Blog: Bonnie Docherty
June 20, 2016
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This piece originally appeared in The Conversation on June 16, 2016
New technology could lead humans to relinquish control over decisions to use lethal force. As artificial intelligence advances, the possibility that machines could independently select and fire on targets is fast approaching. Fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots,” are quickly moving from the realm of science fiction toward reality
These weapons, which could operate on land, in the air or at sea, threaten to revolutionize armed conflict and law enforcement in alarming ways. Proponents say these killer robots are necessary because modern combat moves so quickly, and because having robots do the fighting would keep soldiers and police officers out of harm’s way. But the threats to humanity would outweigh any military or law enforcement benefits.
Removing humans from the targeting decision would create a dangerous world. Machines would make life-and-death determinations outside of human control. The risk of disproportionate harm or erroneous targeting of civilians would increase. No person could be held responsible.Continue Reading…
March 10, 2016
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
This post originally appeared in Just Security
Is a driver speeding toward a military checkpoint launching a suicide attack or racing his pregnant wife to the hospital? Is a local man digging on a roadside at night planting an improvised explosive device (IED) or working his farm when the temperature is cooler? Is a resident who jumps up when troops burst into his home at 2am reaching for a gun or reacting in fear? In Afghanistan and Iraq, US troops have had to answer such questions repeatedly, often in split-second time. Civilian and military lives have depended on the accuracy of their determinations.
Under the US Standing Rules of Engagement (SROE), troops are allowed to fire in self-defense if they encounter someone demonstrating hostile intent, i.e., the “threat of imminent use of force.” Identifying such a threat presents challenges, however, especially when enemy forces blend in with the local population. Mistaken determinations of hostile intent were a major cause of civilian casualties attributable to the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2014. Tackling Tough Calls, a new report by the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, examines this problem. Drawing on interviews with combat veterans and current servicemembers as well as open source research, it shows how the US military could better protect civilians from such errors without jeopardizing the lives of its troops.Continue Reading…
January 7, 2016
This Q & A by reporter Liz Mineo ran in the Harvard Gazette on January 3, 2015
After researching the devastating humanitarian effects of the deadly cluster munitions used in Afghanistan in 2002, Bonnie Docherty joined a worldwide campaign to eliminate them.
Six years after she started her probe, cluster bombs were banned. Her investigation on the use of cluster munitions in Afghanistan, and later in Iraq and Lebanon, was highly influential in a 2008 treaty, joined by 118 countries, that bans these weapons.
For Docherty, a lecturer on law and a senior instructor at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, the battle to protect civilians from unnecessary harm continues.
Last month, Docherty traveled to Geneva to advocate for stronger regulations on incendiary devices, which she calls “exceptionally cruel weapons” that have been used in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine.
Docherty, who is also a senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch, recently sat down for an interview to talk about these weapons, killer robots, and her guiding principle: to protect civilians from suffering caused by armed conflicts.
GAZETTE: Before you became a disarmament advocate, you were a reporter for a local newspaper. Can you tell us about this part of your life?
DOCHERTY: After college, I was a reporter for The Middlesex News, now the MetroWest Daily News, outside of Boston, for three years. I covered mostly local news, government meetings, environmental issues, but I had the opportunity to go to Bosnia and embed with the peacekeepers for about 10 days in 1998. There was an Army lab in my town, that’s how I got the invitation to go to Bosnia. I had been interested in armed conflicts, but that trip definitely increased my interest in that field.
GAZETTE: How did you make the jump from suburban journalism to human rights and disarmament issues?
DOCHERTY: After I left the newsroom, I went to Harvard Law School. Right after graduation, I went to Human Rights Watch, which was a perfect mix of journalism and law because you go out in the field and you apply the law to what you find. My start date was Sept. 12, 2001, by happenstance, so whatever was planned was changed. Six months later, I was in Afghanistan researching the use of cluster munitions, which was my first exposure to disarmament issues.
GAZETTE: What are cluster munitions, and why are they so dangerous?
