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Blog: Human Rights and the Environment

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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November 29, 2021

COP26 as Greenwashing? How a Human Rights Approach Can Shift Us Away from the Greenwashing Trap

Posted by By Cindy Wu, JD’22

This month, world leaders and business executives convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th United Nations climate conference. Outside the conference rooms, a different kind of convening took place, as hundreds of thousands of activists gathered in Glasgow and globally to demand more immediate and drastic action on climate change. Amongst these protesters was Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly referred to COP26 as a “greenwashing” event.

This refrain resounded among activists. But what is greenwashing? And how can those with a genuine interest in saving the planet avoid the trap of greenwashing? I offer two simple but loaded words as the answer: human rights.

Person holding sign at protest that says Blah Blah Blah
A school strike for climate in advance of COP26. Credit: Mænsard vokser / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

What is greenwashing and why has COP26 been criticized as greenwashing?

The term greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in reference to the practice of companies holding out their “green” activities to the consuming public while obscuring the degradation caused by their other activities. Think Nestlé Waters proudly announcing a plastic water bottle made from “100% sustainable and renewable resources,” while simultaneously depleting aquifers and other public water sources, including on Indigenous land.

Activists are also now using the label to criticize what they view as empty promises made by world leaders at COP26. Among those promises are a pledge from 40 countries to phase out coal, an agreement from 105 countries to reverse deforestation, and a commitment from a coalition of banks to have net-zero investments by 2050. Although these pledges have the appearance of curbing emissions, many observers view them as toothless, empty promises, especially given the fact that some communities are already knee-deep in the effects of the climate crisis.

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July 12, 2021

Testing the Water: Using ‘OPERA’ to Assess How the Right to Water in India Is Protected in a Changing Climate

Posted by Laura Bach

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published by the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR). It highlights research being conducted by the Clinic and its partners using ‘OPERA’, an analytical tool developed to aid advocates monitoring progress on economic and social rights. 

As a second-year law student enrolled this spring in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, I joined a team of four focused on analyzing the Indian government’s obligation under international human rights law to ensure equal enjoyment of the right to water by all. Although we were working in partnership with CESR and Nazdeek, a Delhi-based legal empowerment organization—two groups well acquainted with issues of socio-economic rights—the prospect of assessing these rights in the context of climate change felt overwhelming.  

What, specifically, must a government do to meet its human rights obligations? What should be made of government inaction? Is the standard the same for all countries? A related thread followed shortly after that inquiry: Does climate change and its impact on water change this calculus? As someone who went to law school in part as a result of being, well, bad at science, this line of questioning was beyond my comfort zone!       

Luckily for me, CESR’s OPERA framework served as a useful guide, shepherding my team’s research while ensuring we had the flexibility to set many of our own parameters. OPERA—which stands for Outcomes, Policy Efforts, Resources, and Assessment—helps answer exactly these kinds of questions. Grouping them around four dimensions, it prompts researchers to gather information corresponding with the human rights standards in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  

A team begins by assessing the human rights outcomes experienced by residents of a country. This stage asks: From the perspective of rights holders, what is wrong or problematic? In Delhi, for example, water available for domestic purposes like drinking and cooking is variable, with most populations having water for a few hours a day. Water is less available to certain communities, like those living in informal settlements, who are not connected to pipes and must rely on tanker trucks, community taps or wells, which provide an irregular supply of water that is more expensive. The effects of climate change, such as increases in temperaturehigh-intensity rainstormsfloods, and droughts, further reduce water availability. It is diminishing the levels of water in municipal reservoirs and contaminating surface and groundwater sources. It can also make the resource more costly, because that reduced supply meets increased demand as temperatures continue to rise.  

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June 11, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: The Views of Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Posted by Jessica Olney and Shabbir Ahmad

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 to Just Security on June 10, 2021).

This installment reflects conversations with Rohingya residents of refugee camps in Bangladesh about the coup in Myanmar. Camp residents’ views were collected by Shabbir Ahmad and other members of a team of Rohingya researchers during a recent community feedback collection project. The opinions expressed here are the views of the authors and camp residents, not those of any institution with which the authors are affiliated.


