Blog: Cluster Munitions

July 31, 2020

Convention on Cluster Munitions Celebrates 10th Anniversary: A Living Legacy

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

Ten years ago tonight, I watched my laptop intently as the minutes, then seconds, ticked closer to midnight. A countdown clock on the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) website marked the time until the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force.

I held my breath as the clock read … 3-2-1 and cheered when it finally reached 0. At the stroke of 12 a.m., the treaty, for which I had advocated since 2001, became binding law on the 38 states that had already joined it. I celebrated the moment by emailing friends and former students with whom I had campaigned for the convention. Around the world that day, representatives of CMC, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from more than 100 countries, held celebrations with the theme “beat the drum to ban cluster munitions.”

The anniversary of this milestone provides an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty, which now has 108 states parties and 17 signatories, has saved civilian lives through its prohibitions and remedial measures. It has spawned other humanitarian disarmament campaigns to reduce arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm. And it has created a new generation of disarmament and human rights advocates.

Cluster munitions, large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions over a wide area, inflict unacceptable harm during attacks and after. Because they cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, they cause significant civilian casualties when used in populated areas, as they often are. In addition, many submunitions fail to explode on impact, becoming de facto landmines that continue to kill and injure civilians for months and years to come.

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March 15, 2017

Disarmament family loses loved and legendary campaigner Bob Mtonga

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

The humanitarian disarmament community lost a legend last week. Bob Mtonga, a medical doctor and long-time activist, died in his native Zambia shortly after returning from one of countless international trips to promote the protection of civilians in armed conflict. He was just 51.

Bob Mtonga-50 ratifications of ATT-2014

Bob Mtonga celebrates the ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty by 50 countries in 2014.

Bob was a much-loved leader in the field of humanitarian disarmament, which seeks to end civilian suffering caused by indiscriminate and inhumane weapons. He campaigned for strong international law on nuclear weapons, and landmines, and cluster munitions, and the arms trade. He served on the leadership committees of several civil society coalitions and had been co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW).

In less than two weeks, the UN General Assembly will begin negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. This coming September marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Mine Ban Treaty. Next year is the 10th anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Bob contributed to each of these milestones. His absence at the nuclear negotiations and anniversary celebrations will be deeply felt.

While making international law is often a slow process, nothing would ever deter Bob from working to improve the world. One friend wrote after his death, “Wherever we all go from this place, we can be sure that since Bob has preceded us he is already organizing it to be a better place.”

I met Bob more than a decade ago during the Oslo Process, which produced the Convention on Cluster Munitions. I came to know dozens of civil society advocates during those negotiations, but Bob immediately stood out as a campaigner and a personality. Continue Reading…

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January 7, 2016

“Fighting for Disarmament”: Bonnie Docherty’s work featured in Harvard Gazette

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.

A woman sits in front of a table gesturing at various objects.
Bonnie showing examples of inert cluster munitions. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

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?

A yellow object is held by hands.
Bonnie holds an inert submunition fragment from a cluster munition. Credit: Jon Chase, Harvard staff photographer

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?

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September 3, 2014

Cluster Munitions Ban: National Laws Needed

Posted by Cara Solomon

This afternoon, the International Human Rights Clinic released a joint report with Human Rights Watch urging countries to enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions. The report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” was researched and written primarily by Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty, as well as clinical students Amy Tan, Fletcher ’14, and Nick Sansone, JD ’15.

Bonnie presented the report in Costa Rica today at the annual meeting of countries that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. For more information, see below for the press release from Human Rights Watch.


Cluster Munitions Ban: National Laws Needed

Annual Treaty Meeting Opens in Costa Rica

(San Jose, Costa Rica, September 3, 2014)
– Countries around the world should enact strong laws to implement the treaty banning cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today at an international meeting of nations party to the treaty.