DOCHERTY: Cluster munitions are large weapons, such as bombs or rockets that contain dozens or hundreds of small munitions called submunitions. They’re problematic because they have a broad area effect — they spread over the size of a football field — and because many of them don’t explode on impact and lie around like landmines and explode in years or decades to come.
GAZETTE: How did your involvement with cluster munitions begin?
DOCHERTY: I went to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and later Georgia to document the use of these weapons. I’ve spoken with dozens of victims of cluster munitions, but the story I remember the most is when I was in Lebanon with two students from Harvard Law’s International Human Rights Clinic in 2006. We were there doing field research after Israel used cluster munitions in Lebanon. We were at a restaurant, and someone asked us to go to the town of Halta immediately. When we arrived, we found out that two hours earlier a 12-year-old boy had been killed by a cluster submunition. He had been playing with his brother, who had been throwing pinecones at him. The boy picked up something to throw back at his brother. It turned out to be a submunition. His friend said, “Oh, no. That’s dangerous, drop it,” and when he went to throw it away, it exploded next to his head. When we were there, they were still cleaning up the pool of blood from his body. The Lebanese army found 10, 12 submunitions lying around right next to a village, waiting to kill or injure civilians, farmers, children.
GAZETTE: Your research on cluster munitions led you to become one of the world’s most widely known advocates against these weapons. How did this happen?Continue Reading…
November 10, 2015
Ramp Up Action to Ban Killer Robots
Blinding Lasers Prohibition Offers Precedent
(Geneva, November 9, 2015) – Governments should agree to expand and formalize their international deliberations on fully autonomous weapons, with the ultimate aim of preemptively banning them, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a joint report released today. These weapons, also known as lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots, would be able to select and attack targets without further human intervention.
The 18-page report, “Precedent for Preemption,” details why countries agreed to preemptively ban blinding laser weapons in 1995 and says that the process could be a model for current efforts to prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Countries participating in the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) will decide by consensus on November 13, 2015, whether to continue their deliberations on lethal autonomous weapons systems next year.
“Concerns over fully autonomous weapons have pushed them to the top of the international disarmament agenda, but countries need to pick up the pace of discussions,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at Harvard Law School, and senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch, which is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Governments can take direct action now with commitments to ban weapons with no meaningful human control over whom to target and when to attack.”
The report calls on countries to initiate a more robust process through creation of a group of governmental experts on fully autonomous weapons under the CCW.
Artificial intelligence experts, roboticists, and other scientists predict that fully autonomous weapons could be developed within years, not decades. The preemptive ban on blinding lasers, which is in a protocol attached to the conventional weapons treaty, shows that a prohibition on future weapons is possible.
“The prospect of fully autonomous weapons raises many of the same concerns as blinding lasers did two decades ago,” said Docherty, lead author of the new report exploring the history of the prohibition on lasers that would permanently blind their victims. “Countries should adopt the same solution by banning fully autonomous weapons before they reach the battlefield.”
The report shows that threats to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, as well as notions of abhorrence and social unacceptability, helped drive countries to ban blinding lasers. Fully autonomous weapons present similar dangers.
Countries were further motivated by the risk of widespread proliferation of blinding lasers to parties that have little regard for international law, a risk echoed in discussions of fully autonomous weapons, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School clinic said. As with blinding lasers 20 years ago, a ban on fully autonomous weapons could clarify and strengthen existing law without limiting the development of related legitimate technology.
The groups acknowledged notable differences in the specific legal problems and technological character of the two weapons but found that those differences make banning fully autonomous weapons even more critical.
In other publications, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch have elaborated on the challenges that fully autonomous weapons would face in complying with international humanitarian law and international human rights law and analyzed the lack of accountability that would exist for the unlawful harm caused by such weapons.
Several of the 121 countries that have joined the CCW – including the United States, United Kingdom, China, Israel, Russia, and South Korea – are developing weapons systems with various degrees of autonomy and lethality. The countries party to the treaty held nine days of informal talks on lethal autonomous weapons systems in 2014 and 2015, but they should now ramp up their deliberations, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Docherty and Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, will present the report at a side event briefing at 2 p.m. on November 9 in Conference Room XI at the United Nations in Geneva. At the end of the week, Goose will assess the meeting’s decision on fully autonomous weapons, joined by other Campaign to Stop Killer Robots representatives, at a side event briefing at 1 p.m. on November 13 in Conference Room XI.
