May 13, 2022
Metwally spent summer 2021 at Social Media Exchange in Beirut, Lebanon
In a time of dim prospects for democracy in the Arab world and elsewhere, defending and advancing digital rights has long become a crucial frontier for human rights advocates. The Beirut-based Social Media Exchange (SMEX) is one of the few locally rooted NGOs to have made it their mission to advocate for digital rights in the Arab world. From July to August 2021, SMEX was supported by HRP summer fellow Amre Metwally JD’22 in pursuing that mission.
For Amre, SMEX had “long been a dream organization” of his to work with. He joined the NGO’s legal unit, which had only been established shortly before his fellowship. As an Egyptian-American, Amre was able to employ his language skills to seamlessly join forces with his colleagues on projects in Arabic. He says the following on his two main projects:
“The first was a project called “Muhal” which is a database that tracks freedom of expression infringements and arrests across the Arab world. I tracked incidents in Jordan and Tunisia. Additionally, my colleague and I drafted a report that analyzed how provisions in Tunisian, Jordanian, and Lebanese civil and criminal code can be used as pretexts or justifications behind freedom of speech violations. In particular, I was interested in looking at blasphemy, defamation, and cybercrime provisions in Jordanian law that served as the basis for violations.
The second project was a multi-person project that is actually funded by Privacy International. We wanted to better understand biometric and digital identification programs in the Gulf region in the Middle East. I was responsible for first researching the technical, legal, and economic underpinnings of national ID programs for Bahrain and Qatar. From there, I worked with my colleagues to find common trends, identify important differences, and flesh out a template for country-specific analyses. I then finished by writing my country analyses for Bahrain and Qatar.”
Amre brought extensive knowledge and a refined understanding of the tension between free speech and the regulation of online hate speech thanks to years of working for the content policy team at YouTube. Personal connections from his professional past also proved beneficial when Amre was able to liaise between the SMEX team and former YouTube colleagues now employed at TikTok to resolve a burgeoning crisis.
On the idea of “international human rights work”, Amre’s views evolved regarding the feasibility of cross-border coordination between human rights organizations:
“One project for SMEX was to create an Arab Alliance for Digital Rights. At first I assumed that, despite geographic diversity, it should be somewhat easy to get alignment. I was woefully unprepared for how difficult it was! Even when everyone was aligned for the need for strong “human rights” protections and advocacy work when it comes to the digital space, there was so much that changed based on, for example, a specific country’s reality compared to a different country. It made me realize just how much “international” human rights work is still ultimately shaped by, and influenced by, domestic or national human rights ideas and priorities.”
The internship at SMEX has only cemented the path Amre was on already. Advocating for digital rights was the reason he joined Harvard Law School, and his writing on the issue has been published on Slate.
May 11, 2022
HRP is pleased to announce its 2022 summer fellowship cohort: Madeleine Rogers JD’22, Andrew Santana JD’23, Ishita Petkar JD’24, Zoe Shamis JD’24 and Julia Lee JD’24.
Summer fellowships for human rights internships are a central part of the Harvard Law School human rights experience and provide rich professional, personal, and intellectual opportunities. Many students and alumni/ae who are committed to human rights were introduced to the field through an internship. Interns work for at least eight weeks with nongovernmental or intergovernmental organizations advancing human rights with an international focus.
You can find the student bios below.
Andrew Santana will intern with International Rights Advocates, working on class action litigation on behalf of the survivors of human rights abuses in Latin America. He graduated from Cornell in 2013 with a B.A. in government and received a M.P.P. from the University of Oxford in 2020, where his research focused on application of international human rights law to freedom of expression online. Professionally, Andrew has worked in various communications and political roles for Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris, and Robert Reich. Last summer, he worked with International Rights Advocates on a wide range of human rights matters before federal courts.
Ishita Petkar will intern at EarthRights International in Washington D.C. She will work with their litigation and legal advocacy team to further corporate accountability for environmental and human rights violations. Prior to law school, Ishita directed policy advocacy at the International Accountability Project, an NGO dedicated to furthering community-led development and holding development banks accountable for the human rights impacts of their investments. Her masters thesis interrogated the varying definitions of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) held by Indigenous and corporate stakeholders in the international development process. Ishita holds a B.A. from the University of Toronto in English Literature and Indigenous Studies, and an M.A. in Human Rights from Columbia University.
Julia Lee will intern with Corporate Accountability Lab in Chicago, working on their combating forced labor, transitional justice, and ethical intellectual property projects. Julia is interested in international human rights and criminal law, and she hopes to work in Southeast Asia one day. Prior to law school, she spent a summer researching immigrant access to health care and social services in the Bom Retiro neighborhood of São Paulo, Brazil. She also worked in venture capital, education, and public relations in South Korea. She graduated summa cum laude from Emory University with a B.A. in English and minor in Global Health.
