Blog: Center for Civilians in Conflict

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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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May 12, 2015

From Bosnia to Somalia: Classifying “Involvement” in Armed Conflict

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?

Report cover shows some individuals standing in front of a car speaking. They stand inffront of a Toyota ad and a shop front that says it has spare car parts.

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.

On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.
On a 2013 field mission to Bosnia, Boehland looks at a memorial to those who died during the war.

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.

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September 26, 2013

Clinic Report: Nepali War Victims Need Long-Term, Expanded Assistance


Nepali War Victims Need Long-Term, Expanded Assistance

Government Programs to End Civilian Suffering Fall Short

September 26, 2013, Cambridge, Mass— Seven years after the end of Nepal’s armed conflict, civilian victims are still struggling in the absence of effective help from the government, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), in partnership with the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict. A government relief program, set to end in 2014, has failed to deliver sufficient services and support.

Cover of report has title, "Assistance OVerdue: Ongoing Needs of Civilian Victims of Nepal's Armed Conflict," and a picture of a house in mountains in Nepal.

Assistance Overdue: Ongoing Needs of Civilian Victims of Nepal’s Armed Conflict  documents Nepali victims’ calls for financial and in-kind assistance as well as justice and truth after a decade-long conflict between government and Maoist forces. The report also evaluates the Nepali government’s current programs and proposals in light of victims’ needs and expectations.

“Atrocities committed by both sides left thousands of Nepali civilians with permanent disabilities, lingering psychological trauma, and lost livelihoods,” said Bonnie Docherty, lecturer on law at IHRC and co-author of the report. “The government has failed to reach many victims and urgently needs to do so.”

During the armed conflict that raged in Nepal from 1996-2006, Maoist and government forces targeted civilians with impunity. The Maoists often executed civilians publicly to create fear, while the government routinely eliminated perceived enemies through enforced disappearances. Both sides also tortured, raped, and committed other forms of violence. Assistance Overdue is based on more than 100 interviews with survivors, government officials, and other experts as well as extensive legal analysis.

The government’s primary form of support for victims is its Interim Relief Program (IRP), which was established in 2008 and has provided immediate material assistance to some of those harmed in the conflict. The report finds that IRP falls short in the areas of financial aid, vocational training, educational support, and health care for families of the deceased or disappeared and the disabled. Two especially vulnerable groups—victims of torture and sexual violence—are not entitled to any assistance under the program.

The government has for several years debated creation of a truth, reconciliation, and disappearances commission that would focus on non-material issues, a measure important to many victims. But the commission has yet to be established and, as currently proposed, would have overly broad amnesty provisions, allow forced reconciliation against the will of victims, and have only two years to complete its work. A coalition of victims’ organizations filed a petition in April 2013 to block implementation of a seriously flawed law creating a commission.

IHRC and the Center call on the government to improve support for victims by creating a more inclusive and long-term assistance program and adopting a commission on truth, reconciliation, and disappearances that takes into account victim perspectives. IHRC and the Center also urge international donors to provide support for these initiatives.

“For Nepal to heal and rebuild, the government should rectify the failings of the Interim Relief Program and listen to its people who demand recognition and justice for the harm they have suffered,” said Sahr Muhammedally, senior legal and amends advisor for the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “People have been trying to recover from the horrors of the conflict for seven years. It’s time to fix a broken system.”


For more information, contact:

Bonnie Docherty, +1-617-669-1636, [email protected]

Liz Lucas, +1 202-716-0829, [email protected]

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June 20, 2013

New Perspective on an Old Conflict

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

In May 1998, a US C-130 transport plane touched down at Eagle Base in Tuzla, Bosnia, and I stepped onto the tarmac wearing a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet. I had come for a week to embed with US peacekeepers and report on their mission for the Middlesex News, a daily paper outside of Boston.

These destroyed homes were all that remained of Rijeka, Bosnia, when refugees returned to the village in May 1998. Photo by Bonnie Docherty.
These destroyed homes were all that remained of Rijeka, Bosnia, when refugees returned to the village in May 1998. Photo by Bonnie Docherty.

The war in Bosnia was officially over, but the country was still in transition. I interviewed refugees as they returned to their village of Rijeka for the first time after the conflict. Foundations and concrete staircases leading nowhere were all that remained of most homes. One elderly couple talked to me as they ate lunch in their “kitchen,” a tile floor with no walls.

In another town, a 72-year-old woman pulled three bullet shells from behind a tea cup in a glass cabinet. Displaying them one by one, she said, “This is the bullet with which they killed my dog. This one somebody tried to kill me with. And with this, they tried to kill me again. They are souvenirs for good memory.” Like many people I spoke with, her husband warned that the country was still a tinder box that could erupt if the peacekeepers pulled out.

This spring, almost 15 years after my last mission to the Balkans, I disembarked from a Lufthansa plane at the Sarajevo airport wearing the same LL Bean fleece pullover, but with no need for the flak jacket. I came as a human rights practitioner with three students from the International Human Rights Clinic.

On the surface, the situation in Bosnia had changed significantly. People had rebuilt their homes and lives. The peacekeepers were long gone. Fighting was no longer an imminent threat. Nevertheless, as I soon learned, memories remained vivid and many wounds were still raw.

My clinical team and I went to Bosnia to investigate the blurry line between soldiers and civilians during the war. Specifically, we wanted to find out how individuals had viewed their own roles in the hostilities. This research is part of a larger project initiated by the Center for Civilians in Conflict. It seeks to inform interpretations of who is entitled to protection under international humanitarian law by examining perceptions of participation on the ground.

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