“Precedent for Preemption: The Ban on Blinding Lasers as a Model for a Killer Robots Prohibition” is available at:
NOTE: Mana Azarmi, JD ’16, Federica du Pasquier, MA ’16, and Marium Khawaja, LLM ’16, contributed research to this report.
For more Human Rights Watch reporting on fully autonomous weapons, please visit:
For more information on the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, please visit:
For more information, please contact:
In Geneva, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or [email protected]
June 19, 2015
Civilian Harm from Explosive Weapons
Agreement Needed to Curb Use in Towns, Cities
(Geneva, June 19, 2015) – Extensive civilian casualties caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities around the globe show the urgent need for countries to agree to curb the use of these weapons in populated areas, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
Air-dropped bombs, artillery projectiles, mortars, rockets, and other explosive weapons kill or injure tens of thousands of civilians every year. In the first half of 2015, Human Rights Watch documented incidents involving the use of explosive weapons that claimed civilian lives and destroyed vital infrastructure in populated areas of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere.
The 35-page report, “Making a Commitment: Paths to Curbing the Use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas,” published jointly with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, says that countries should develop and implement a new non-binding agreement to reduce the harm from explosive weapons and offers options for developing such an agreement.
“The high levels of civilian death and destruction from explosive weapons are avoidable,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “Nations should agree to curtail the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and stop using those with wide-area effects entirely.”
Explosive weapons that produce wide-area effects are particularly dangerous. They encompass weapons that produce a large blast and/or spread fragments over a wide radius, such as aircraft bombs; weapons that deliver multiple munitions that saturate a large area, such as Grad rockets and others from multi-barrel rocket launchers; and weapons that are so inaccurate that they cannot be effectively targeted, such as barrel bombs.
Momentum for international action is growing as recognition of the harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas increases. In September, Austria will host a meeting to consider how to improve protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
The new report seeks to inform these discussions by providing options for a non-binding instrument – a political commitment – in which countries would agree to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The report examines about 30 relevant commitments that could serve as models for the shape of an explosive weapons commitment and the process to achieve it.
A new political commitment could take a variety of forms including a declaration, compilation of regulations, set of guidelines, manual, or combination of these types. The process of developing a commitment could be led by countries, emerge from the United Nations system, or be a mix of those two options.
Developers of the commitment would also have to decide on a mechanism for countries to endorse the final document.
Whatever process is followed, nongovernmental organizations should be actively involved because they would bring extensive expertise as well as humanitarian concerns to the process, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.
Over the past few years, the UN secretary-general, several UN agencies – notably the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – and the International Committee of the Red Cross have all acknowledged the need to address the civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.
Many countries have echoed their concerns, and the September meeting in Austria follows a 2014 meeting about the subject in Norway. The Austria meeting provides an opportunity for countries to take the next step to initiating a process to develop a new commitment on explosive weapons.
“Extensive precedent shows that the timely development of an explosive weapons commitment is feasible,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer on law at the Harvard clinic. “Countries need only recognize the urgency of the problem and bring political will to deal with it.”
This report was written by Docherty and Anna Crowe, clinical advocacy fellow, with significant research and writing contributions from Ben Bastomski, JD ’15, Kate Boulton, JD, ’15, and Ishita Kala, JD ’16.
For more information on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, please visit:
For more information, please contact:
In Boston, Bonnie Docherty (English): +1-617-669-1636 (mobile); or [email protected]
May 12, 2015
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The laws governing armed conflict may seem simple on the surface. Soldiers can be targeted; civilians cannot. But the line between these groups is blurry and can have life-and-death implications.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians can be intentionally killed if they “directly participate in hostilities.” But what does direct participation mean? What if a civilian feeds combatants, drives members of an armed group, provides equipment or intelligence, or takes up arms to protect family members? Does it matter if involvement was voluntary or forced? Do such actions mean the civilian can be lawfully targeted?
