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Blog: Arms and Armed Conflict

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August 2, 2021

Killer Robots: Urgent Need to Fast-Track Talks

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.”

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May 5, 2021

Not One Bullet More

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.

Image of protestors kneeling over a memorial with text that says, "Not One Bullet More: Ban Weapons Sales to Myanmar"

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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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October 7, 2020

Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings

Red report cover with heading, "Preventing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Detention Settings: Principles and Commentary." There is a picture of a yellow illustrated prison and the report is by IHRC and All Survivors Project.

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

On 75th Anniversary of Atomic Bombings, Honor Memories with Action

Posted by Setsuko Thurlow, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

As a 13-year-old girl, I witnessed my beloved city of Hiroshima blinded by a flash of light, flattened by the hurricane-like blast, burned in the heat of 4,000 degrees Celsius, and contaminated by the radiation of one atomic bomb. I was rescued from a collapsed building, where most of my classmates were unable to escape. They were burned to death alive. I saw a procession of ghostly figures slowly shuffling away from ground zero—blackened, swollen, with skin and flesh hanging from their bones. Some carried their eyeballs in their hands.

A concrete stone dome that barely stands in the residual effects of the Atomic Bomb in Hiroshima.
Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2019.

I vividly remember that bright summer morning 75 years ago when daylight turned to dark twilight with smoke and dust rising in the mushroom cloud. Dead and injured people covered the ground, begging desperately for water and receiving no medical care at all. There were fires everywhere. A foul stench of burnt flesh filled the air. Of my hometown population—roughly 360,000 mostly non-combatant women, children, and elderly—140,000 beloved human beings became victims of the indiscriminate massacre of the atomic bombing. As I use the numbers of the dead, it pains me deeply. Reducing individual lives to numbers seems to me to be trivializing their precious lives and negating their human dignity. Each one who died had a name. Each one was loved by someone. And still to this very day, people are suffering and dying from the delayed effects of radioactive poisoning.

Many experts agree that the nuclear threat is greater now than at any time in the 75 years since the dawn of the nuclear age. For example, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, a journal founded by Albert Einstein and others, announced on January 23, 2020, that their Doomsday Clock is now set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to nuclear catastrophe in the 75 years of the nuclear age. At the event, Dr. Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin, declared, “The current environment is profoundly unstable and urgent action and immediate engagement is required by all.”

Yet the unstable environment described in January has only increased. The Trump Administration is dismantling non-proliferation agreements that have taken decades to develop. The U.S. has signaled that it will walk away from the START treaty, one of the last agreements that remains in Trump’s felling of minimal arms control measures that once stood as norms for nuclear armed states. If START is not renewed, this will be the first time in about half a century that the two major nuclear powers will not be bound by bilateral nuclear agreements at all.

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January 28, 2011

Q & A with Jim Cavallaro, Executive Director of the Human Rights Program

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.

Jim Cavallaro interviews prisoners in Panama
Jim interviews prisoners last semester as part of an ongoing clinical project in Panama

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.

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