Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
May 7, 2021
Posted by Taylor Landis
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of an individual in northern Burma who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats she currently faces. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individual in northern Burma and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Over encrypted video chat, a long-time civil society leader from one of northern Myanmar’s many remote conflict-affected communities reflects on life in the midst of the country’s latest crisis. “We are lucky to be from here,” she explains, referring to her small town situated in a valley among what would be picturesque mountains. She explains that each of the five closest peaks is occupied by a different armed entity: four ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) control one apiece and the fifth is the territory of the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw). The forested hillsides are contaminated with landmines, and the roads cutting through the valley are punctuated by EAO and Tatmadaw checkpoints where heavily armed soldiers closely control all movement. With this layout, travel in and out of town was dangerous and daunting before the military’s Feb. 1 grab for power. Now, with new checkpoints in place, it’s even more difficult. EAOs in this area have been in conflict with the Tatmadaw for decades, some since the country’s 1948 independence. In recent years, escalating armed violence between and among the EAOs has eclipsed their battles with the Tatmadaw. Over this civil society leader’s lifetime, ceasefires, alliances, and new armed entities have come and gone, but active fighting has never been far off. “We really are lucky,” she continues, “we grew up hearing gunfire. Now we are more resilient.”
When the Tatmadaw rolled tanks and troops into cities following the Feb. 1 coup, the woman’s community nervously followed the news, just like others all across Myanmar. The massive urban protests taking place throughout the country remained peaceful for weeks. Then the Tatmadaw began its crackdown. Having seen more than 700 people killed and over 3,000 detained by security forces across Myanmar by the end of April, her colleagues in Yangon have been shocked by the level of Tatmadaw violence they witness everyday. Like most people in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, her colleagues had never seen the Tatmadaw in action before February 2021.
“For them, the first time they saw a Tatmadaw sniper target a woman who was only buying snacks in the street, and they saw her shot in the head even though she was not even participating in the peaceful protest, they were shocked.” She pauses for a moment and goes on, “For us, in the conflict areas, we have seen the Tatmadaw’s human rights abuses. We know they shoot to kill. We are not shocked. We are sad, but we are not shocked.”
In ethnic-minority communities like hers, first-hand experience with Tatmadaw cruelty was common [and well documented] before the crisis brought on by the 2021 coup. Having borne the brunt of Tatmadaw violence, many in ethnic-minority communities had long looked for protection from and been supportive of EAOs, considering them a protective barrier standing between their communities and Tatmadaw violence. Not everyone, however, shared this view. Having tired of the ever-evolving, ever-present armed violence in their areas, some had little patience for any entity taking part. In her community, the civil society leader says people’s views of EAOs varied widely, but no one supported the Tatmadaw.Continue Reading…
May 4, 2021
Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch
Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating physical and psychological injuries on civilians in conflict zones, and those who survive endure a lifetime of suffering. While Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of incendiary weapons, loopholes in the protocol have limited its effectiveness.
“The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and Shortcomings of International Law,” a recent online event organized by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), brought together an incendiary weapon survivor, a military trauma nurse, a burn rehabilitation doctor, and a disarmament lawyer, who collectively highlighted the problems of these cruel weapons. Drawing on their first-hand experiences and professional expertise, the speakers vividly detailed the humanitarian consequences of incendiary weapons and called on states to strengthen international law regulating their use.
Two of the panelists had personally witnessed the horrors of incendiary weapons. “Abu Taim” (pseudonym) was a teacher at a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria, that was attacked with incendiary weapons in 2013. In pre-recorded video testimony, he recalled exiting the school right after the strike: “I saw bodies, and those bodies were only black. . . . I came closer to their bodies to know, who are those people? Who are those students? I didn’t recognize their faces.”Continue Reading…
May 3, 2021
Posted by Taylor Landis
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a Just Security series on the Feb. 1, 2021 coup in Myanmar. The series brings together expert local and international voices on the coup and its broader context. The series is a collaboration between Just Security and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. This article was first posted on Just Security on April 30, 2021).
Disclaimer: Taylor Landis is an independent human rights expert who worked in Myanmar from 2013 to 2020. She is serving as the author of this piece on behalf of the individuals in Karen State who wished to contribute to this series but cannot be identified due to the serious security threats they currently face. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the unnamed individuals in Karen State and do not reflect those of any institution with which Taylor is affiliated.