A new 84-page report, to which the International Human Rights Clinic contributed a case study, takes a fresh look at this contentious issue. The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict, released Tuesday by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documents the experiences of people in four former or current conflict zones: Bosnia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. It does not seek to come up with a conclusive definition of direct participation in hostilities. Instead, it aims to inform the debate among military commanders, lawyers, academics, and other experts by adding the voices of those who have lived through war.
The report finds that civilians become involved in conflict in a number of ways, ranging from fighting to providing logistical support to membership in civil defense forces or political parties. While sometimes voluntary, their involvement is often motivated by threats from armed groups or the need to survive. The people CIVIC interviewed had varied understandings of who is a civilian and who is a combatant and found it difficult to delineate the difference. They agreed, however, that the legal status that derives from involvement can not only determine whether civilians are targeted but also affect their lives long after a conflict ends.
In 2013, I led a four-person team, including Lara Berlin, JD ’14, Luca Urech, Fletcher ’13, and Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, on a field mission to Bosnia, where we documented people’s experiences during the war. Later, as a post-graduate fellow at CIVIC, Boehland conducted investigations in three other conflict zones and served as lead author of the final report.
Testimony from those who lived through the Bosnia war of 1992-1995 highlighted the challenge of classifying involvement in a conflict. Some Bosnians told the Clinic’s research team that everyone during the armed conflict was a soldier, while others contended they were all civilians. A 40-year-old gardener from Srebrenica said, “The line between soldiers and civilians in war is invisible. . . . There is almost no line, no distinction.”
Residents of Sarajevo, for example, frequently fought on the front lines on certain days, but took off their uniforms and returned to their families on others. A woman who had lived through the city’s siege captured the confusion about the nature of these people’s involvement: “Many killed [during the conflict] were actually civilians, but I don’t know how to distinguish them. If my uncle is on duty, he’s one thing, but when he’s in line for bread, what is he?”
The stories of Bosnians and others in this report illustrate the modes, motivations, and complexities of people’s involvement in armed conflict. Experts and policymakers would do well to heed these realities as they continue their deliberations about the meaning of direct participation in hostilities.
NOTE: Boehland last week also released a report for Amnesty International, for which she now works, entitled “Death Everywhere”: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Aleppo, Syria. The report documents that Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups have bombarded homes and civilian areas, detained and tortured residents, and created appalling living conditions. Boehland’s recent publications on civilian protection exemplify the work the Clinic hopes its graduates will take on and represents the best of human rights advocacy.
April 30, 2015
New Publication Examines Different Approaches to Assisting Victims of Armed Conflict and Armed Violence”
“New Publication Examines Different Approaches to Assisting Victims of Armed Conflict and Armed Violence”
Seeks to promote collaboration among leaders in field
(Cambridge, MA, April 30, 2015)- Mitigating the human costs of armed conflict and armed violence has become a moral and legal imperative over the past two decades. Within the international community, several strategies for helping civilian victims have emerged. A publication, released this week by Harvard Law School’s Human Rights Program and Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), seeks to advance understanding and promote collaboration among leaders in the field.
The 28-page report, Acknowledge, Amend, Assist: Addressing Civilian Harm Caused by Armed Conflict and Armed Violence, examines a range of current approaches: casualty recording, civilian harm tracking, making amends, transitional justice, and victim assistance. In so doing, the report illuminates their commonalities and differences and analyzes the difficulties they face individually and collectively.
“These programs all provide valuable assistance to civilian victims, but they have yet to be viewed holistically,” said Bonnie Docherty, editor of the volume and lecturer on law in the Human Rights Program. “A comparative look at the approaches could help reduce overlapping efforts and identify gaps that should be closed.”
Acknowledge, Amend, Assist takes its name and much of its substance from a two-day global summit held at Harvard Law School in October 2013. The event brought experts from government, civil society, and academia together to explore the challenges of meeting victims’ needs and to learn about where their work might coincide and/or conflict. This publication seeks to build upon the momentum generated by the summit and present the issues that it raised to a wider audience.
