Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

November 18, 2019

Clinic, HRW Release Report in New Effort to Curb Explosive Weapons

A Call for International Action to Protect Civilians in Conflicts

International representatives at work during the Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, 1st October 2019
Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare Conference 2019 at the Vienna International Center, Vienna, October 1, 2019 Photo Credit: BMEIA/Eugenie Berger

Governments should make a commitment to protect civilians from the harmful impacts of explosive weapons used in towns and cities during conflicts, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at a diplomatic conference in Geneva.

The 23-page report, “A Commitment to Civilians: Precedent for a Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” lays out the components of a new political declaration on explosive weapons, bolstering its case with precedent from existing declarations.

Explosive weapons, including artillery shells, rockets, mortars, and air-dropped bombs, have recently caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Civilians are often killed or injured by the initial explosion, crushed by collapsing buildings, or maimed by explosive remnants of war. Reverberating effects include damage to homes and essential infrastructure, interference with health care and education, large-scale displacement of people, degradation of the environment, and denial of humanitarian access.

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November 13, 2019

Clinic, HRW Release Report Urging Russia to Support Action on Incendiary Weapons

Picture shows the use of an incendiary weapon showering from the sky.
Use of an incendiary weapon in Bdama, Idlib in July 2018.
© 2018 Syria Civil Defense.

(Geneva) – Russia should support, not block, diplomatic talks about possible action to address the civilian harm caused by the use of incendiary weapons, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released this week.

Issued ahead of an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, the nine-page report, “Standing Firm against Incendiary Weapons,” highlights the weaknesses of international law regulating incendiary weapons. Such weapons can inflict severe burns, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. Incendiary weapons also start fires that destroy civilian homes, objects, and infrastructure.

“Russia’s regrettable opposition scuttled stand-alone diplomatic discussion this year on incendiary weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and lead author of the report. “Yet there’s a clear humanitarian imperative to deal with these cruel weapons.”

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October 10, 2019

In Q&A, Bonnie Docherty discusses humanitarian disarmament

Docherty reflects on the impact of a Hiroshima survivor’s visit to Harvard Law, and her vision for HLS’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Reducing the civilian impact of arms and armed conflict has been the focus of Bonnie Docherty’s career since she was a student at Harvard Law School.

Since 2005, Docherty JD ’01, an international expert on civilian protection in armed conflict, has served as a lecturer on law at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. She participated in the negotiations of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and has promoted strong implementation of the convention since its adoption. She recently played a key role in the negotiations of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, successfully advocating for specific provisions and providing legal advice to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the civil society coalition that received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2018, Docherty launched the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) at Harvard Law School, where she serves as associate director.

On Tuesday, Oct. 8, Docherty hosted an event with Hiroshima bombing survivor Setsuko Thurlow, who accepted the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN. Accompanying the event, HLS also showcased a photo exhibit, “From the Atomic Bomb to the Nobel Peace Prize”, which illustrates the history of nuclear disarmament.

Over the course of her career, Docherty has mentored scores of clinical students, from field researchers in conflict zones to advocates inside the halls of the U.N. in Geneva. Daniel Moubayed JD’20, a student in the International Human Rights Clinic who works closely with the Initiative, sat down with Docherty prior to the talk to discuss the exhibition, Thurlow’s presentation, and the ACCPI.

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October 1, 2019

Photo Exhibit: From the Atomic Bomb to the Nobel Peace Prize

From October 1 through October 8, 2019, the South Lobby of Wasserstein Hall showcases a photo exhibition that documents the impact of nuclear weapons and recent progress toward their elimination. The exhibit focuses on the devastation caused by early use and testing of these weapons and civil society’s role in producing the 2017 treaty that bans them.

Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian and Lecturer in Law at the International Human Rights Clinic, organized the exhibit. Her introduction is reproduced below in its entirety.

Campaigners outside the United Nations during negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York on March 31, 2017.
The photo, “Campaigners outside the United Nations during negotiations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, New York, March 31, 2017,” is the ninth photo in a series documenting the history of nuclear disarmament currently on view in the South Lobby of Wasserstein Hall. Photo Credit: Claire Conboy.