Madeleine Rogers will be interning with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance on their Constitution Building Project. Working with the IDEA, Madeleine will focus in particular on constitutional formation processes in post-conflict zones, and analyzing strategies to ensure institutions capable of safeguarding human rights. She hopes to use this research to build on her interest in the role of governmental institutions and the rule of law on transnational human rights issues such as human trafficking and corporate accountability. Madeleine holds a BFA from the Juilliard School; she hails originally from Portland, Oregon.
Zoe Shamis will intern with the Clooney Foundation for Justice, working in their TrialWatch division, which monitors global criminal trials for human rights violations. At HLS, she has worked on the International Law Journal and been an active member of HLS Advocates for Human Rights. She holds a B.A. from Bowdoin College in Government & Legal Studies and Russian.
Congratulations to all of our summer fellows and best of luck to all the HLS students interning abroad this summer!
April 6, 2022
Posted by Kai Mueller
On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered the termination of the “Title 42” procedure, a method originally created by the Trump administration at the outset of the Covid pandemic to deport asylum seekers without hearing on supposed public health grounds. The termination is to go into effect on May 23, 2022. The termination of the Title 42 procedure has been long overdue.
The consequence of the Title 42 process had been a circumvention of immigration laws that protect the rights of asylum seekers who face risk of persecution or torture in their countries of origin. This CDC order resulted in border agents expelling thousands upon thousands of migrants without taking into account the irreparable harm that may await them.
The Biden Administration had kept this rule in place and used it over 1.2 million times to block migrants from seeking safety in the United States despite criticism that the policy improperly relied on the Covid-19 crisis to violate legal protections guaranteed to refugees under both U.S. and international law.
On September 16, 2021, a U.S. District Judge had granted a preliminary injunction against expulsion of migrant families without any hearing, in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and others. After a stay pending appeal, the D.C. Circuit affirmed a narrower version of the injunction on March 4, 2022, holding that the public health law did not override statutory protection against return to a country where an asylum seeker was likely to be persecuted. The injunction followed mounting pressure from immigrant rights groups and voices in academia, including amicus briefs co-submitted by Harvard Law Human Rights Program Director Gerald L. Neuman and Deborah Anker, Founding Director of the Harvard Law Immigration and Refugee Clinic, to end the Title 42 policy. The April 1 order of the CDC does not admit the illegality of the Title 42 process, but it would terminate it altogether, subject to the possibility of later reactivation.
It has long been clear that the severe violations of asylum seekers’ rights caused by Title 42 outweighed the purported health benefits related to pandemic control. Hence, the Biden administration’s repeated defense of this regressive Trump-era policy has been a disappointment to those who had hoped for a more humane and rights-based policy toward refugees and immigrants. Regrettably, the termination order itself may be challenged in other courts.
For further information regarding the litigation of the Title 42 procedure, you can watch the webinar “Abusing Public Health Powers at the Border: Litigating “Title 42” Deportations Before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights” organized by HRP on November 8, 2021, below.
March 28, 2022
Posted by Gerald L. Neuman
It appears that on April 1, Harvard Law School will be hosting a lecture by Peter Berkowitz, formerly the Executive Secretary of the Trump Administration’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” (CUR), whose appalling Report has been repudiated by the Biden Administration. The lecture, entitled “Reflections on the Commission on Unalienable Rights,” is presumably part of the ongoing efforts to keep alive the CUR’s misguided project of reorienting and reducing international human rights law, like his presentation at a November 2021 conference at Notre Dame.
While the CUR Report was evidently a compromise document, its overall message was dismissive and hostile toward the current systems of international human rights law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had convened the commission in order to weaken respect for human rights law, and cut it back to eighteenth-century principles. The Report favored letting each country give treaty provisions the meaning that it prefers consistent with its own traditions.
The project was not only inward-focused. Pompeo’s State Department had the Report translated into the other five UN official languages (Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian and Spanish) and also into Farsi and German. It actively promoted the report at the United Nations and in other countries, thereby encouraging autocrats and right-wing populists abroad to follow its example. Just what the world needs at the present historical moment.
Harvard’s association with the CUR, which was chaired by a faculty member, is regrettable but the University has also been active in critique. For a fuller set of “reflections” on the CUR Report, I can recommend the panel held by the Human Rights Program in September 2020, or this article by one of the participants.
