Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

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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May 24, 2020

At Harvard, Niku Jafarnia J.D. / M.P.P. ’20 found a wealth of ways to advocate for refugees

Posted by Dana Walters

Niku Jafarnia sits on the steps of HLS
Credit: Kathleen Dooher

“I have always felt very strongly that I need to work against inequality and the forces that make it possible,” says Niku Jafarnia J.D./M.P.P. ’20. For her, draconian and difficult immigration systems that favor certain populations are key sources of the disparities she hopes to eliminate.

When President Donald Trump instituted the first of many travel bans that targeted Muslim-majority countries in 2017, Jafarnia was a first-year law student and she was furious. She had not yet entered the legal clinics that would become like a home to her at Harvard Law School. Still, she emailed Sabrineh Ardalan ’02 and Phil Torrey of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, asking how she could fight back.

“Had I not been in law school when this happened, I would have felt at a loss with what to do,” she says.

At the airport, she stood with Ardalan and Torrey holding a sign offering legal assistance and translation services in Persian. No one took her up on the offer, but the moment stands out to her from the last four years of graduate school. From the energetic and welcoming response of HLS’s clinical faculty to finding a way to act, she had found a community and a path towards countering what she sees as oppression.

Jafarnia believes that she has been lucky. A constellation of factors, such as being born in the U.S., has provided her with a great amount of opportunity, she said. She is constantly tuned in to how she can use her privilege to dismantle the inequitable structures that cause harm to others. When her parents emigrated from Iran in 1977 to pursue graduate education, they did not necessarily expect to stay, she said, but the combination of the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War kept them in the U.S. Throughout law school, she has focused on issues related to migration, driven by a deep connection to people whose stories feel so familiar.

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April 16, 2020

ACCPI Revamps Humanitarian Disarmament Website and Responds to COVID-19

Posted by Jillian Rafferty JD/MPP'20

Screenshot of new Humanitarian Disarmament website with a large picture of a UN meeting.

The International Human Rights Clinic’s Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative (ACCPI) relaunched its flagship website,, this week. The site aims to increase public awareness of the humanitarian approach to governing weapons and serves as a hub of information for practitioners in the field. 

In addition to having updated content and greater functionality, the new website has responded to COVID-19 by initiating a series of blog posts reflecting on the pandemic’s effects on humanitarian disarmament and creating a new “COVID-19 and Disarmament” resources page.

Since its formation in 2018, the ACCPI has been a key player in humanitarian disarmament. Its inaugural conference brought global experts to campus to reflect on the state of the movement and strategize about the way forward. Since then, the ACCPI has not only created and maintained, but also held a workshop for diplomats in Geneva, co-published and translated a primer on the topic, and promoted coordination among civil society leaders working on different weapons issues.

Humanitarian disarmament seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment and implementation of norms. A people-centered approach in both substance and process, it prioritizes protecting people rather than advancing national security. Humanitarian disarmament advocates have driven the negotiation, universalization, and implementation of numerous international legal instruments, including the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The 1997 and 2017 Nobel Peace Prizes recognized the role humanitarian disarmament coalitions played in banning antipersonnel landmines and nuclear weapons.

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April 9, 2020

Clinic, Campaign to Stop Killer Robots Propose Elements of a New Treaty on Fully Autonomous Weapons

Posted by Daniel Moubayed JD'20

Governments should negotiate a treaty that prohibits fully autonomous weapons and requires meaningful human control over the use of force, the International Human Rights Clinic and the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots said in two publications released last week.

The first paper outlines key elements of the proposed treaty. The second paper expands on the proposal and responds to some of the challenging “frequently asked questions.”

Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, presented the papers on April 2 at the Berlin Forum on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, the first-ever major digital disarmament meeting. While Germany had originally planned to hold an in-person meeting in Berlin, its decision to move it online exemplifies the disarmament community’s efforts to continue work on this key issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonnie Docherty on
On April 2, Bonnie Docherty, Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, presented virtually at the Berlin Forum for Lethal Autonomous Weapons. Credit: Elizabeth Minor / Article 36.

Fully autonomous weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” are weapons systems that would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The technological capacity for autonomy in these systems raises a host of moral, legal, and ethical concerns. In light of these concerns, a new treaty is needed to clarify and strengthen existing international law.

Over the past year, the Clinic has worked closely with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global civil society coalition, to develop the proposal for key elements for a new treaty. In crafting the elements, the Clinic team analyzed government positions, examined legal precedent, and reviewed technical publications. The team also consulted with lawyers, ethicists, technology experts, civil society representatives, and others during UN conferences and the Campaign’s global meeting in Argentina in February.

The cover of a report on killer robots printed in four different languages.
In February 2020 at the Campaign’s global meeting in Argentina, the Clinic team had their publications available in four languages. Credit: Daniel Moubayed.

The proposed treaty covers all weapons systems that select and engage targets on the basis of sensor processing, rather than human input. The broad scope is designed to ensure that systems posing legal and ethical concerns do not escape regulation. While this scope requires examination of existing weapons, the proposed restrictions are narrow and directed at future ones.

The heart of the treaty proposed by the Campaign and the Clinic consists of three key elements: (1) a general obligation to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force, (2) prohibitions on specific weapons systems that independently select and engage targets and by their nature pose fundamental moral or legal problems, and (3) specific positive obligations to ensure that meaningful human control is maintained in the use of all other systems that select and engage targets.

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February 13, 2020

Despite Progress, Work Remains to be Done on Explosive Weapons Political Declaration

By Bonnie Docherty

Efforts to protect civilians from the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities took a step forward this week when more than 70 countries met in Geneva to discuss draft elements of a new political declaration.

According to a new paper co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch, the text is a good foundation for further work, but several areas need to be strengthened in order to maximize the protection of civilians.

Explosive weapons, such as airdropped bombs, rockets, and missiles, produce a pattern of immediate and reverberating effects when they are used in populated areas. In addition to killing and injuring civilians at the time of an attack, they can damage critical infrastructure, which in turn interferes with essential services such as health care and education. The problem is exacerbated if the weapons have a wide area effect due to inaccuracy, a large blast or fragmentation radius, or the delivery of multiple munitions at once.

In their new paper, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch call on countries to commit to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. They also recommend that the declaration include strong commitments on assistance for victims, data collection and sharing, and follow-up meetings to review progress.

This week’s gathering, held at the United Nations in Geneva, represented the second round of consultations in an Irish-led process that began last November. Ireland plans to hold negotiations of the declaration at the next meeting on March 23-24 and to invite states to Dublin to endorse the final instrument in late May.

The Clinic has been actively involved in efforts to reduce the suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas since 2011. Through its field research and legal analysis, it has supported the campaign for a new political declaration on the topic.

The recent Clinic-Human Rights Watch analysis of the draft text was produced by Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, and clinical students Jillian Rafferty, JD/MPP ’20, and Parker White, JD/MPP ’20. Docherty and White also participated in the consultations in Geneva.

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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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