The exhibit is co-sponsored by the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, Hibakusha Stories/Youth Arts New York, and HLS Advocates for Human Rights.


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September 11, 2019

Clinic Celebrates First Year of the ACCPI

By Nicolette Waldman JD’ 13

Nicolette Waldman JD '13 pictured giving a talk at HLS on atrocities in Syrian prisons.
Waldman gives a talk for students on her involvement in an Amnesty International investigation into torture and executions in Syrian prisons.

The Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) recently completed its first full year, and it was a banner one. Launched in March 2018, the initiative has worked both on campus and around the world to advance its goal of reducing the harm caused by war.

The ACCPI brings together students, practitioners, and academics to advocate for civilian protection, cultivate the next generation of leaders, and promote innovation in the field. It is a collaborative endeavor, led by disarmament and international humanitarian law expert Bonnie Docherty. Clinic alum Lan Mei JD ’17 and I have worked closely with Docherty to lay the foundations for the ACCPI’s ongoing success. The initiative has also received invaluable support from faculty and staff across the Human Rights Program and partnered with numerous nongovernmental organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and PAX.  

Over the past school year, the team behind the ACCPI achieved a great deal. We led clinical projects on armed conflict and civilian protection; brought experts to campus for trainings, panels, and individual presentations; connected students to these and other practitioners; and created a database of potential host organizations for students. Beyond Harvard, we were especially active in the area of “humanitarian disarmament,” which seeks to prevent and remediate the human suffering inflicted by arms. We played a leadership role in coordinating cross-campaign collaboration and raising awareness of the approach.  

An overview of the ACCPI’s activities from September 2018-August 2019, other than clinical projects, is provided below. In the coming months and years, the ACCPI plans to develop a track for Harvard Law students who want to pursue careers in the field and to consolidate the school’s position as center of excellence on civilian protection in armed conflict. Civilians affected by war have far too few advocates, and we aim to do all we can to address this gap.

Stay tuned this fall for updates on new events, trainings, student resources and programs, and publications!

Harvard Law School Events

Organized or co-sponsored the following presentations and panel discussions:

“Humanization of Arms Control: Paving the Way for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” October 17, 2018

“Universal Jurisdiction: Help or Hindrance in the Prosecution of War Criminals?” October 25, 2018 

“International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on Crimes against Humanity,” January 2019 

“Sustainable Justice: Lessons from Twenty Years of Domestic War Crimes Prosecutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” February 4, 2019

“The Destruction of Culture: The War against Culture and the Battle to Save It,” February 20, 2019

“The Human Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” March 7, 2019

“Hell on Earth: Uncovering Atrocities in Syria’s Prisons,” March 27, 2019

Matt Wells JD' 09 pictured giving a talk on atrocity crimes in Myanmar at HLS.
Matt Wells JD ’09 gives a talk at HLS in April on atrocity crimes in Myanmar.

“Investigating Myanmar’s Atrocity Crimes: Human Rights Work Amid Conflict and Crisis,” April 5, 2019

Student Resources

Offered “Fieldcraft: Conducting Research on Armed Conflict and Mass Atrocities,” a two-part workshop by former Amnesty International researcher Nicolette Waldman, March 11 and April 1, 2019

Organized advising sessions with alumni Lillian Langford JD ’13, Chris Rogers JD ’09, and Matt Wells JD ’09, all of whom work in the area of armed conflict and civilian protection

Created a database of relevant organizations that could host interns or post-graduate fellows

Started to build a network of alumni working in the field

Humanitarian Disarmament: Publications, Events, and Messaging

Launched humanitariandisarmament.org website, October 2018

Published Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead, a summary of the ACCPI’s inaugural conference, October 2018

Hosted a strategy session for civil society leaders, New York, October 2018

Wrote and collected 18 civil society organization co-sponsors for a statement on humanitarian disarmament delivered at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, October 2018

Co-organized, with PAX, “Humanitarian Disarmament at the CCW: Examining Incendiary Weapons and Landmines through a Humanitarian Lens,” a side event at the Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons, Geneva, November 20, 2018

Co-organized, with the Geneva Disarmament Platform, a workshop for diplomats on humanitarian disarmament, Geneva, August 15, 2019

Published Humanitarian Disarmament, a brochure to introduce diplomats, campaigners, and others to the overarching concept, individual arms issues, and key resources, August 15, 2019

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August 23, 2019

Setting the Stage for the Humanitarian Disarmament Season

By Jillian Rafferty JD ’20

The disarmament season in Geneva begins in earnest this month with diplomatic meetings on killer robots, the arms trade, and cluster munitions. To provide a frame for these discussions, Harvard Law School’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) and the Geneva Disarmament Platform (GDP) recently organized a humanitarian disarmament workshop for diplomats.

