Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict
- Page 1 of 1
March 23, 2022
Bonnie Docherty, Clinic’s Associate Director of Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, testifies before Congressional subcommittee about weapons use in Ukraine
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
On March 16, 2022, Bonnie Docherty testified at a House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe hearing about early signs of of war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Russian military during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. She described Russia’s use of cluster munitions and explosive weapons in populated areas, highlighted the effects of the indiscriminate attacks, and called on the United States to condemn Russia’s actions and improve its own policies with regard to these weapons.
Watch Docherty’s testimony before Congress below.
To read Docherty’s written testimony, click here.
March 23, 2022
Russia’s Use of Cluster Munitions and Other Explosive Weapons Shows Need for Stronger Civilian Protections
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This article was first published on Just Security.
In the current armed conflict in Ukraine, Russian forces have relied heavily on two types of weapons that are notorious for the unacceptable and often unlawful harm they inflict on civilians. The weapons are cluster munitions, which have been banned by most countries in the world, and explosive weapons with wide area effects, which when used in populated areas are among the major causes of civilian casualties in contemporary armed conflict.
Attacks with these weapons have already killed and injured hundreds of civilians, turned buildings into rubble, and led to mass displacement. Judging by the experience of past conflicts, they will most likely also leave Ukraine with a legacy of harm that lingers long after active hostilities end.
Cluster munitions, large weapons that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller weapons called submunitions, endanger civilians for two reasons. First, they have a wide area effect because they spread their submunitions over a broad footprint, commonly the size of a football field. These submunitions cannot distinguish soldiers from civilians when used in populated areas. Second, many of their submunitions do not explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that pose threats to civilians for months, years, or even decades after a conflict. These so-called “duds” are frequently detonated by children who think they are toys, farmers who hit them with their plows, or refugees who return home.
The immediate harm caused by cluster munitions has already been evident in Ukraine. Human Rights Watch (where I am a senior researcher) documented a strike by Russian forces near a hospital in Vuhledar in the Ukraine-controlled Donetska region on Feb. 24. A 9M79-series Tochka ballistic missile delivered a 9N123 cluster munition warhead, containing 50 submunitions. The attack killed four civilians and injured another 10, including six healthcare workers. It damaged a hospital building, an ambulance, and civilian vehicles.
Four days later, on Feb. 28, Russian forces launched 9M55K Smerch cluster munition rockets in three neighborhoods of Kharkiv, Human Rights Watch found. Each of these rockets, which are often fired in volleys of 12, carries 72 9N235 submunitions. The United Nations reported nine civilian deaths and 37 injuries in attacks across the city that day.
Russian forces launched Smerch and Uragan cluster munitions into the city of Mykolaiv on Mar. 7, 11, and 13, reportedly killing nine civilians in line at a cash machine on the last day alone, according to more recent Human Rights Watch research. Other organizations and journalists have also reported cluster munition attacks in Ukraine.
International humanitarian law (IHL)’s rule of distinction requires parties to a conflict to distinguish between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives. The use of cluster munitions, at least where civilians may be present, violates this rule. Human Rights Watch and others argue they are inherently indiscriminate. At the time of attack, the wide-area effect of these weapons prevents them from distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants. In addition, the unexploded submunitions they leave behind makes them indiscriminate because their effects cannot be limited. Attacks using cluster munitions in populated areas may also violate the principle of proportionality, which prohibits attacks in which expected injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects is excessive in relation to anticipated military advantage.
Due to the unacceptable harm cluster munitions cause and their indiscriminate nature, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions bans their use, production, transfer, and stockpiling. Although Russia and Ukraine have not joined the treaty, 110 countries are party, including most NATO countries (although not the United States).
The convention also obligates each state party to “promote the norms it establishes and … make its best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.” In compliance with this provision, at least 15 states parties have condemned or expressed concern about Russia’s use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.
The president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which is currently the United Kingdom, along with the NATO Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the European Union have also condemned the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine.
Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
While cluster munitions are especially horrific for civilians, they are just one type of explosive weapon. The broader category of explosive weapons, which encompasses artillery shells, mortar rounds, rockets, missiles, enhanced blast (aka thermobaric) weapons, and aerial bombs, among others, has caused the bulk of the conflict-related damage in Ukraine.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas has grave humanitarian consequences both during and after attacks. Those effects are magnified when the weapons have wide area effects because: they have a large blast or fragmentation radius; they are inaccurate; they deliver multiple munitions at once (e.g., cluster munitions); or they have a combination of the above.