Since preventing the country’s elected officials from taking their seats in government on Feb. 1, the Myanmar military, known as the “Tatmadaw,” has established a junta called the State Administrative Council and progressed from its initial highly secretive abduction and detention of well-known civilian leaders to a nationwide crackdown of plainly visible violence and intimidation, with over 759 people killed and 4513 arrested by late April. Though intended to end mass protests and silence widespread opposition, the brutal campaign has fueled resistance to the military. Undeterred by the junta’s mass incarcerations and growing body count, people across the nation refuse to be silenced. Myanmar’s streets and social media are flooded with messages pleading for international support, demanding direct western military intervention, requesting a U.N. peacekeeping presence, and calling for the arrest of the junta leader, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
Veteran civil society activists based in and around Myanmar’s conflict areas have joined these calls. In their communities, where true peace has not been seen since before Burma’s 1948 independence, these are not new messages. Local organizations and leaders within Myanmar’s “ethnic states”—territory bordering international boundaries where ethnic-minority groups tend to comprise the majority of the population—have spent decades documenting human rights violations, conducting advocacy, and campaigning for criminal accountability for atrocity crimes allegedly committed by the Tatmadaw. For some of these activists, recent encrypted chats with far-off former colleagues offered a chance to drop diplomatic pretense and be direct about what they want. “Can you order a drone strike on Min Aung Hlaing?” one asked, in a joke directed to a human rights lawyer with no heavy ordnance on hand. Others laughed about what they really need, “Can you send wine?” All reiterated the obvious, “It’s just been a nightmare.”Continue Reading…
April 22, 2021
Haitian human rights coalition, Harvard clinic release new analysis of state-sanctioned massacres
(April 22, 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Cambridge, MA) — Three deadly massacres targeting impoverished neighborhoods in Haiti were carried out with Haitian government support and amount to crimes against humanity, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and the Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes contre l’humanité (OHCCH). The report points to evidence that the gang-led attacks were resourced and supported by state actors, ranging from high-ranking officials in the Moïse administration to the Haitian National Police.
The report, “Killing with Impunity: State-Sanctioned Massacres in Haiti,” analyzes three attacks that took place between 2018-2020, which have together killed at least 240 civilians. The massacres targeted the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of La Saline, Bel-Air, and Cité Soleil, which have played a leading role in organizing protests demanding government accountability for corruption and other human rights violations.
“Moïse’s government has been pushing the story that the attacks are merely gang infighting, but the evidence demonstrates high-level government involvement in the planning, execution and cover-up of the attacks,” said Mario Joseph, Managing Attorney of Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a member organization of OHCCH.
The report relies on investigations by Haitian and international human rights experts that show that senior Moïse administration officials planned the attacks or otherwise assisted by providing the gangs with money, weapons, or vehicles. Off-duty police officers and resources were utilized to carry out the attacks. The Haitian National Police repeatedly failed to intervene to protect civilians despite the sites of the attacks being in close proximity to multiple police stations. In each attack, gangs arrived in the targeted neighborhood, shot at residents indiscriminately, raped women, and burnt and looted houses. The massacres repeatedly involved gangs affiliated with the G9 alliance led by Jimmy Chérizier, which reportedly enjoys government connections.
“We found that Moïse’s failure to stop or respond to attacks initiated by his subordinates may make the President himself liable for crimes against humanity,” said Beatrice Lindstrom, a Clinical Instructor at the Harvard Clinic who supervised the research and drafting of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to the international community to stand up for human rights, fully investigate allegations of serious abuses, and do its part to hold perpetrators accountable,” she added.
The report comes amidst a deepening crisis for democracy and human rights in Haiti. Widespread demonstrations have gripped the nation, with large swaths of the population protesting government corruption, rising insecurity, and Moise’s increasingly authoritarian conduct. Notably, to repress dissent, Moise has criminalized common forms of protest and created an intelligence agency to provide surveillance of the political opposition. Attacks against civilians, including the assassination of prominent government critics, have largely been carried out with impunity. Although most experts and much of civil society agree that President Moïse’s constitutional mandate ended on February 7, 2021, he has refused to step down, insisting that an illegal constitutional referendum take place before elections for his replacement.
The finding that the attacks amount to crimes against humanity strengthens the prospects for accountability. In addition to imposing an international obligation on the Haitian government to prosecute the people responsible, it opens the door to prosecutions in national and international courts outside of Haiti. It also means that perpetrators can be pursued indefinitely as no statutes of limitations apply.
“Just like Haiti’s former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier eventually had to stand trial for his brutal repression decades after he left office, the perpetrators of today’s massacres can no longer escape justice by relying on statutes of limitations,” Joseph added.
The UN has raised alarm that the ongoing lack of accountability for massacres has fostered an enabling environment for further carnage. Yet another attack on Bel-Air earlier this month bore striking similarities to the massacres analysed in the report.
