Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

November 9, 2020

Incendiary Weapons: Human Cost Demands Stronger Law

Clinic, HRW Argue Legal Loopholes Must Close to Prevent Further Civilian Suffering

(Geneva) – The horrific burns and life-long suffering caused by incendiary weapons demand that governments urgently revise existing treaty standards, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report jointly published today.

The 45-page report, “‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law,” details the immediate injuries and lasting physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, used by parties to recent conflicts. Countries should revisit and strengthen the international treaty governing these weapons, which burn people and set civilian structures and property on fire, Human Rights Watch concluded.

“While victims endure the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, countries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Countries should recognize the long-term suffering of survivors by addressing the shortcomings of existing international law.”

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October 20, 2020

Killer Robots: Precedent for a Ban Treaty


Shared Concerns, Desire for Human Control Should Spur Regulation

A symbolic illustration of a man warding off a missile coming from a  person's mind.
(C) 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch.

(Washington, DC, October 20, 2020) – A treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” is essential and achievable, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released today.

The 25-page report, “New Weapons, Proven Precedent: Elements of and Models for a Treaty on Killer Robots,” outlines key elements for a future treaty to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit weapons systems that operate without such control. It should consist of both positive obligations and prohibitions as well as elaborate on the components of “meaningful human control.”

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and needs to be strengthened to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. “A new international treaty is the only effective way to prevent the delegation of life-and-death decisions to machines.”

The report was co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is senior arms researcher. HRW coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

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October 13, 2020

Building Momentum: IHRC and ASP Launch Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Posted by Zac Smith JD'21

Sexual violence is all too common in conflict and post-conflict settings, causing horrific physical and psychological damage and preventing peace building efforts. As recognized in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2467 (2019), all individuals are at risk of sexual violence in conflict, and detention settings are a particular context of risk, especially for men and boys. 

Taking up Resolution 2467’s call to increase international attention and coordination on the issue, the All Survivors Project and the International Human Rights Clinic partnered to author the Principles on the Prevention of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV) in Detention Settings. Drawing from existing sources of international law and authoritative guidance, the document’s ten principles and accompanying commentary outline the international community’s responsibility to prevent and respond to CRSV. 

A red cover with a yellow block illustrating a cage with humans sitting on bars.

On Wednesday October 7, academic experts, policy makers, and diplomats came together at a virtual side event to the UN Human Rights Council to officially launch the Principles and highlight their significance. (Watch a recording of the event here.) Moderator Lara Stemple, Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and International Student Programs and Director of the Health and Human Rights Law Project at UCLA School of Law, prefaced the conversation by underlining the driving motivation for the All Survivors Project’s work — including these principles — that “human rights protections must be afforded to all people, regardless of their individual characteristics.” Panelists included Anna Crowe, Assistant Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, who supervised the Clinic’s work on the project; HE Premila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict; Professor Manfred Nowak, former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and  leader of a recently completed global study of children in detention; and Sophie Sutrich, Head of Addressing Sexual Violence for the International Committee of the Red Cross. 

The event began with opening remarks from representatives of three states that have championed CRSV prevention. Situating the place of the Principles in wider efforts to cultivate international peace and prosperity,Ambassador Jürg Lauber of Switzerland and Ambassador Peter C. Matt of Liechtenstein underlined their importance and timeliness. As Ambassador Lauber observed, “the Principles are clearly intended to be of practical use, as they contain specific recommendations for implementation.”Ambassador Tine Mørch Smith of Norway explained that “the physical hurt suffered from conflict related sexual violence does not discriminate between male and female victims.”She committed that CRSV prevention, including a focus on men and boys, would be a priority when Norway takes its seat as a non-permanent Security Council member in 2021.

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October 7, 2020

Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Red report cover with heading, "Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary." There is a picture of a yellow illustrated prison and the report is by IHRC and All Survivors Project.

October 7, 2020 — Today, the International Human Rights Clinic and the All Survivors Project launched, “Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary.” The Principles draw from existing international law – primarily international human rights law and international humanitarian law – as well as authoritative guidance to bring together in a single instrument ten key international principles to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence, applicable to all persons deprived of their liberty in armed conflict. Each principle is accompanied by commentary on its sources and content.

In Spring 2020, Clinic students Yanitra Kumaraguru LLM ’20, Zac Smith JD ’21, and Amanda Odasz JD ’21 worked under the supervision of Anna Crowe LLM’12, the Clinic’s Assistant Director, to research and draft the principles and commentary. They were significantly aided by research conducted by Clinic students Terry Flyte LLM ’19 and Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19, who worked under the supervision of Crowe and Emily Keehn, formerly the Associate Director of the Academic Program of the Human Rights Program.

