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Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

June 15, 2022

Addressing Nuclear Weapons Contamination: New Principles for Environmental Remediation

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

When the First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) convenes in Vienna from June 21-23, much of the discussion will center on how to implement the treaty’s positive obligations to remediate the contaminated environment and assist victims. 

These provisions are critical because nuclear weapons wreak havoc on the environment and the people who live in it. Radioactive contamination from the weapons’ use and testing devastates ecosystems; causes death, disease, and psychological trauma; displaces entire communities; destroys cultures; and more. 

To respond to this harm and inform the 1MSP’s debate, the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS) have released a new report entitled Facing Fallout: Principles for Environmental Remediation of Nuclear Weapons Contamination. The report identifies 19 principles for implementing remediation measures and includes an in-depth commentary with explanation and precedent for each.  

Facing Fallout complements a 2020 report by the same authors entitled Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War. Victim assistance directly addresses the harm nuclear weapons cause to humans, while environmental remediation responds to its major underlying cause, i.e., radioactive contamination. Collectively, the reports set up a framework for a long-term response to the consequences of nuclear weapons. 

A new IHRC fact sheet, also released today, summarizes the environmental

remediation and victim assistance principles and lays out measures for initiating implementation to which TPNW states parties should commit at the 1MSP. In particular, the 1MSP should agree to: assess needs and state capacity, create a national infrastructure for environmental remediation and victim assistance, establish an informal intersessional working group, promote inclusivity, and uphold guiding principles of implementation. The fact sheet’s recommendations are similar to those put forth in a working paper by 1MSP co-facilitators Kazakhstan and Kiribati.  

IHRC and CEOBS based the principles in Facing Fallout on humanitarian disarmament law, international environmental law, international human rights law, and related policies. Where appropriate, they adapted these models to the distinctive characteristics of nuclear weapons.  

The principles are especially relevant for TPNW states parties, but they are also applicable to any state that seeks to remediate nuclear weapons contamination in its territory. They are summarized below according to their six categories: 

Purpose and Character 

Environmental remediation should address existing harm and unacceptable risks of future harm to the environment and affected communities caused by contamination from the use and testing of nuclear weapons. States should follow the precautionary principle and an iterative approach, adopt international standards and best practices, and use best available technologies. 

Definition of Harm 

The harm caused by nuclear weapons contamination should be understood broadly to encompass, inter alia, environmental degradation; loss of biodiversity; physical and psychological injuries and death; social marginalization; economic loss; loss of access to natural resources; obstacles to participation in cultural life; displacement of local communities; and substantial impairment of the realization of the human rights. 

Framework of Shared Responsibility 

Affected states should bear primary responsibility for environmental remediation of territory under their jurisdiction or control, while other states should provide technical, material, and financial assistance to help affected states meet their responsibilities. States and non-state actors should exchange scientific and technical information and promote capacity building.  

Steps of Environmental Remediation 

Affected states should begin by creating a national plan and assessing, surveying, and recording the problem, although plans and assessments may need to be updated over time. Affected states should also conduct an optimization analysis in which they evaluate different options and implement the one that produces the greatest benefit to affected communities and the environment. The analysis should take into account environmental, human health, social, cultural, and economic considerations as well as the preferences of affected communities and other stakeholders. 

Affected states should ensure risk education is available. They should break, disrupt, or remove pathways by which people are exposed to contamination, such as through marking and fencing and controlling food and water sources. If robust remediation is necessary and appropriate, they should address the contamination itself through containment and other treatment measures. Taking care during handling, transport, and removal of waste as well as long-term site management is also critical. 

Handling of Information  

Affected states should collect and disseminate information about affected sites and communities and remediation measures, and preserve it for the conceivable radiological life of the contaminated waste. 

Guiding Principles 

Affected states should meaningfully consult with and actively involve affected communities, their representative organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and other stakeholders at all stages of the remediation process. They should adhere to the principle of non-discrimination and ensure transparency of the process.  

***** 

TPNW states parties should take advantage of next week’s 1MSP to make concrete commitments to begin the process of operationalizing the treaty’s positive obligations. But in the intersessional period and beyond, they should start looking to the future and develop a long-term framework for environmental remediation and victim assistance. The IHRC-CEOBS principles and commentaries provide in-depth and well-grounded guidance for that endeavor.  

Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection IHRC was co-author and editor of Facing Fallout. A number of IHRC students contributed significantly to the conceptualization, research, and writing of the report: Naima Drecker-Waxman, Andie Forsee, Gillian Hannahs, Amy Hayes, David Hogan, Lavran Johnson, Jillian Quigley, Erin Shortell, Dane Underwood, Theo Wilson, and Jack Jaehyuk You. CEOBS provided guidance and review of the report.

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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.

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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

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.

The people who order or carry out cluster munitions attacks against civilians or civilian objects with criminal intent—that is, willfully or recklessly—are responsible for war crimes.

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.

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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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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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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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August 2, 2021

Killer Robots: Urgent Need to Fast-Track Talks

Shared Vision Forms Sound Basis for Creating a New Ban Treaty

(Washington, DC, August 2, 2021) – Governments should make up for lost time by moving urgently to begin negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Representatives from approximately 50 countries will convene on August 3, 2021, at the United Nations in Geneva for their first official diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots,” in nearly a year.

The 17-page report, “Areas of Alignment: Common Visions for a Killer Robots Treaty,” co-published by the two groups, describes the strong objections to delegating life-and-death decisions to machines expressed by governments at the last official Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on killer robots. That meeting, held in September 2020, featured proposals from many countries to negotiate a new international treaty to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons.

“International law needs to be expanded to create new rules that ensure human control and accountability in the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic and senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fundamental moral, legal, and security concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems warrant a strong and urgent response in the form of a new international treaty.”

Nearly 100 countries have publicly expressed their views on killer robots since 2013. Most have repeatedly called for a new international treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, including 32 that have explicitly called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Yet a small number of militarily advanced countries – most notably Israel, Russia, and the United States – regard any move to create new international law as premature. They are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.

Governments have expressed support for banning autonomous systems that are legally or morally unacceptable, the groups said. There is strong interest in prohibiting weapons systems that by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control, including complex systems that use machine-learning algorithms to produce unpredictable or inexplicable effects. There are further calls to ban antipersonnel weapons systems that rely on profiles derived from biometric and other data collected by sensors to identify, select, and attack individuals or categories of people.

“Killing or injuring people based on data collected by sensors and processed by machines would violate human dignity,” Docherty said. “Relying on algorithms to target people will dehumanize warfare and erode our humanity.”

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July 14, 2021

Implementing Victim Assistance, Environmental Remediation under Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

In six months, countries that have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons are scheduled to convene in Vienna for their First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP). That meeting will provide an important opportunity for states parties to begin the process of implementing the treaty’s legal provisions. Given the humanitarian nature of the instrument, they should pay particular attention to Articles 6 and 7, which oblige states parties to assist individuals and remediate the environment affected by past nuclear weapons use and testing.

To help states parties prepare for the 1MSP, the International Human Rights Clinic has released two new fact sheets on implementing victim assistance and environmental remediation under the Treaty on the Prohibition on Nuclear Weapons. The fact sheets:

  • Recommend measures states parties should commit to at the 1MSP,
  • Lay out frameworks to guide victim assistance and environmental remediation over time,
  • Provide information on nuclear weapons use and testing and their human and environmental consequences, and
  • Offer lists of resources for further reading.

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June 17, 2021

The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support

The International Human Rights Clinic was pleased to co-sponsor an event in the Asia Center’s Asia: Beyond the Headlines event series on, “The Myanmar Puzzle: Thinking through Sanctions and Support.” We were joined by panelists:

Moe Thuzar, Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, National University of Singapore Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences; Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Kelley Currie, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security; former  U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and the U.S. Representative at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women

John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch

The event was moderated by James Robson, James C. Kralik and Yunli Lou Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations; Victor and William Fung Director of the Harvard University Asia Center.

Panelists discussed the ASEAN response to the coup, what the international community can do to support democracy in Myanmar, and how economic sanctions could impact the Myanmar military.

The Clinic has also been co-sponsoring a series with Just Security exploring the implications of the coup in Myanmar. Read all the posts in our Beyond the Myanmar coup series.