“The attacks covered in the report are particularly severe and well-documented, but they are part of a widespread, systematic campaign of violence and intimidation of political dissidents,” said Pierre Esperance, Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), an OHCCH member that has led independent investigations into repeated attacks on impoverished neighborhoods. RNDDH has documented at least 11 massacres over the course of Moise’s presidency.
The report relies on evidence collected by a range of Haitian and international actors over the last few years and analyzes it under international criminal law. Harvard Law School students Joey Bui JD’21 and Nathalie Gunasekera JD’21 led the research and drafting of the report under Lindstrom’s supervision.Continue Reading…
April 22, 2021
Une coalition haïtienne de défense des droits humains et la Clinique de droit de Harvard publient une nouvelle analyse des massacres perpétrés contre les résidents des quartiers défavorisés avec l’appui de l’État haïtien
(22 avril 2021, Port-au-Prince, Haïti; Cambridge, Massachusetts) — Trois massacres sanglants ayant pris pour cible les résidents des quartiers défavorisés ont été perpétrés avec l’appui du gouvernement haïtien et constituent des crimes contre l’humanité, révèle un rapport publié aujourd’hui par la Clinique internationale de défense des droits humains de la Faculté de droit de Harvard et l’Observatoire Haïtien des Crimes Contre l’Humanité (OHCCH). Le rapport met en évidence des attaques lancées par des gangs lourdement armés qui ont obtenu des ressources et l’approbation d’acteurs étatiques, allant des hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse à des agents de la Police nationale d’Haïti.
Le rapport, intitulé Massacres cautionnés par l’Etat : regne de l’impunite en Haïti, présente une analyse de trois attaques qui ont été exécutées entre 2018 et 2020 et qui ont coûté la vie à au moins 240 civils. Les massacres ont pris pour cible les quartiers populaires de Port-au-Prince La Saline, Bel-Air et Cité Soleil, des quartiers qui ont tous joué un rôle de premier plan dans l’organisation des manifestations réclamant que le gouvernement rende des comptes sur la dilapidation du fonds petro-caribe et d’autres violations des droits humains qui affligent le pays.
« L’administration Moïse maintient que ces attaques ne sont que des querelles internes entre gangs armés, mais des preuves indéniables établissent que des représentants du gouvernement de haut niveau ont joué un rôle important dans la planification et l’exécution des attaques, ainsi que pour les dissimuler », affirme Mario Joseph, avocat responsable du Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, l’un des membres de l’OHCCH.
Le rapport s’appuie sur des enquêtes menées par des experts haïtiens et internationaux en droits humains qui établissent que de hauts fonctionnaires de l’administration Moïse ont soit planifié les attaques, soit offert leur assistance en fournissant aux gangs de l’argent, des armes et des véhicules. Des policiers en civil et des ressources policières ont été utilisés pour exécuter les attaques, au cours desquelles la Police nationale d’Haïti n’est pas du tout intervenue. Lors de chaque attaque, des gangs sont arrivés dans le quartier visé et ont ouvert le feu sur des civils, violé des femmes, incendié et pillé des maisons. Les massacres ont tous été perpétrés par la fédération des gangs armés sanguinaires dénommée G9 en Famille et alliés, dirigée par Jimmy Chérizier qui entretiendrait des liens étroits avec le gouvernement.
« Nous avons conclu qu’en n’ayant pris aucune mesure pour freiner les attaques initiées par ses subordonnés, ou pour y réagir, le président Moïse se rend responsable de crimes contre l’humanité », déclare Beatrice Lindstrom, l’enseignante clinique de Harvard qui a supervisé la recherche et la rédaction du rapport. « Nous espérons que cette conclusion lance à la communauté internationale un signal d’alarme pour se porter à la défense des droits humains et réévaluer le soutien qu’elle accorde à Jovenel Moïse », ajoute-t-elle.
Ce rapport est publié dans le contexte d’une crise de la démocratie et des droits humains qui s’intensifie en Haïti. Tout au long de son mandat comme président, Jovenel Moïse a de plus en plus eu recours à des mesures autoritaires pour réprimer la dissidence. Notamment, il a criminalisé certaines formes de protestation populaire pacifique et a mis sur pied une agence de renseignements dans le but de surveiller l’opposition politique. Des attaques contre des civils ont été perpétrées en toute impunité, notamment l’assassinat de citoyens engagés bien connus. Même si la majorité des experts et des membres de la société civile s’entendent pour dire que le mandat constitutionnel du président Moïse a pris fin le 7 février 2021, le président refuse de quitter son poste et insiste pour qu’un référendum constitutionnel illégal soit tenu avant l’élection de son remplaçant.