September 30, 2020

Confronting conflict pollution: new principles argue for greater assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war

Posted by Dana Walters

A woman peers behind a wall as she sees smoke billowing and fire.
A woman looks at fire and smoke from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before the fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 4, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, irreparably damaging the environment and disrupting the lives of the people who called the area home. When Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, visited the islands in March 2018, she spoke with survivors who suffered from immediate and long-term health effects and who remain displaced decades after the tests.

“Many survivors in the Marshall Islands described having no warning that the tests were going to occur. Then there was blinding light. The sky turned red and various other colors, and then white, radioactive ash fell everywhere,” Docherty said. “Eventually, the U.S. military came and evacuated the communities. For years, as some people would try to return to their home, they did not know if they were still at risk or if the land was safe. There was a remarkable lack of information distributed to those who were most affected.”

The experiences of survivors in the Marshall Islands, as well as other places where armed conflict and military activity have harmed the environment, provided an impetus for “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” a major report released today. Co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the report establishes a new framework for addressing the human harm resulting from the environmental consequences of conflict.

The report lays out 14 principles that cover a range of harm and assistance, establish a mechanism for shared responsibility, identify key implementation measures, and apply overarching human rights norms. The report also includes a detailed commentary, explaining the principles and providing precedent for them. The overarching goal of the principles is to ensure that victims’ needs are met and that they can realize their human rights.

“There have been huge advances in developing legal frameworks for protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts in the last decade,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at CEOBS. “The principles help fill a clear gap in clarifying how states and the international community should respond to the consequences of environmental degradation on communities.”

Weir and a panel of other experts joined Docherty for an online launch event on September 30.

The report adapts the concept of victim assistance, originally designed to deal with explosive weapons, to conflict-related pollution, such as that from nuclear weapon use and testing, oil well fires in Iraq, or the bombing of industrial plants in Ukraine.

Docherty began the process of drafting principles regarding toxic remnants of war with Weir and then-Clinical Fellow Rebecca Agule ’10 in fall 2016. After taking a short break to assist the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during the negotiations of the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), she returned to the project in fall 2018 with an exceptional team of clinical students: Matthew Griechen ’19, Daniel Levine-Spound ’19, and Susannah Marshall ’19. Docherty’s experiences with the TPNW, the first treaty to require assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war, informed the clinic’s principles.

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August 6, 2020

On 75th Anniversary of Atomic Bombings, Honor Memories with Action

Posted by Setsuko Thurlow, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

As a 13-year-old girl, I witnessed my beloved city of Hiroshima blinded by a flash of light, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius, and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb. I was rescued from a collapsed building, where most of my classmates were unable to escape. They were burned to death alive. I saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling away from ground zero—blackened, swollen, with skin and flesh hanging from their bones. Some carried their eyeballs in their hands.

A concrete stone dome that barely stands in the residual effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima.
Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2019.

I vividly remember that bright summer morning 75 years ago when daylight turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud. Dead and injured people covered the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. There were fires everywhere. A foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air. Of my hometown population—roughly 360,000 mostly non-combatant women, children, and elderly—140,000 beloved human beings became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As I use the numbers of the dead, it pains me deeply. Reducing individual lives to numbers seems to me to be trivializing their precious lives and negating their human dignity. Each one who died had a name. Each one was loved by someone. And still to this very day, people are suffering and dying from the delayed effects of radioactive poisoning.

Many experts agree that the nuclear threat is greater now than at any time in the 75 years since the dawn of the nuclear age. For example, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, a journal founded by Albert Einstein and others, announced on January 23, 2020, that their Doomsday Clock is now set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to nuclear catastrophe in the 75 years of the nuclear age. At the event, Dr. Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, declared, “The current environment is profoundly unstable and urgent action and immediate engagement is required by all.”

Yet the unstable environment described in January has only increased. The Trump Administration is dismantling non-proliferation agreements that have taken decades to develop. The U.S. has signaled that it will walk away from the START treaty, one of the last agreements that remains in Trump’s felling of minimal arms control measures that once stood as norms for nuclear armed states. If START is not renewed, this will be the first time in about half a century that the two major nuclear powers will not be bound by bilateral nuclear agreements at all.

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July 31, 2020

Convention on Cluster Munitions Celebrates 10th Anniversary: A Living Legacy

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

Ten years ago tonight, I watched my laptop intently as the minutes, then seconds, ticked closer to midnight. A countdown clock on the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) website marked the time until the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force.