As the essays demonstrate, the five approaches to addressing civilian harm share not only an ultimate goal but also many overarching principles. In general, they define “victim” broadly, envision a wide range of support, encourage victim participation in the process, and aim to address articulated needs. They recognize that even if one party bears primary responsibility for providing assistance, there may be multiple players involved.
At the same time, the approaches differ in focus and practice. Some concentrate on lawful harm, others on unlawful harm. They also call for various forms of recognition and aid. Distinctions among the approaches that have led to debate include who should bear responsibility for providing assistance and how law can most effectively contribute to the process.
“We hope members of the assistance community will draw lessons from each other’s strategies and consider how to increase collaboration,” Docherty said. “In the long run, more informed, complementary, and coordinated approaches would improve the lot of victims of armed conflict and armed violence.”
For more information, contact Bonnie Docherty at [email protected].
April 9, 2015
The “Killer Robots” Accountability Gap
Obstacles to Legal Responsibility Show Need for Ban
(Geneva, April 9, 2015) – Programmers, manufacturers, and military personnel could all escape liability for unlawful deaths and injuries caused by fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The report was issued in advance of a multilateral meeting on the weapons at the United Nations in Geneva.
The 38-page report, “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots,” details significant hurdles to assigning personal accountability for the actions of fully autonomous weapons under both criminal and civil law. It also elaborates on the consequences of failing to assign legal responsibility. The report is jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
“No accountability means no deterrence of future crimes, no retribution for victims, no social condemnation of the responsible party,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms Division researcher at Human Rights Watch and the report’s lead author. “The many obstacles to justice for potential victims show why we urgently need to ban fully autonomous weapons.”Continue Reading…
November 11, 2014
Ukraine, Syria: Incendiary Weapons Threaten Civilians
Stronger International Law Needed for Weapons That Burn
(Geneva, November 11, 2014) – Evidence of the use of incendiary weapons in Ukraine and Syria highlights the need for stricter law to govern these weapons, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.
The 16-page report, “Incendiary Weapons: Recent Use and Growing Opposition,” details incendiary weapon attacks in Ukraine and Syria and illustrates the increasing stigma against the weapons. Incendiary weapons can cause excruciatingly painful thermal and respiratory burns. Victims who survive often suffer long-term physical and psychological damage due to extensive scarring and disfigurement.
“Weapons that cause terrible burns and disfigure survivors have been used against towns in both Syria and Ukraine,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior Arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The recent attacks with incendiary weapons show it’s past time for nations to reassess and strengthen international law on these cruel weapons,” said Docherty, who is also a lecturer in the Harvard clinic.
The report is being distributed at the annual meeting of countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), which is being held at the United Nations in Geneva from November 10-14, 2014. Protocol III of the treaty bans certain use of incendiary weapons, but its loopholes and inconsistencies have not been addressed since the law was created more than 30 years ago.
Human Rights Watch researchers will present the report’s findings at a CCW side event at 2 p.m. on November 12 in Room XXIV at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva.
Human Rights Watch documented attacks with incendiary Grad rockets on two towns in Ukraine, although the organization was unable to confirm the party responsible. In Syria in 2014, government forces have continued their use of incendiary weapons and have also dropped indiscriminate barrel bombs containing incendiary components.
All countries and especially CCW states parties should condemn such use of incendiary weapons and express support for revisiting and amending the protocol, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard clinic said.Continue Reading…
September 22, 2014
September 22, 2014
“Gaza, International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights”
6:00 – 7:00 p.m.
Wasserstein B010 Singer Classroom
Harvard Law School
Please join us for a panel discussion with Harvard faculty: Professor Duncan Kennedy, Harvard Law School; Professor Jennifer Leaning, Harvard School of Public Health; Naz Modirzadeh, Director, Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, Harvard Law School; and moderated by Bonnie Docherty, Senior Clinical Instructor, International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School.
This event is being co-sponsored by the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School.