The 81-page report, “Staying Strong: Key Components and Positive Precedent for Convention on Cluster Munitions Legislation,” urges countries to pass robust national legislation as soon as possible to carry out the provisions of the treaty. The report describes the elements of a comprehensive law and highlights exemplary provisions in existing laws. The report was jointly published by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic.

“To maximize the global cluster munition treaty’s impact, all countries should adopt national laws that apply its high standards at home,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior researcher in the arms division at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “Prohibitions that can be enforced in domestic courts can help ensure that these deadly weapons don’t harm civilians.”

Report cover shows the remains of a cluster munition buried in the ground.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that disperse dozens or hundreds of submunitions. They cause civilian casualties during attacks, especially in populated areas, because they blanket a broad area with submunitions. In addition, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact and thus linger, like de facto landmines, killing or injuring civilians long after the initial attack.

Representatives from governments, UN agencies, and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) are convening in San Jose, Costa Rica, from September 2 through 5, 2014, for the Fifth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. They will discuss a range of matters relating to the status of the convention, including national legislation.

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions obliges states parties to enact national laws that penalize violations of its absolute prohibition on cluster munitions with imprisonment or fines. The treaty also requires destruction of stocks, clearance of remnants, and victim assistance. As of August 2014, 84 countries were full parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and another 29 countries had signed it.

According to “Cluster Munition Monitor 2014,” an annual report on the status of the treaty, 22 states parties have enacted national legislation dedicated to implementing the convention, while another 19 are in the process of drafting, considering, or adopting national legislation. Twenty-six states parties view other, more general national laws as sufficient to enforce the convention’s provisions.

While no single law represents best practice, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Clinic highlighted provisions of existing implementation statutes that offer support for each essential element of legislation. National legislation should incorporate both the prohibitions and the positive obligations to minimize the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions, the groups said.

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April 22, 2013

After the Bombings, Boston Marathon Remains an Inspiration

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

The Boston Marathon has long held a special place in my heart.  In an earlier life, I covered the event for three years as a reporter for the Middlesex News, now known as the MetroWest Daily News.  My beat at the time encompassed two towns along the route—Hopkinton and Natick.

Beyond combining a challenging assignment and a festive atmosphere, the Marathon provided an annual source of inspiration.  In 1996, I stood at the starting line in Hopkinton for the 100th running of the storied race, when record numbers of athletes set off with enthusiasm and determination.  The next year marked the 25th anniversary of women’s official participation, and I had the honor of interviewing several of those who helped to break the gender barrier.

I dreamed of running the race myself, and although I never have, reporting on it was one of the highlights of my newspaper career.  I think fondly of the Marathon every Patriots Day.

First responders tend to the wounded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
First responders tend to the wounded at the finish line for the Boston Marathon. (Creative Commons-Licensed Flckr Photo by hahatango)

A week ago, uplifting memories from my years as a journalist collided with my current work as a human rights researcher.  Over the past 12 years, I have documented the effects of armed conflict on civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Georgia, Libya, and elsewhere.

The news reports of horrific injuries and lost limbs at the Marathon’s finish line immediately conjured up images of war wounds I have seen.  Eyewitness accounts echoed those I have heard in far-away conflict zones.  And the red sidewalk on Boylston Street brought to mind the bloody ground in Lebanon where a cluster munition dud killed a 12-year-old boy two hours before I arrived.

The weapons that inflicted the injuries in Boston had an unnerving similarity to munitions I have investigated overseas.  The ball bearings packed in the homemade bombs closely resembled those used in rocket attacks in the Middle East.  I show samples of these steel spheres to my classes when explaining how they serve to maximize bodily harm.

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October 23, 2012

Docherty’s Testimony Highlights Flaws in Canadian Bill on Cluster Munitions

Posted by Melinda Kuritzky, JD '13

Hearings continued this week in Canada on a controversial bill that would significantly weaken the international ban on cluster munitions. Senior clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty was among several weapons experts in Ottawa last week to argue that the bill, as written, would undermine the treaty, known as the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and call into question Canada’s credibility on disarmament issues.

