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May 4, 2021

A Burning Issue: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch

This post also appears on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.

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.”

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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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January 27, 2021

Banning Nuclear Weapons: Milestones and Memories

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.

Eight individuals smile after the treaty passed. They wear badges and formal clothes.
The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.
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January 4, 2021

Trusted to listen: Nicolette Waldman ’13 dedicates her career to documenting human rights violations

Posted by Dana Walters


After her first interview in Afghanistan, Nicolette Waldman ’13 realized she had found the career she was meant to pursue. It was the summer after her first year at Harvard Law School, and Waldman had a fellowship with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to research torture of conflict-related detainees. The man she was meeting had escaped from an Afghan prison. He had never been interviewed before, and she could tell he was nervous. A newly minted law student, she was nervous too.

“As the questions went on, he realized that he could lead and all I wanted to do was listen,” she said. “I had thought that interviewing was going to be more adversarial. But this was a shared process where we were both trying to get at what had happened to him. I felt like my role was to be a partner.”

Since graduating from HLS less than a decade ago, Waldman has, by now, interviewed hundreds of people. Some have survived the horrific abuses. Others have committed such abuses themselves. From death camps in Syria to conflicts in Gaza and Somalia, she has documented some of the worst moments of the last few decades. Still, she vividly recalls that first interview in Afghanistan, and how it set a course for her future trajectory.

“There’s something instinctual about knowing when your rights have been violated. It’s incredibly meaningful to sit across from someone and bear witness to their story and to have that individual trust you to tell that story to the world,” she said. “Human rights interviewing is a very niche type of documentation, but I think if it’s done right it can make survivors feel like they’re not alone,” she added.

Waldman (née Boehland) grew up in rural, northern Minnesota and studied English Literature and International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College. After college, she worked for Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. She realized that law school might give her the right tools to make the impact she sought, although it would be deeply difficult to take a step back from the world in which she had already immersed herself. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped bridge that gap, allowing Waldman to work in the field, in post-conflict zones and under close supervision, as part of her legal education.

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September 30, 2020

Confronting conflict pollution: new principles argue for greater assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war

Posted by Dana Walters

A woman peers behind a wall as she sees smoke billowing and fire.
A woman looks at fire and smoke from oil wells set ablaze by Islamic State militants before the fled the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, November 4, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, irreparably damaging the environment and disrupting the lives of the people who called the area home. When Bonnie Docherty ’01, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, visited the islands in March 2018, she spoke with survivors who suffered from immediate and long-term health effects and who remain displaced decades after the tests.

“Many survivors in the Marshall Islands described having no warning that the tests were going to occur. Then there was blinding light. The sky turned red and various other colors, and then white, radioactive ash fell everywhere,” Docherty said. “Eventually, the U.S. military came and evacuated the communities. For years, as some people would try to return to their home, they did not know if they were still at risk or if the land was safe. There was a remarkable lack of information distributed to those who were most affected.”

The experiences of survivors in the Marshall Islands, as well as other places where armed conflict and military activity have harmed the environment, provided an impetus for “Confronting Conflict Pollution: Principles for Assisting Victims of Toxic Remnants of War,” a major report released today. Co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and the Conflict and Environment Observatory (CEOBS), the report establishes a new framework for addressing the human harm resulting from the environmental consequences of conflict.

The report lays out 14 principles that cover a range of harm and assistance, establish a mechanism for shared responsibility, identify key implementation measures, and apply overarching human rights norms. The report also includes a detailed commentary, explaining the principles and providing precedent for them. The overarching goal of the principles is to ensure that victims’ needs are met and that they can realize their human rights.

“There have been huge advances in developing legal frameworks for protecting the environment in relation to armed conflicts in the last decade,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director at CEOBS. “The principles help fill a clear gap in clarifying how states and the international community should respond to the consequences of environmental degradation on communities.”

Weir and a panel of other experts joined Docherty for an online launch event on September 30.

The report adapts the concept of victim assistance, originally designed to deal with explosive weapons, to conflict-related pollution, such as that from nuclear weapon use and testing, oil well fires in Iraq, or the bombing of industrial plants in Ukraine.

Docherty began the process of drafting principles regarding toxic remnants of war with Weir and then-Clinical Fellow Rebecca Agule ’10 in fall 2016. After taking a short break to assist the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) during the negotiations of the historic Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), she returned to the project in fall 2018 with an exceptional team of clinical students: Matthew Griechen ’19, Daniel Levine-Spound ’19, and Susannah Marshall ’19. Docherty’s experiences with the TPNW, the first treaty to require assistance for victims of toxic remnants of war, informed the clinic’s principles.

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