La conclusion du rapport montrant que ces attaques correspondent à la définition de crime contre l’humanité aurait des conséquences importantes sur le plan de la responsabilité. En plus d’imposer à l’État haïtien une obligation internationale de traduire en justice les responsables, cette conclusion permettrait aux Nations Unies et aux tribunaux étrangers de veiller à ce que justice soit rendue. Cela signifie en outre que les auteurs des crimes pourraient faire l’objet de poursuites indéfiniment, puisqu’aucune prescription ne s’applique au crime contre l’humanité.
« Comme ce fut le cas pour l’ancien dictateur Jean-Claude Duvalier qui a été traduit en justice quelques décennies après avoir quitté le pouvoir, afin d’assumer la responsabilité des terribles conséquences de la répression brutale avec laquelle il avait dirigé le pays. Les auteurs des massacres d’aujourd’hui ne peuvent plus échapper à la justice en invoquant des clauses de prescription », ajoute Mario Joseph.
Les Nations Unies ont signalé que l’absence d’imputabilité pour les massacres a favorisé un environnement favorable à d’autres carnages. Malgré cet avertissement, une autre attaque présentant des ressemblances frappantes avec les massacres analysés dans le rapport a été perpétrée à Bel-Air au début de ce mois-ci.
Selon Pierre Espérance, directeur exécutif du RNDDH « les attaques dont fait état ce rapport sont particulièrement brutales et bien documentées, et elles s’inscrivent dans le cadre d’une campagne de violence et d’intimidation généralisée et systématique menée contre les dissidents politiques ». Le RNDDH a documenté au moins 11 massacres au cours de la présidence de Jovenel Moïse.
Le rapport repose sur une analyse rigoureuse des éléments de preuve qui ont été recueillis par de multiples acteurs haïtiens et internationaux au cours des dernières années, au regard du droit international pénal. Les étudiants de la Faculté de droit de Harvard Joey Bui (JD’21) et Nathalie Gunasekera (JD’21) ont dirigé les recherches et rédigé le rapport sous la supervision de la professeure Lindstrom.Continue Reading…
April 21, 2021
Posted by Lavran Johnson JD'22
The United States has an environmental human rights problem. Across the country, communities of color and lower socioeconomic status are disproportionately located close to chemical processing plants, power plants, and other industrial facilities and shoulder the burden of domestic environmental contamination. Air and water quality standards frequently fail to protect these communities, leading to detrimental health impacts and continued contamination. Although the situation is improving, state and federal agencies have historically failed to reduce the cumulative burdens on these communities. Most of our environmental laws provide protective regimes based on available technology and economic feasibility. Although these regimes place limits on pollution, they reflect a presumption that industries have a general right to pollute. Industry’s right to pollute is constrained by environmental law; but we need a shift away from industrial rights and towards a human right to a clean environment.
After years working as an outdoor educator, I came to law school to focus on environmental law, committed to finding ways through policy and litigation to better protect the environments that had enriched my life. It was in the classroom — and not outside — where I started to build the connections that drive my current work. My torts class, where we studied Rob Bilott’s prosecution of DuPont for chemical pollution, helped to shift my focus towards work that would protect both the environment and the individual people who rely on it. Later, International Human Rights Clinic Co-Director Tyler Giannini exposed me to some of the many ways that environmental exploitation and human exploitation are entangled, but it was working over the summer on an administrative complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency that really crystallized my understanding: environmental justice is fundamentally a human rights issue. All people should be protected from pollution that poses a serious and permanent risk to their health, and historical deprivation and prejudice should not be allowed to undermine that basic protection.
This spring, I entered the International Human Rights Clinic hopeful that I could gain a better grasp of how rights are understood and leveraged, but unsure whether I would be able to do environmental work. I’ve been very lucky to work with Bonnie Docherty and three excellent team members to prepare recommendations for the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Bonnie, who is the Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, has worked for decades to highlight the detrimental effects of weapons on both humans and the environment. The TPNW, which Bonnie and previous clinical students helped to shape, reconceptualizes nuclear disarmament by shifting from a tactical focus—one in which states play their nuclear arsenals off each other to maintain geopolitical order—to a humanitarian focus—one in which states must address the ongoing human suffering caused by the use and testing of nuclear weapons. The TPNW, which requires total disarmament, also creates obligations that respond to the legacy of nuclear weapons use and testing through victim assistance and environmental remediation. In places like the Marshall Islands, where many still suffer the effects of the nuclear testing that happens over 60 years ago, these obligations are critical.Continue Reading…
March 24, 2021
Clinic, Stimson Center publication provides guidance on arms exports and preventing gender-based violence
Posted by Zarko Perovic JD'22 and Anna Crowe
Today, the Clinic launched a new publication on arms exports, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), and gender-based violence (GBV) with the Stimson Center. The publication contains a questionnaire and explanatory guide that aims to help governments screen arms exports for those that could contribute to GBV, an assessment the ATT requires. The publication builds on the Clinic’s prior work in this area with the NGO Control Arms, including advocacy, trainings with export officials, and authoring interpretive guidance on human rights law, GBV, and the ATT.Continue Reading…
March 18, 2021
When War Criminals Run the Government: Not Too Late for the International Community to Vet Sri Lankan Officials
Posted by Sondra Anton JD'22 and Tyler Giannini
(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the February 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.)