In her testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Docherty contended the proposed legislation to implement the treaty falls far short of both the convention’s humanitarian goal and the standards set by other countries.

Two men stand in a grassy and straw-covered field, collecting remains of a 12-year old who was killed by a submunition.
Two men collect the final remains of 12-year-old Rami `Ali Hassan Shebli, who was killed by a submunition in Halta, Lebanon, six years ago this week. Photograph by Bonnie Docherty.

The Convention strives to eliminate cluster munitions and the suffering they cause by imposing an absolute ban on the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons. It also requires countries to clear cluster munitions left after an armed conflict and to provide assistance for victims of past use.

One hundred and eleven countries—including Canada—have joined the convention; 77 are full parties bound by all its obligations.  Before Canada can ratify, it must pass legislation detailing how it will implement the Convention.

Bill S-10 creates broad exceptions to the ban on cluster munitions that apply during joint military operations with allies that have not joined the treaty, notably the United States.  In her testimony, Docherty told senators, “The bill contains major loopholes that would allow Canadians to assist with the use of cluster munitions that could kill civilians.”  The bill even allows Canadian soldiers themselves to use cluster munitions if they are on secondment to the United States.

Docherty, who has done extensive field research on cluster munitions over the past decade, also described the civilian suffering caused by cluster munitions.  She told the senators of one particular civilian victim—12-year-old Rami from Lebanon.  On October 22, 2006, his brother was throwing pine cones at him, and when Rami reached for something to throw back, he accidentally picked up a submunition. Before the boy could toss the weapon away, it exploded, killing him instantly. Docherty and her team from the Clinic arrived at the scene just a few hours later.

“While we have much work ahead in our campaign to amend the bill, the hearing provided us the opportunity to highlight the flaws of the bill to the people who can fix them,” Docherty said about her testimony. “I had a lively exchange with several senators, some of whom seemed quite concerned about the threat cluster munitions—and these loopholes—pose to civilians.”

Docherty’s testimony built off a brief jointly submitted to the Senate Committee by the Clinic and Human Rights Watch. In the brief, Docherty and her team of clinical students—Sean Imfeld, Melinda Kuritzky, and Kenny Pyetranker—make specific recommendations for how Bill S-10 should be amended to conform to the spirit and letter of the disarmament treaty. In particular, the brief urges the Senate to remove any exceptions to the absolute ban on cluster munitions and ensure that Canadian troops and government officials never, even during joint military operations, assist with their use.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions.  They cause civilian casualties during attacks, because they spread over a broad area and cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians in populated areas, and afterwards, because many do not explode on impact.

Melinda Kuritzky, JD ’13, is a member of Docherty’s team and a student in the Clinic’s Advanced Skills Training for Human Rights Advocacy seminar.

December 8, 2011

Reflections on a Major Weapons Victory: Overcoming Powerful Opposition, Ban on Cluster Munitions Strengthened

Posted by Anna Crowe, LLM '12, Nicolette Boehland, JD '13, and Robert Yoskowitz, JD '13

“We are the voices of victims, not just diplomats. . . . If we have to pay a political price, if we can just save one single life, it is worth it.  And I think we are not alone.” 

– Representative of Costa Rica, the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons

At precisely 7:05pm on Friday, November 25, the chair of the Fourth Review Conference for the Convention on Conventional Weapons concluded that there was no consensus in the room on the adoption of a proposed protocol regulating cluster munitions.  This seemingly banal statement marked the end of a decade of deliberations and political machinations, and hundreds of days of diplomatic meetings.  More important, it marked a victory for the supporters of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and its goal of eliminating these weapons and the harm they cause.

Nicolette Boehland leans in over Anna Crowe's shoulder behind two computers. There is a tent card in front of them that reads "Human Rights Watch."
Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, and Anna Crowe, LLM ’12, at the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva.