March 25, 2022
International Human Rights Clinic Files Supreme Court Amicus Brief on Behalf of International Scholars in Jam v. IFC
This week, Olivia Klein from the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs published a feature on the IHRC clinicians and students that worked during the January term on the amicus brief submitted behalf of international scholars to the Supreme Court in Jam v. International Finance Corporation (IFC). Read about their intensive collaboration in the drafting and submission process and their hopes for what happens next: https://clinics.law.harvard.edu/blog/2022/03/international-human-rights-clinic-files-supreme-court-amicus-brief-on-behalf-of-international-scholars-in-jam-v-ifc/.
March 23, 2022
Bonnie Docherty, Clinic’s Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, testifies before Congressional subcommittee about weapons use in Ukraine
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
On March 16, 2022, Bonnie Docherty testified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe hearing about early signs of of war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Russian military during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She described Russia’s use of cluster munitions and explosive weapons in populated areas, highlighted the effects of the indiscriminate attacks, and called on the United States to condemn Russia’s actions and improve its own policies with regard to these weapons.
Watch Docherty’s testimony before Congress below.
To read Docherty’s written testimony, click here.
March 23, 2022
Russia’s Use of Cluster Munitions and Other Explosive Weapons Shows Need for Stronger Civilian Protections
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This article was first published on Just Security.
In the current armed conflict in Ukraine, Russian forces have relied heavily on two types of weapons that are notorious for the unacceptable and often unlawful harm they inflict on civilians. The weapons are cluster munitions, which have been banned by most countries in the world, and explosive weapons with wide area effects, which when used in populated areas are among the major causes of civilian casualties in contemporary armed conflict.
Attacks with these weapons have already killed and injured hundreds of civilians, turned buildings into rubble, and led to mass displacement. Judging by the experience of past conflicts, they will most likely also leave Ukraine with a legacy of harm that lingers long after active hostilities end.
Cluster munitions, large weapons that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller weapons called submunitions, endanger civilians for two reasons. First, they have a wide area effect because they spread their submunitions over a broad footprint, commonly the size of a football field. These submunitions cannot distinguish soldiers from civilians when used in populated areas. Second, many of their submunitions do not explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that pose threats to civilians for months, years, or even decades after a conflict. These so-called “duds” are frequently detonated by children who think they are toys, farmers who hit them with their plows, or refugees who return home.
The immediate harm caused by cluster munitions has already been evident in Ukraine. Human Rights Watch (where I am a senior researcher) documented a strike by Russian forces near a hospital in Vuhledar in the Ukraine-controlled Donetska region on Feb. 24. A 9M79-series Tochka ballistic missile delivered a 9N123 cluster munition warhead, containing 50 submunitions. The attack killed four civilians and injured another 10, including six healthcare workers. It damaged a hospital building, an ambulance, and civilian vehicles.
Four days later, on Feb. 28, Russian forces launched 9M55K Smerch cluster munition rockets in three neighborhoods of Kharkiv, Human Rights Watch found. Each of these rockets, which are often fired in volleys of 12, carries 72 9N235 submunitions. The United Nations reported nine civilian deaths and 37 injuries in attacks across the city that day.
Russian forces launched Smerch and Uragan cluster munitions into the city of Mykolaiv on Mar. 7, 11, and 13, reportedly killing nine civilians in line at a cash machine on the last day alone, according to more recent Human Rights Watch research. Other organizations and journalists have also reported cluster munition attacks in Ukraine.
International humanitarian law (IHL)’s rule of distinction requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives. The use of cluster munitions, at least where civilians may be present, violates this rule. Human Rights Watch and others argue they are inherently indiscriminate. At the time of attack, the wide-area effect of these weapons prevents them from distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants. In addition, the unexploded submunitions they leave behind makes them indiscriminate because their effects cannot be limited. Attacks using cluster munitions in populated areas may also violate the principle of proportionality, which prohibits attacks in which expected injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects is excessive in relation to anticipated military advantage.
Due to the unacceptable harm cluster munitions cause and their indiscriminate nature, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions bans their use, production, transfer, and stockpiling. Although Russia and Ukraine have not joined the treaty, 110 countries are party, including most NATO countries (although not the United States).
The convention also obligates each state party to “promote the norms it establishes and … make its best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.” In compliance with this provision, at least 15 states parties have condemned or expressed concern about Russia’s use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.
The president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which is currently the United Kingdom, along with the NATO Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the European Union have also condemned the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.
Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
While cluster munitions are especially horrific for civilians, they are just one type of explosive weapon. The broader category of explosive weapons, which encompasses artillery shells, mortar rounds, rockets, missiles, enhanced blast (aka thermobaric) weapons, and aerial bombs, among others, has caused the bulk of the conflict-related damage in Ukraine.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has grave humanitarian consequences both during and after attacks. Those effects are magnified when the weapons have wide area effects because: they have a large blast or fragmentation radius; they are inaccurate; they deliver multiple munitions at once (e.g., cluster munitions); or they have a combination of the above.
