real change.

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January 18, 2022

Human Rights Alumni Provide Career Advice to Current Clinical Students

Special session offers reassurance and guidance to 3Ls whose law school experience was impacted by the pandemic

By Sarah Foote

COVID-19 reshaped the Class of 2022’s time at Harvard Law School. For students planning careers in human rights, the pandemic jettisoned international summer internships, J-term placements, and opportunities to travel and study abroad. Professor Susan Farbstein wanted to respond to this sense of loss in her advanced clinical seminar and to connect her current 3Ls to networks and mentors that can support them on their paths—particularly as they launch careers in unprecedented circumstances.

So at the end of the fall term, Farbstein convened a Zoom session with 13 clinical alumni, spanning the Classes of 2009 through 2020, and advanced 3Ls in the International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC). Over two hours that felt like both a family reunion and a high-level panel, alumni shared lessons learned from their often-circuitous career paths. They also offered sage advice about the importance of working for good leaders, practicing self-care, and the challenges and fulfillment they’ve found tackling human rights issues around the world.

The Clinic As A Launching Pad and Ongoing Source of Support
Many alumni drew a connection between their time as students in the International Human Rights Clinic and their ability to enter the human rights field.

For Yonina Alexander, JD ‘12, Regional Program Director at Partners for Justice, her first position out of law school was a direct outgrowth of her projects and training in the Clinic. “My first job was with the Center for Justice & Accountability. I went there to work on Alien Tort Statute (ATS) litigation and Torture Victim Protection Act cases, and that was directly because I’d been working on ATS litigation in the Clinic. I loved it and wanted to continue,” she said.

Jason Gelbort, JD ‘13, Founder of Upland Advisors, also drew “a direct thread between a moment at the Clinic and everything I’ve done since graduating.” As a student, he participated in a clinical fact-finding trip to the Thai-Burma border. “After spending a week in a refugee camp talking to people about their horrible experiences, it was definitely very formative and made me decide this was a situation I wanted to focus on. After that trip, I knew I wanted to work in that field. It was directly tied to my experience at the Clinic,” Gelbort said.

Other alumni noted that the Clinic had been instrumental to their career transitions, and recounted reaching out to former clinical supervisors to talk through their options and decision-making process when moving between jobs later on in their careers.

Good Mentors and Workplace Culture Make All the Difference

The alumni also emphasized the importance of working with and for people who will be good colleagues and foster a healthy workplace environment. “When interviewing for jobs, think about who you are going to work for and how you are going to be treated,” advised Jillian Rafferty, JD ’20, Managing Editor at the International Review of the Red Cross. “Try to figure out what works for you. The people that are around you at work make a really big difference in your ability to find your work sustainable—not just fulfilling in the tasks or the mission of the job, but in your ability to be content.”

New human rights practitioners should challenge themselves to find mentors and to consider the type and quality of supervision they prefer, advised Ben Hoffman, JD ‘11, a Supervising Attorney at EarthRights International. “When you’re interviewing it’s important to ask about supervision—especially now with so much remote work. You’re not necessarily going to be infrequent meetings with your supervisor or even going to be in the same office or location as your supervisor. It’s important to do some self-reflection and figure out how important it is to you when interviewing and ask about this,” Hoffman said.

Matt Wells, JD ‘09, Deputy Director of Crisis Response at Amnesty International, noted that in his experience, “You need to be prepared to construct some of that workplace culture [you want] for yourself. It can come from finding the right boss, which has been a very intentional part of how I’ve chosen career transitions at this stage.”

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December 15, 2021

Incendiary Weapons: Views from the Frontlines and the Financial Sector

Posted by By David Hogan, Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic

This post originally appeared on humanitariandisarmament.org’s Disarmament Dialogue blog. Videos of the panelists are available there.

As states gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for a major UN disarmament conference, a recent online event illuminated the cruel effects of incendiary weapons and the need for stronger international law. Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, cause horrific injuries and long-term physical, psychological, and socioeconomic suffering. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of these weapons, but two loopholes weaken its effectiveness.

The event was entitled, “Incendiary Weapons: The Humanitarian Call for Stronger Law,” and co-hosted by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. It featured three panelists: Kim Phuc Phan Thi, survivor of a napalm attack in Vietnam in 1972; Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who treated victims of an incendiary weapons attack in Syria; and Roos Boer, a researcher at PAX, a Dutch peace organization. Kim Phuc and Dr. Hallam detailed the grievous suffering caused by incendiary weapons and articulated their hopes for a more peaceful future, while Boer described financial institutions’ policies for divesting from incendiary weapons.