As the Clinic had argued in a joint paper with Human Rights Watch—and in other documents distributed at the Conference—adding a new treaty to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons would have constituted an unprecedented step backwards for the laws of war.  The proposed weak treaty would have legitimized rather than stigmatized future use of cluster munitions, and we are thrilled that it was rejected.  The outcome was in no way certain.

The Clinic has been working for years first to help create and then to promote the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits not just the use of these weapons, but also their production, stockpiling, and transfer.  Currently, 108 states have signed on to the ban, which took legal effect last year, and 66 are full states parties.

The United States, however, wanted to produce a separate treaty that would have allowed cluster munition use under the Convention on Conventional Weapons framework.  The idea had received support from Russia, China, Israel, India, South Korea, and a range of other states.

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November 23, 2011

Dispatch from Geneva

Posted by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, and Anna Crowe, LLM ’12

Diplomats from more than 100 countries are currently engaged in heated deliberations in Geneva over a proposed protocol, put forward by the United States and others, that would allow the use of certain cluster munitions indefinitely.  The International Human Rights Clinic has joined a group of nongovernmental organizations in arguing against the proposal, which would threaten the impact of an existing international treaty that protects civilians by absolutely banning the weapons.

Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty consults with NGO delegates on a new version of the proposed weak treaty on cluster munitions. Photo by Gemima Harvey/CMC

If adopted, the proposed protocol would directly compete with the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty that seeks to eliminate the devastating effects of cluster munitions on civilians.  More than 108 countries have signed on to that convention, which went into force August 2010, and 66 states are full parties, bound by all its provisions.  The convention prohibits use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions and obliges states to provide assistance to victims of past use.

The United States, which is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, has led the charge for the new protocol over the last week at the Review Conference of the Convention for Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva.  The protocol would be attached to the CCW framework convention, an umbrella treaty with protocols governing specific types of weapons.  Protocol supporters argue that certain major stockpilers and users of cluster munitions who are not currently party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions might join this proposed protocol because it is not a complete ban.

But the Clinic argued in a paper distributed to delegates last week that the new protocol would constitute an unprecedented step backwards in terms of international humanitarian law.  The international community has never adopted a treaty that provides weaker protections for civilians from armed conflict than a treaty already in force.

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September 18, 2011

Demining (and Dancing) in Lebanon

Posted by Nicolette Boehland, JD '13

Several days ago, on a sunny morning in southern Lebanon, my clinical instructor, Bonnie Docherty, and I witnessed the explosion of a submunition left from a cluster munition attack in 2006.  After the blast, which happened so close to us I felt the earth move as a result of its force, I smiled broadly at Bonnie.

Two women stand smiling in a hot desert landscape; they stand over large rusty shells that look like weapons.
Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, and Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty on a field visit to see demining efforts in Lebanon.

Why was I grinning in response to such a ground-shaking jolt and ear-splitting boom? Because this was no accidental submunition explosion; it was a controlled detonation conducted by the Lebanese military as a part of a clearance campaign for the village area of Nabatieh.  The detonation of this dud submunition, which dated to the Lebanon war five years ago, represented one small but necessary step in the effort to eradicate the remnants of war from the area, and to restore the property and livelihoods of the community.

Bonnie and I had traveled to Lebanon to support this effort, serving as representatives of the International Human Rights Clinic, Human Rights Watch, and the Cluster Munition Coalition at the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.  At the meeting, which began last Monday and ended Friday, around 600 representatives of states, international organizations, and civil society convened to promote the implementation and universalization of the Convention, which prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.

A woman crouches to examine rusty metal pieces that look like weapons.
Nicolette examines a cluster munition during the field visit to the village of Nabatieh.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions.  They cause civilian casualties during attacks due to their wide area effect, and for months or years afterwards because many of them do not explode on impact and become de facto landmines.