Russia’s bombing and shelling of Ukraine’s cities and towns has taken a physical and psychological toll on the civilian population. According to Human Rights Watch, Russian artillery shelling and airstrikes killed or injured more than 450 civilians in the city of Kharkiv in the first 11 days of the conflict. The attacks have also leveled homes, apartment buildings, and other primarily civilian structures and infrastructure, and damaged the environment.
The costs of this method of war, however, extend beyond its direct effects. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas also causes indirect and reverberating effects. The destruction of infrastructure can interfere with essential services and in turn infringe on an array of human rights.
In 2016, I co-authored an in-depth report on the effects of explosive weapons’ use on health care in the earlier conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was published by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (where I teach) and PAX. We found, for example, that damage to power plants and communication lines seriously affected hospitals and the provision of health care, and thus undermined the right to health. Such reverberating impacts will almost certainly be more severe in the current – much larger – conflict.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas also exacerbates displacement. As of Mar. 18, more than three million people had fled Ukraine as a result of the conflict, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The attacks on urban centers with explosive weapons are one of the driving factors.
In a statement to the UN Security Council, a representative from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that many of these effects were already being felt by Feb. 28. “As we all feared, civilians are already paying the price,” he said. “The scale of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, even in these very early days, is alarming.”
Explicitly highlighting the dangers of the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, he continued, “Civilians will undeservedly suffer the most from these attacks on densely populated urban centres. . . . And the longer this goes on, the greater the cost will be for civilians.”
Using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas can be expected to result in indiscriminate attacks with a high loss of civilian life. The patterns of harm to civilians that these weapons cause, including their reverberating effects, are well documented and heighten concerns that attacks will also be disproportionate. In addition, the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is generally counter to the IHL duty to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Those who are responsible for using explosive weapons unlawfully with criminal intent are committing war crimes.
While explosive weapons, unlike cluster munitions in particular, are not banned by any instrument of international law, countries have been working toward a political declaration that addresses the humanitarian consequences of their use in populated areas. The next round of negotiations of this Ireland-led process, which had been postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are now scheduled for April 6-8.
The events in Ukraine underscore how important it is for countries to include in the declaration a commitment to avoid the use of these weapons in populated areas. This political commitment, although non-binding, would set important standards for dealing with a deadly practice of modern war.
The concern regarding Russia’s use of explosive weapons in Ukraine’s urban centers from countries including Austria and Ireland, and as stated in the UN Human Rights Council resolution of Mar. 4, demonstrates the growing support for these standards.
Cease and Condemn
The horrific images and accounts emerging from Ukraine offer a glimpse of the immediate harm that Russian cluster munitions and explosive weapons are inflicting on Ukraine’s civilians. Documentation of the effects of these weapons in past conflicts suggest the harm will be long term.
To prevent furthering the humanitarian crisis, Russia should immediately cease the use of cluster munitions and avoid using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Other countries and the United Nations should support documentation efforts to ensure domestic and international accountability for any violations of IHL and international human right law and in particular support the International Criminal Court’s Ukraine investigation.
Other states and the United Nations should also explicitly condemn the use of cluster munitions and explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Such focused criticism will not only increase pressure on Russia to change its practices in Ukraine. It will also strengthen the international norms against these means and methods of war.
It will bolster the Convention on Cluster Munitions, increasing its influence among countries that have not already joined; encourage the adoption a robust political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas; and in so doing, help improve protections for civilians in future conflicts.
March 2, 2022
Addameer and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School Send Joint Submission to the UN Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel
In response to a call for submissions from the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, in partnership with the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, contributed a joint submission analyzing whether the legal regime enforced by Israel in the occupied West Bank violates the prohibition of apartheid under international law. The submission outlines discriminatory laws, policies, and practices enforced by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank, which create a dual legal system that systematically discriminates against Palestinians and suppresses their civil and political rights. The submission finds that Israel’s actions in the occupied West Bank are in breach of the prohibition of apartheid and amount to the crime of apartheid under international law. Click here to read the submission.
The Commission of Inquiry was established in May 2021 by the Human Rights Council with the mandate to investigate “all alleged violations and abuses of international human rights law leading up and since 13 April 2021” in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel, in addition to investigating “all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including systematic discrimination and repression based on national, ethnic, racial or religious identity.”
February 16, 2022
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.
“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.
February 9, 2022
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.
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.
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.