Russia’s bombing and shelling of Ukraine’s cities and towns has taken a physical and psychological toll on the civilian population. According to Human Rights Watch, Russian artillery shelling and airstrikes killed or injured more than 450 civilians in the city of Kharkiv in the first 11 days of the conflict. The attacks have also leveled homes, apartment buildings, and other primarily civilian structures and infrastructure, and damaged the environment.
The costs of this method of war, however, extend beyond its direct effects. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas also causes indirect and reverberating effects. The destruction of infrastructure can interfere with essential services and in turn infringe on an array of human rights.
In 2016, I co-authored an in-depth report on the effects of explosive weapons’ use on health care in the earlier conflict in eastern Ukraine, which was published by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (where I teach) and PAX. We found, for example, that damage to power plants and communication lines seriously affected hospitals and the provision of health care, and thus undermined the right to health. Such reverberating impacts will almost certainly be more severe in the current – much larger – conflict.
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas also exacerbates displacement. As of Mar. 18, more than three million people had fled Ukraine as a result of the conflict, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The attacks on urban centers with explosive weapons are one of the driving factors.
In a statement to the UN Security Council, a representative from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) noted that many of these effects were already being felt by Feb. 28. “As we all feared, civilians are already paying the price,” he said. “The scale of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure, even in these very early days, is alarming.”
Explicitly highlighting the dangers of the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects, he continued, “Civilians will undeservedly suffer the most from these attacks on densely populated urban centres. . . . And the longer this goes on, the greater the cost will be for civilians.”
Using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas can be expected to result in indiscriminate attacks with a high loss of civilian life. The patterns of harm to civilians that these weapons cause, including their reverberating effects, are well documented and heighten concerns that attacks will also be disproportionate. In addition, the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas is generally counter to the IHL duty to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm. Those who are responsible for using explosive weapons unlawfully with criminal intent are committing war crimes.
While explosive weapons, unlike cluster munitions in particular, are not banned by any instrument of international law, countries have been working toward a political declaration that addresses the humanitarian consequences of their use in populated areas. The next round of negotiations of this Ireland-led process, which had been postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic, are now scheduled for April 6-8.
The events in Ukraine underscore how important it is for countries to include in the declaration a commitment to avoid the use of these weapons in populated areas. This political commitment, although non-binding, would set important standards for dealing with a deadly practice of modern war.
The concern regarding Russia’s use of explosive weapons in Ukraine’s urban centers from countries including Austria and Ireland, and as stated in the UN Human Rights Council resolution of Mar. 4, demonstrates the growing support for these standards.
Cease and Condemn
The horrific images and accounts emerging from Ukraine offer a glimpse of the immediate harm that Russian cluster munitions and explosive weapons are inflicting on Ukraine’s civilians. Documentation of the effects of these weapons in past conflicts suggest the harm will be long term.
To prevent furthering the humanitarian crisis, Russia should immediately cease the use of cluster munitions and avoid using explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Other countries and the United Nations should support documentation efforts to ensure domestic and international accountability for any violations of IHL and international human right law and in particular support the International Criminal Court’s Ukraine investigation.
Other states and the United Nations should also explicitly condemn the use of cluster munitions and explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. Such focused criticism will not only increase pressure on Russia to change its practices in Ukraine. It will also strengthen the international norms against these means and methods of war.
It will bolster the Convention on Cluster Munitions, increasing its influence among countries that have not already joined; encourage the adoption a robust political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas; and in so doing, help improve protections for civilians in future conflicts.
August 2, 2021
Shared Vision Forms Sound Basis for Creating a New Ban Treaty
(Washington, DC, August 2, 2021) – Governments should make up for lost time by moving urgently to begin negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Representatives from approximately 50 countries will convene on August 3, 2021, at the United Nations in Geneva for their first official diplomatic meeting on lethal autonomous weapons systems, or “killer robots,” in nearly a year.