Lebanon seemed an especially fitting base for the meeting, since, according to the UN Development Program, Israel dropped an estimated 4.2 million submunitions over the country during the conflict in 2006.  These submunitions contaminated approximately 54.9 square kilometers, including residential neighborhoods, homes, schools, hospitals, and farmland.  At this point, the Lebanese military, humanitarian organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, and other members of the international community have worked tirelessly to clear more than two-thirds of the contaminated land.

Bonnie and I participated in the field visit to Nabatieh in advance of the meeting, hoping to see first-hand how various actors in Lebanon, are working together to clear land contaminated by cluster munitions.

Military members wearing camouflage garb carry a stretcher with a body.
In this mock drill, members of the military evacuate a deminer who has been injured.

As the call to prayer echoed through the hills surrounding the village, the military shuttled us first to a mock “CAS-EVAC” drill to show us how they would evacuate a deminer if he or she were injured on the job. Then, after the submunition detonation, they gave us a tutorial on proper equipment and protective clothing for clearance.  Finally, since we were in Lebanon after all, we were treated to cheese and zatar sandwiches, strong Arabic coffee, and an impromptu traditional Arabic dance (“debke”) session, where soldiers, NGO workers, state delegates, cluster munition survivors, and doctors held hands and danced their hearts out.

To me, the unexpected and joyous scene looked like a blessing for a community that once seemed permanently damaged by the effects of cluster munitions— that, too, made me smile.

Military members dance in a circle with photographers visible.
At the end of the field visit, participants gather for an impromptu dance.

Click here for more from Human Rights Watch on last week’s meeting in Beirut.

Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, recently returned from Afghanistan, where she worked this summer with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.  This semester, she is a member of the Clinic and a participant on Bonnie’s cluster munitions team.

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August 18, 2011

Challenge to Australia: Don’t Do the Bidding of the U.S. on Cluster Munitions

Posted by Cara Solomon

In a strongly worded opinion piece today in Australia’s National Times, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty urged the Australian Senate to take the responsible course in its implementation of the international ban on cluster munitions and push back against proposed legislation that would blunt the impact of the ban.  The Senate is scheduled to debate the bill in the coming days.

A US Air Force bomber drops cluster munitions during a training exercise.
A US Air Force bomber drops cluster munitions during a training exercise.

The Australian Senate has a chance to avoid an embarrassing double standard in its approach to international law.  But it needs to decide: does it want to ban cluster munitions or not?  Is it willing to stand by its signed commitment to eliminate these indiscriminate weapons immediately rather than do the bidding of the United States, which wants to put off a ban until at least 2018?

If the Senate passes the Cluster Munition Prohibition Bill without amendment, Australia will be in the unfortunate position of having arguably the world’s weakest national law to carry out the international ban on cluster munitions. The Senate, which is scheduled to debate the bill in coming days or as early as today, should instead seize the opportunity to strengthen the proposed legislation, increasing protection for civilians in armed conflict and remaining true to the international law Australia claims to support . . . .”

Lecturer on Law Bonnie Docherty, also a senior researcher in the arms division of Human Rights Watch, examines a cluster munition in Lebanon
 Bonnie Docherty, who is also a Senior Researcher in the Arms Division of HRW, examines a cluster munition in Lebanon.

The International Human Rights Clinic has worked with Human Rights Watch (HRW) for several years to push for an international ban on cluster munitions; when the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which codifies the ban, took effect last August, the team shifted its focus to urging states to implement it effectively.

In January, Maria van Wagenberg, JD ’11, and Mona Williams, JD ’11, helped Bonnie write a critique of the Australian government’s proposed implementation legislation, which allows for broad exceptions to the Convention’s ban in the event of joint military operations with countries not party to the Convention, such as the United States.  The paper was jointly submitted—by the Clinic and HRW—to the Australian Senate committee reviewing the bill.  In March, Bonnie testified before the committee by telephone, arguing against the country’s proposed legislation.

The committee ultimately forwarded the bill to the Senate without changes.

Learn more about our work on cluster munitions.

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