Bonnie Docherty

Moderator Bonnie Docherty, of Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, opened the event by explaining the shortcomings of existing law and what states should do to address them. First, Protocol III’s definition of incendiary weapons excludes most multipurpose weapons with incendiary effects, such as white phosphorus. Second, the protocol has weaker restrictions for ground-launched weapons than for airdropped ones, even though they have the same damaging effects. At the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, underway in Geneva until December 17, 2021, CCW states parties should agree to set aside time to assess the adequacy of the protocol with an eye toward strengthening it.

Kim Phuc

Known around the world as “the girl in the picture,” Kim Phuc was immortalized at age 9 by a photograph that shows her screaming and running naked down a road in Trảng Bàng, Vietnam, after having her clothing burned off by napalm. Kim Phuc’s memories of June 8, 1972, include fleeing bombs and explosions of gasoline and screaming, “too hot,” as her skin was on fire.  Her parents located her in a hospital morgue three days after the attack, and she was transferred to a burn clinic in Saigon. Every day a nurse placed her in a tub “filled with a surgical soft solution and warm water [that] made it easier to cut [her] bare skin off.” She remembers, “The pain was unbearable, and I just cried as a child. When I couldn’t bear, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I just passed out.”

Although Kim Phuc ultimately survived and left the burn clinic 14 months later, she endured lasting physical and emotional scars. She recalls, “I didn’t feel pretty growing up. I was certain no boy would ever love me or marry me and that I would never have a normal life.” She dreamed of being a doctor and was accepted into medical school, but the Vietnamese government cut her off from her studies so that she could serve as a symbol for the state, making her feel like “a victim all over again.” This was a “very low point” in her life. Kim Phuc reports that even now, she still receives laser treatment for burns covering her arm, back, and neck. “With all the scars, [I] have no pores, cannot sweat, so I have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and gout.” She also still suffers from pain, nightmares, and trauma, and whenever she sees a gun, fear and memories of war and fire return.

While her suffering exemplifies the impacts of incendiary weapons, Kim Phuc expressed hope for the world. She later married, defected to Canada, and founded the Kim Foundation International, a non-profit that funds projects to help child victims of war around the world. She also travels the world as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. She described the difficult but liberating task of forgiving those who caused her harm and credits her Christian faith with making that possible. Kim Phuc said that she “will forever bear the scar” of the napalm attack, but she articulated her dream that “one day, all people will live without fear in real peace, no fighting and no hostility.” She said: “I believe that peace, love, and forgiveness will always be more powerful than any kind of weapons.”

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December 7, 2021

New Voices against Incendiary Weapons: Healthcare Professionals, Burn Survivor Groups Demand Stronger Law

Posted by By Nick Fallah, JD’23, and David Hogan, JD ’22 Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic From the HUMANITARIAN DISARMAMENT website

Incendiary weapons, which produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance, cause grievous injury and long-term suffering for civilians. Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) prohibits and regulates certain uses of incendiary weapons, but it contains loopholes that have limited its effectiveness.

As CCW states parties prepare to discuss these weapons and Protocol III at the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference, scheduled for December 13-17, 2021, healthcare professionals and burn survivor organizations have an opportunity to add their voices, expertise, and moral authority to the debate. They should sign an open letter that calls on states to “recognize the unnecessary human cost of incendiary weapons and initiate a process to revisit and strengthen” Protocol III.

The open letter, signed to date by more than 36 individuals and organizations from 7 countries, seeks to bring the views of those who have a unique knowledge of burn injuries to the diplomatic table. According to the letter,

Those of us who are healthcare professionals, including burn specialists, understand the human impacts of such injuries and the challenges of treating them. . . . Those of us who are burn survivors or their family members have directly or indirectly experienced the effects of burn injuries and empathize with those who suffer the immediate and lifelong consequences of incendiary weapons.

As the letter explains, the harm that incendiary weapons inflict on people is nothing short of horrific. These weapons, including those with white phosphorous, can burn people to the bone or smolder inside the body. They frequently cause severe or even fatal burns over more than 15 percent, and often more than 50 percent, of a victim’s total body surface area. The pain to survivors is so great that they often must take the maximum dosage of painkilling medication, and the burns leave victims at severe risk of infection and death. A 2013 incendiary weapon attack on a school in Syria killed several students and wounded many more. The flames burned an 18-year-old student named Muhammad, covering over 85 percent of his body including half his face, neck, back, and both legs and feet. To relieve the suffering of another boy whose throat had been scorched, a doctor intubated and sedated him, although, as the doctor expected, he died within the hour.