The 17-page report, “Areas of Alignment: Common Visions for a Killer Robots Treaty,” co-published by the two groups, describes the strong objections to delegating life-and-death decisions to machines expressed by governments at the last official Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting on killer robots. That meeting, held in September 2020, featured proposals from many countries to negotiate a new international treaty to prohibit and restrict autonomous weapons.
“International law needs to be expanded to create new rules that ensure human control and accountability in the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic and senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The fundamental moral, legal, and security concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems warrant a strong and urgent response in the form of a new international treaty.”
Nearly 100 countries have publicly expressed their views on killer robots since 2013. Most have repeatedly called for a new international treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, including 32 that have explicitly called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Yet a small number of militarily advanced countries – most notably Israel, Russia, and the United States – regard any move to create new international law as premature. They are investing heavily in the military applications of artificial intelligence and developing air, land, and sea-based autonomous weapons systems.
Governments have expressed support for banning autonomous systems that are legally or morally unacceptable, the groups said. There is strong interest in prohibiting weapons systems that by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control, including complex systems that use machine-learning algorithms to produce unpredictable or inexplicable effects. There are further calls to ban antipersonnel weapons systems that rely on profiles derived from biometric and other data collected by sensors to identify, select, and attack individuals or categories of people.
“Killing or injuring people based on data collected by sensors and processed by machines would violate human dignity,” Docherty said. “Relying on algorithms to target people will dehumanize warfare and erode our humanity.”Continue Reading…
May 5, 2021
Clinic Joins 200+ Orgs in Calling on UN Security Council to Impose Arms Embargo on Myanmar
(May 5, 2021) — The International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School joins over 200 other civil society organizations, including the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Human Rights Watch, GCR2P, Global Justice Center and Amnesty International, in calling on the United Nations Security Council to urgently impose a comprehensive global arms embargo on Myanmar. The letter responds to the current crisis in Myanmar, beginning with a February 1, 2021 coup that has spiraled into increasing brutality and violence against civilians, including dozens of children. The organizations urge the UN Security Council to help prevent further violations of human rights against peaceful protestors and those opposing military rule by halting the arms trade with the military junta. Read the full letter below or download it at this link.
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…
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020 — Today, the International Human Rights Clinic and the All Survivors Project launched, “Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary.” The Principles draw from existing international law – primarily international human rights law and international humanitarian law – as well as authoritative guidance to bring together in a single instrument ten key international principles to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence, applicable to all persons deprived of their liberty in armed conflict. Each principle is accompanied by commentary on its sources and content.
In Spring 2020, Clinic students Yanitra Kumaraguru LLM ’20, Zac Smith JD ’21, and Amanda Odasz JD ’21 worked under the supervision of Anna Crowe LLM’12, the Clinic’s Assistant Director, to research and draft the principles and commentary. They were significantly aided by research conducted by Clinic students Terry Flyte LLM ’19 and Radhika Kapoor LLM ’19, who worked under the supervision of Crowe and Emily Keehn, formerly the Associate Director of the Academic Program of the Human Rights Program.
August 6, 2020
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.
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.Continue Reading…
January 28, 2011
Posted by Cara Solomon
This week marked the start of the spring semester and the third snowstorm of the year. Right in the thick of it, we welcomed 40 students into the International Human Rights Clinic. We also started this blog, which will focus mainly on the projects and people associated with the Clinic.
It seemed like a good time to check in with Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program (HRP). And so we did.
HRP: What attracted you to HRP?
Cavallaro: When I came in 2002, I had already spent nearly two decades working as a human rights lawyer in Latin America—in Chile during the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship, and then for nearly a decade in Brazil, working on criminal justice issues, transitional justice, racial discrimination, violence against women and indigenous issues. I had a lot of real world experience, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to step back and reflect, or to put what I had learned to use as a teacher. HRP gave me the opportunity to continue my work as an activist—my first passion—but also to work closely with students, and to reflect on human rights and the human rights movement.
It’s proven to be the perfect fit for me. I love the students’ energy and their sense that anything is possible. To be honest, their commitment and drive has been the engine behind the remarkable growth of the clinic and the program this past decade.
When I came here, we had a handful of students working on one or two projects. Now we have 40 students working on twenty projects on every major continent- and that’s just this semester.Continue Reading…
- Page 1 of 1