The event, which was held last week, aimed to raise awareness and increase understanding of humanitarian disarmament. This approach to governing weapons seeks to reduce arms-inflicted human and environmental harm through the establishment and implementation of norms. Representatives from about two dozen national missions in Geneva participated.

At the workshop, the ACCPI and PAX released a jointly published brochure that examines this cross-cutting approach to disarmament and introduces key arms-related issues to which it has been applied. A new tool for diplomats and campaigners, the brochure also provides a definition of humanitarian disarmament, a timeline, list of key players, and selected resources.

The workshop opened with an examination of the history, definition, and characteristics of humanitarian disarmament, distinguishing this people-centered approach from more traditional, security-focused framings of disarmament. The first session also addressed the effectiveness of humanitarian disarmament and ways in which diplomats can use it to advance their disarmament agendas. Maricela Muñoz, from the Permanent Mission of Costa Rica, guided the discussion with:

-John Borrie, UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR);

-Bonnie Docherty, ACCPI; and,

-Wen Zhou, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Setting aside their national positions, participants then engaged in a simulation. In small groups, diplomats reviewed the security-focused disarmament language of mock statements and discussed how to reframe rhetoric and positions in humanitarian terms.

Other presenters discussed the inclusive nature of humanitarian disarmament, emphasizing the importance of partnerships among governments, international organizations, and civil society. The speakers highlighted the need for open communication and close collaboration across these sectors. Moderated by GDP’s Richard Lennane, the panel included:

-Austrian Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi;

-Beatrice Fihn, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN); and,

-Hector Guerra, International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC).

The workshop set the stage for the Geneva meetings on three disarmament issues that are frequently framed as humanitarian. This week, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons discussed options for dealing with lethal autonomous weapons systems. Also known as killer robots, these systems raise serious humanitarian, moral, and accountability concerns because they would select and engage targets without meaningful human control.

Next, week, countries party to the Arms Trade Treaty will hold their fifth annual conference. The theme this year is gender and gender-based violence (GBV), and the conference president will seek agreement on recommendations for states parties to improve gender diversity, understand and address the gendered impact of the arms trade, and improve implementation of the GBV risk assessment mandate by the treaty.

Finally, during the first week of September, states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will convene for their annual meeting. This treaty exemplifies humanitarian disarmament’s combination of prohibitions on the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of problematic weapons and obligations to remediate the harm caused by past use.

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April 30, 2019

Clinic Reports Show Benefits of Joining the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty Outweigh Concerns

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

As countries engage in national debates about joining the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons, they should focus on the treaty’s humanitarian and disarmament benefits.

To inform these discussions, the International Human Rights Clinic has released a new briefing paper and two government submissions that highlight the advantages of ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and seek to alleviate concerns some states may have.

Countries affected by nuclear weapon use and testing have much to gain from the TPNW’s provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation. In a 9-page paper, the Clinic presents 10 myths and realities regarding the TPNW’s so-called “positive obligations.” It aims to raise awareness of these provisions and correct misconceptions and misrepresentations about their content.

The briefing paper explains how the TPNW spreads responsibility for assisting victims and remediating contaminated areas across states parties. While affected states should take the lead for practical and legal reasons, other states parties should support their efforts with technical, material, or financial assistance.

The paper also shows how the positive obligations can be effectively implemented and make a tangible difference, despite the devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

In recent government submissions, the Clinic has addressed the situation of countries that are members of or partners with NATO. It has called on Iceland and Sweden in particular to join the TPNW, but the arguments apply to any states in a comparable position.