The United Nations Human Rights Council’s deliberations over yet another resolution on Sri Lanka this month has cast renewed attention on repeated failures to achieve any semblance of accountability for past atrocities, and on the deteriorating human rights situation over the past year following the return to power of accused war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. The lack of accountability and concerns about future violations have rightfully received the bulk of the attention. But there is another question worth bringing to the fore – namely, how did an alleged war criminal return to power – and relatedly, should the human rights system have done more to prevent such individuals from taking official power again?
These inquiries are centered around the legal concepts known as “vetting” and “lustration,” and they deserve increased attention. It is not just the election of Rajapaksa. Since his return to power, after having served as the defense minister who commanded the violent final phase of the country’s decades-long war that killed countless civilians, he has appointed a slew of other compromised individuals who face “credible allegations” of international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Rajapaksa, for example, immediately appointed his brother, former wartime President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister, and named other relatives and family associates to top cabinet positions. The large number of individuals with credible allegations against them who now occupy top positions in the government raises concerns about militarization of the government. It also all but eliminates any chance that those who suffered violations will obtain justice in the near term for the crimes committed against them.
The appointments involve so many high-level positions that they have even been described by Yasmin Sooka from the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) as “amount[ing] to a coup by stealth.” And had efforts to vet or ban alleged war criminals from public service been robustly in place, Sri Lanka would likely look very different today.Continue Reading…
January 29, 2021
Lockdown and Shutdown: New White Paper Exposes the Impacts of Recent Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh
The Cyberlaw Clinic and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School were proud to co-author a new white paper, Lockdown and Shutdown: Exposing the Impacts of Recent Network Disruptions in Myanmar and Bangladesh, in collaboration with Athan, the Kintha Peace and Development Initiative, and Rohingya Youth Association. The report exposes the impacts of internet shutdowns in Myanmar and Bangladesh, highlighting the voices of ethnic minority internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Myanmar and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, who describe the shutdowns’ impacts in their own words. The co-authors joined to present a webinar to launch the report on January 19, 2021, which you can watch below or on the HRP YouTube channel.
January 27, 2021
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
At the stroke of midnight on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was transformed from words on paper to binding law. States parties — countries that have have agreed to be bound by the treaty — are now obliged to uphold a ban on nuclear weapons, take measures to ensure the weapons’ elimination, and address the harm caused by past use and testing. Signatory states may not violate its object and purpose.
The TPNW’s entry into force, triggered last October when Honduras became the 50th state to ratify, is a milestone for humanitarian disarmament, a crucial step toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and an uplifting moment in the midst of a devastating pandemic.
This landmark moment also offers an opportunity to look back on negotiations at the United Nations in New York in 2017. The hard work, determination, and collaboration of hundreds of individuals made the TPNW a reality.
My colleague Anna Crowe LLM’12 and I participated in the negotiations with a four-person team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. The students included Carina Bentata JD’18, Molly Doggett JD’17, Lan Mei JD’17, and Alice Osman LLM’17.
At a reunion celebration last week, our team reflected on the experience and shared memories that will likely resonate with our fellow campaigners. “Witnessing the treaty’s adoption was overwhelming,” Mei said. “It felt like a key moment in my life. Even though it wouldn’t affect me personally, it was monumental.”
During the four weeks of negotiations, we partnered with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which later received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. We engaged in advocacy and offered legal advice on a range of topics.
While negotiators devoted much of their attention to the TPNW’s prohibitions on future actions, we focused on the treaty’s positive obligations, affirmative requirements to mitigate the harm already inflicted by nuclear weapons. In partnership with campaigners from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, we argued successfully for obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation. This group became known as ICAN’s “pos obs team,” after the positive obligations for which we were calling.Continue Reading…