The Rohingya community of Myanmar has been isolated and persecuted for decades, leading to waves of mass displacement, isolation, and resistance. The situation of the Rohingya deteriorated further into crisis after the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power in 2015, starting with a 2016 crackdown and culminating in the massive 2017 violence that displaced over 700,000 people.

Refugees in Bangladesh believe the situation could worsen even further under the current junta, creating new risks for the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar and indefinitely delaying any prospect of a safe repatriation for those displaced. According to one camp resident: “The democratic government didn’t do well for us Rohingya. However, the current conditions will be even worse for us, and maybe for everyone in Myanmar.” According to another, “We Rohingya people don’t expect anything positive to come from the military coup. We know very well that the Myanmar Army is merciless and doesn’t feel afraid of committing injustice.” The greatest fear for many camp residents is that repatriation at a large scale will be impossible as long as Myanmar remains under the control of the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. In recent comments, junta leader Min Aung Hlaing affirmed these concerns, reiterating once again that the Tatmadaw does not recognize the identity of the Rohingya people or their right to return home. As long as the junta remains in place, there is little possibility of forging solutions to the outstanding political, legal, and justice questions surrounding the Rohingya crisis.

But there is another dimension of the coup in which an unanticipated, positive change has emerged: There has been a wave of social and political reconciliation between Rohingya and other Myanmar people. Though the situation remains formidable both for Rohingya in Myanmar and for those who seek to return from Bangladesh, certain social and political fault lines that have been present throughout Myanmar’s recent history seem to be shifting.

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May 3, 2021

Beyond the Coup in Myanmar: Inside Karen State

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.”

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April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: What the Yamuna River Teaches Us About Climate Change and Human Rights

Posted by Cindy Wu JD'22

You may have seen images of Hindu devotees immersing themselves in large clouds of white foam floating through the Yamuna River in Delhi, India. But what may seem otherworldly belies something much more sinister: a river of deep religious and life-giving significance for millions of people, teeming with toxic industrial and residential pollutants.

Alongside three other Harvard Law School students and our Clinical Instructor, Aminta Ossom, I have spent this past semester studying the relationship between climate change and inequality. This Earth Day, our team is thinking about how climate change and human activities are working in tandem to degrade and deplete the Yamuna River. This environmental harm has significant impacts on the enjoyment of the right to water, as well as on other rights, like cultural rights and the rights to adequate health and livelihoods.

What is the Yamuna?


The Yamuna—a tributary of the Ganga River—is critical both in Hindu culture and as a source of livelihood. Millions of Hindus worship the river as a goddess, and many make an annual pilgrimage, where they immerse themselves to wash away their sins and to bring health and prosperity. Besides its religious significance, the Yamuna supports the livelihoods of farmers, fisher-folk and boatsmen and is a crucial source of water for 57 million people, especially for those in the Delhi region.

A young boy sits on a trash-ridden beach in front of the Yamuna River.
The Yamuna River near Okhla Bird Sanctuary. Creative Commons License 2.0 Generic by Subodh Kumar Jha.
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April 21, 2021

Earth Day 2021: Environmental Justice is a Human Rights Struggle

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.

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February 22, 2021

Joint Statement to UN Security Council on the Constitutional and Human Rights Crisis in Haiti


In solidarity with civil society in Haiti, the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law have issued a letter in advance of the United Nations Security Council session on Haiti today. The letter can be viewed here and is reprinted in full below.

The three U.S. based law school clinics also released a statement last week calling on the U.S. government to denounce actions by President Jovenel Moïse that threaten human rights in Haiti.

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December 7, 2020

The UN must take action and compensate victims of lead poisoning in Kosovo

Posted by Nathalie Gunasekera JD'21

“The ideals of the United Nations – peace, justice, equality, and dignity – are the beacons to a better world.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres made these remarks during September’s UN General Assembly ceremony, which commemorated the organization’s 75th anniversary. These ideals are enshrined in the UN Charter, and yet, they been severely tested by the organization’s recent history in Kosovo. For more than two decades, the UN has refused to accept legal responsibility and deliver justice to Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities who were forced to live in UN-run lead contaminated refugee camps.

In September 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics Dr. Marcos Orellana presented his predecessor’s report on lead poisoning in Kosovo. He delivered a clear message: inaction must end, and justice must be delivered.

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