Ratifying the TPNW would further these countries’ long-standing support of nuclear disarmament and promote compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the same time, members or partners of NATO or a similar alliance should not face legal obstacles to joining the TPNW. While a state party to the TPNW would have to renounce its nuclear umbrella status, it could continue to participate in joint military operations with nuclear-armed states.

The Clinic released related reports focusing on the Marshall Islands and Australia in 2018.

As of April 30, 2019, the TPNW had 70 signatories and 23 states parties. It will enter into force when 50 states have become party.

Clinical students Molly Brown JD ’19, Maria Manghi JD ’20, and Ben Montgomery JD ’20 worked on these publications under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection.

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April 2, 2019

Clinic Publishes Paper with Control Arms on “Interpreting the Arms Trade Treaty”


This week, the International Human Rights Clinic published “Interpreting The Arms Trade Treaty: International Human Rights Law and Gender-Based Violence in Article 7 Risk Assessments” with Clinic partner Control Arms. Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law Anna Crowe LLM ’12 presented the paper in Geneva today at a preliminary meeting of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19 and Terry Flyte LLM ’19 at the Working Group Meetings of the 5th Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty.

The paper takes a close look at the human rights risk assessment Article 7 of the Arms Trade Treaty requires States Parties to undertake whenever an arms export is proposed. Article 7 requires States Parties to assess the potential that any proposed exports could be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law, including serious acts of gender-based violence (GBV). Within that assessment, States Parties must also consider the potential that the weapons would contribute to or undermine peace and security. If there is an overriding risk of harm, the export must be denied.

The paper provides interpretive guidance on a number of key terms in the Arms Trade Treaty with a focus on considering gender and risks of GBV in each part of the Article 7 risk assessment, particularly with respect to serious violations of international human rights law.

Clinical students Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19 and Terry Flyte LLM ’19 joined Crowe in Geneva. Jillian Rafferty JD ’20, Natalie Gallon JD ’20, and Elise Baranouski JD ’20 are co-authors of the paper, along with Kapoor.

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December 15, 2018

Report: Australia Should Join Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty

Defense Alliance with US not Legal Bar to Ratifying New Treaty

Parliament House (Canberra, Australia)

(Cambridge, MA, December 14, 2018) – Australia’s alliance with the United States need not stand in the way of Australia joining the 2017 treaty banning nuclear weapons, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released today.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) would require Australia to end its reliance on US nuclear arms for defense. But it would not undermine the countries’ broader collective security agreement established under the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.

“Australia has long claimed to support nuclear disarmament,” said Bonnie Docherty, lead author of the report and the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection. “Joining the ban treaty would advance that goal without creating insurmountable legal obstacles to ongoing military relations with the US.”

The 13-page report “Australia and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” explains why Australia can renounce its nuclear defense arrangement with the US (under the so-called “nuclear umbrella”) while maintaining military ties to its ally. The report also shows the compatibility of the treaty with Australia’s disarmament commitments under other treaties and policies.

The Labor Party is expected to discuss the TPNW at its national conference from December 16 to 18, 2018. The conference will provide a forum for Labor to develop a new party platform.  In its last platform, adopted in 2015, the Labor Party called for negotiations of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Continue Reading…

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November 16, 2018

Clinic, Human Rights Watch Call for Urgent Action on Incendiary Weapons


(Geneva, November 14, 2018) – Countries at an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, faced with evidence of 30 new incendiary weapons attacks in Syria, should agree to strengthen the international law that governs their use, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released this week.

The 13-page report, “Myths and Realities About Incendiary Weapons,” counters common misconceptions that have slowed international progress in this area. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. While often designed for marking and signaling or producing smokescreens, incendiary weapons can burn human flesh to the bone, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. They also start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.

“The excruciating burns and lifelong disabilities inflicted by incendiary weapons demand a global response,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Simple changes in international law could help save civilian lives during wartime.”

The report details the exceptionally cruel harm caused by incendiary weapons, explains the shortcomings of existing law, and lays out steps countries should take in response. The report, designed as an accessible overview of the incendiary weapons issue, was jointly published with Human Rights Watch.

Countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are scheduled to address incendiary weapons at the UN in Geneva from November 19 to 23. Protocol III to this treaty imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it does not provide sufficient protections for civilians.
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