The impacts of incendiary weapons can last a lifetime. Thick scars cause contractures, which restrict muscles and joints, impede mobility, and can stunt the growth of children. Severe pain can linger for decades, and survivors may also suffer from skin damage, excessive dryness, either hypersensitivity or loss of sensation, and a range of physical disabilities. The trauma of an attack as well as its long-term physical effects can cause lasting psychological harm, and a survivor’s injuries and scarring can make it difficult to reintegrate into society socially and economically. Long-term harm is exacerbated by the lack of specialist medical personnel in combat zones, and the lack of adequate equipment and resources even when specialists are available.

CCW Protocol III has failed to prevent this kind of harm to civilians at least in part because two loopholes weaken its prohibitions and regulations. First, the protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons excludes most multipurpose weapons with incendiary effects, such as white phosphorus. Second, the protocol has weaker restrictions for ground-launched weapons than for airdropped ones, even though they have the same damaging effects. CCW states parties should amend Protocol III to remove these loopholes and focus the law on the weapons’ effects rather than on their primary purpose or delivery mechanism. Doing so would create stronger international norms that could influence states parties and states not party alike.

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December 1, 2021

Killer Robots: Negotiate New Law to Protect Humanity

Legal Uncertainty, Growing Concerns Show Urgent Need for Regulation

Governments should agree to open negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a report released today. Countries will be meeting at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2021 to decide whether to begin negotiations to adopt new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as “killer robots.”

The 23-page report, “Crunch Time on Killer Robots: Why New Law Is Needed and How It Can Be Achieved,” by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, finds that international law should be strengthened and clarified to protect humanity from the dangers posed by weapons systems that select and engage targets without meaningful human control.

“After eight years discussing the far-reaching consequences of removing human control from the use of force, countries now need to decide how to respond to those threats,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic and senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There’s an urgent need for a dedicated treaty to address the shortcomings of international humanitarian law and update it to deal with the legal, ethical, and societal challenges of today’s artificial intelligence and emerging technologies.”

At the United Nations in Geneva the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots called on governments to not allow the development of weapons systems that would select and attack targets without any human intervention. (c) 2018 Clare Conboy.

The Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), scheduled to be held from December 13-17, is a major juncture for international talks on killer robots. At the last CCW meeting on killer robots in September, most countries that spoke called for a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems. Chile, Mexico, and Brazil urged treaty members to agree to initiate negotiations of new international law. Other proponents included the ‘Group of Ten’ states (Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Palestine, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Sierra Leone, and Uruguay) and states of the Non-Aligned Movement.  

There are various possible forums for negotiating a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems. Other than the CCW, options include a stand-alone process, as was used for the treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, and the United Nations General Assembly, where the nuclear weapons ban treaty was negotiated.

Existing international humanitarian law is not adequate to address the problems posed by autonomous weapons systems, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Clinic said. There is widespread support for developing new law and any divergence of views reinforces the need to clarify existing law. A new treaty would address the concerns raised by these weapons systems under international humanitarian law, ethics, international human rights law, accountability, and security.

Such a treaty should cover weapons systems that select and engage targets on the basis of sensor, rather than human, inputs. Most treaty proponents have called for a prohibition on weapons systems that by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control, such as complex systems using machine-learning algorithms that produce unpredictable or inexplicable effects.

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November 29, 2021

COP26 as Greenwashing? How a Human Rights Approach Can Shift Us Away from the Greenwashing Trap

Posted by By Cindy Wu, JD’22

This month, world leaders and business executives convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th United Nations climate conference. Outside the conference rooms, a different kind of convening took place, as hundreds of thousands of activists gathered in Glasgow and globally to demand more immediate and drastic action on climate change. Amongst these protesters was Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly referred to COP26 as a “greenwashing” event.

This refrain resounded among activists. But what is greenwashing? And how can those with a genuine interest in saving the planet avoid the trap of greenwashing? I offer two simple but loaded words as the answer: human rights.

Person holding sign at protest that says Blah Blah Blah
A school strike for climate in advance of COP26. Credit: Mænsard vokser / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What is greenwashing and why has COP26 been criticized as greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in reference to the practice of companies holding out their “green” activities to the consuming public while obscuring the degradation caused by their other activities. Think Nestlé Waters proudly announcing a plastic water bottle made from “100% sustainable and renewable resources,” while simultaneously depleting aquifers and other public water sources, including on Indigenous land.