I held my breath as the clock read … 3-2-1 and cheered when it finally reached 0. At the stroke of 12 a.m., the treaty, for which I had advocated since 2001, became binding law on the 38 states that had already joined it. I celebrated the moment by emailing friends and former students with whom I had campaigned for the convention. Around the world that day, representatives of CMC, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than 100 countries, held celebrations with the theme “beat the drum to ban cluster munitions.”

The anniversary of this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty, which now has 108 states parties and 17 signatories, has saved civilian lives through its prohibitions and remedial measures. It has spawned other humanitarian disarmament campaigns to reduce arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm. And it has created a new generation of disarmament and human rights advocates.

Cluster munitions, large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, inflict unacceptable harm during attacks and after. Because they cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, they cause significant civilian casualties when used in populated areas, as they often are. In addition, many submunitions fail to explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that continue to kill and injure civilians for months and years to come.

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July 27, 2020

Summary executions and widespread repression under Bolivia’s interim government reports rights advocates from Harvard and University Network for Human Rights


Advocates call for a stop to state repression and violence, a turn to accountability, and a clear path to free and fair elections

Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. She cries over a casket while others look on tearing up.
Gregoria Siles mourns the death of her son Omar Calle hours after soldiers shot and killed him in Sacaba. Photo Credit: Thomas Becker 2019.


(Cambridge, MA, July 27, 2020) –­­– Four days after the Interim Bolivian Government suspended elections again, Harvard Law School’s (HLS) International Human Rights Clinic and the University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) released a report on the gross human rights abuses carried out under Bolivia’s interim President, Jeanine Áñez. The report documents one of the deadliest and most repressive periods in the past several decades in Bolivia as well as the growing fear of indigenous peoples and government critics that their lives and safety are in danger. 

“We have identified very troubling patterns of human rights violations since the Interim Government took power. These abuses create a climate where the possibility of free and fair elections is seriously undermined,” said Thomas Becker, an international human rights attorney with UNHR and a 2018-2020 clinical instructor in HLS’s International Human Rights Clinic.

Áñez assumed power on November 12, 2019 with the mandate of calling new elections by January 2020. Under her administration, Bolivia has endured a surge of human rights violations. Shortly after Áñez took power, state forces carried out operations that killed at least 23 Bolivian civilians, all indigenous, and injured over 230. These casualties make November 2019 the second-deadliest month in terms of civilian deaths committed by state forces since Bolivia became a democracy nearly 40 years ago.

Since November, the interim government has continued to persecute people that it perceives to be outspoken opponents of the Áñez administration. The government has intimidated the press, shutting down critical news outlets and arresting “seditious” journalists. Áñez’s forces have arrested or detained hundreds of former politicians for vague crimes such as “sedition” and “terrorism.”

The HLS and UNHR report offers recommendations to the interim government to enforce its domestic and international obligations. First among these recommendations is that the interim government fulfill its commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as quickly as possible.

“We are spiraling deeper into authoritarianism,” warned Felipa López Apaza, whose brother Juan was killed in Black November. “We need elections as soon as possible or they will keep coming after us.”

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July 2, 2020

150+ Organizations Issue Global Call for “New Normal”


Humanitarian disarmament approach offers proven model for change


(July 2, 2020) — More than 155 organizations released a joint letter today stating that humanitarian disarmament can lead the way to an improved post-pandemic world.

Endorsed by global campaigns that have garnered two Nobel Peace Prizes and fostered the creation of four international treaties in the past 25 years, the letter argues that humanitarian disarmament’s proven human-centered approach should guide current and future efforts in dealing with the pandemic and advancing human security.

The letter’s signatories include local, national, regional, and international organizations from around the world. Disarmament, human rights, peace, faith, medical, student, development, and other groups have all endorsed the letter. The widespread support across campaigns underscores how seriously the humanitarian disarmament community views the letter’s call. 

Humanitarian disarmament seeks to reduce the human suffering and environmental damage inflicted by arms. To advance its goals of preventing and remediating harm, money invested in unacceptable weapons would be better spent on humanitarian purposes, the letter says. 

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June 2, 2020

Protect Civilians from Explosive Weapons


Strong Political Declaration Will Save Lives


(Washington, DC, June 2, 2020) – Countries should heed the United Nations secretary-general’s call for a new political declaration to protect civilians from the bombing and shelling of cities and towns, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a joint report on the subject with Human Rights Watch.

The 11-page document addresses the importance of a political commitment and elaborates on what it should contain. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has inflicted immediate and long-term suffering on civilians in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and other areas of recent conflict.

“Countries should agree to a political declaration to prevent the foreseeable human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas,” said Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “The declaration should establish that this method of war is unacceptable. Civilian lives are at stake.”

In his annual report on the “Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” which he presented to the UN Security Council last week, Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the “fundamental need” for a new political declaration. It should commit countries to avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, he wrote.

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