Activists are also now using the label to criticize what they view as empty promises made by world leaders at COP26. Among those promises are a pledge from 40 countries to phase out coal, an agreement from 105 countries to reverse deforestation, and a commitment from a coalition of banks to have net-zero investments by 2050. Although these pledges have the appearance of curbing emissions, many observers view them as toothless, empty promises, especially given the fact that some communities are already knee-deep in the effects of the climate crisis.

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October 22, 2021

International Human Rights Clinic Statement in Support of Palestinian Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

Posted by International Human Rights Clinic

The International Human Rights Clinic is deeply concerned by the Israeli Minister of Defense’s recent designation of prominent Palestinian civil society groups, including Palestinian human rights advocates, as terrorist organizations.

Deploying anti-terrorism legislation to criminalize and delegitimize human rights work violates internationally protected rights to free speech and free association and assembly. It marks an alarming escalation in the repression of Palestinian civil society organizations and human rights defenders, who have been instrumental in documenting human rights abuses by both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, resisting unjust policies of the Israeli occupation, and advocating to protect the rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

We stand in solidarity with Palestinian human rights defenders. We call on the United States government and the international community to oppose this decision, and on the Israeli government to reverse it immediately.

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October 18, 2021

The International Human Rights Clinic Supports International Advocacy to Advance Rights of Women in Yemen

Posted by Salma Waheedi

The Musawah Movement for Equality in the Muslim Family submitted a thematic report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), advocating for effective legal reforms to prevent violence against women and to end gender-based discrimination in Yemen’s personal status laws. 

The report is a product of an ongoing collaboration between the International Human Rights Clinic, Musawah, and Yemeni women’s rights advocates. Shaza Loutfi, HLS ’22, worked closely with Musawah researchers and Yemeni advocates to draft the report and develop its analysis and recommendations, under the supervision of IHRC Clinical Instructor Salma Waheedi. The report will be considered by the CEDAW Committee in its constructive dialogue with the Government of Yemen, scheduled to take place remotely on October 27th, 2021, as part of the Committee’s upcoming session

The report examines Yemen’s legal framework and practices that enforce de jure and de facto discrimination against Yemeni Muslim women in five priority areas: child marriage, forced marriage, violence against women, inheritance rights, and nationality rights. Taking into account the ongoing devastating conflict in Yemen and its current political instability, it aims to document the most pressing issues, legal and practical, that affect the lives of Yemeni women in the private and family spheres, and to offer recommendations to guide the CEDAW Committee’s engagement with the Government of Yemen.   

Member states to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women are required to undergo regular reviews by the Committee of 23 independent international experts on how they are implementing the Convention. 

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October 1, 2021

Job Posting: International Human Rights Clinic Hiring Communications Coordinator

The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Harvard Law School is looking for a dynamic communications professional to spearhead the production of our communications efforts, coordinating the Clinic’s digital and social media strategy and content.

About the role:

You will work collaboratively with the Clinic’s staff to produce the Clinic’s social media, website/blog, and print communications with the goal of increasing the visibility, understanding, and impact of the Clinic within the law school and the broader global human rights community. You will develop and implement our communications strategy, amplifying the Clinic’s work by generating content for media channels appropriate to our various audiences, and write, edit, and post substantive content.

The role will be part-time (up to 20 hours a week) and based at the law school campus in Cambridge, MA, with the potential for remote work. Although this is initially a temporary hire of up to 13 weeks, it may become a permanent position based on the Clinic’s needs and available funding. Download the full job description here!

How to apply:

If this sounds like you, send a CV and cover letter to [email protected] with the subject line “IHRC Communications Coordinator Application: [your name].” Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis until October 25. Applicants should indicate in their cover letter whether they could be interested in a permanent position if one became available.

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September 22, 2021

HRP Mourns the Passing of Professor John Ruggie

Posted by Gerald L. Neuman

A major figure in international relations and human rights, our dear colleague John Gerard Ruggie, passed away last week.  Ruggie was the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  In the human rights field he is most famous for establishing a viable foundation for addressing the human rights responsibilities of business corporations, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011).  A brilliant strategist, Ruggie engaged in extensive consultation, study, analysis and persuasion to rescue the business-and-human-rights project from the polarized confrontation that had brought it to an impasse.  His invaluable book Just Business:  Multinational Corporations and Human Rights (2013) provides a model for the multi-dimensional negotiations that enable such achievements. John’s unique blend of kindness, rigor, insight, and attentive listening will be sorely missed.

Photo of John G. Ruggie sitting in his office.
John G. Ruggie is the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs. Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

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