Blog: Human Rights Watch

May 4, 2021

A Burning Issue: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons

Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch

This post also appears on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.

Incendiary weapons inflict excruciating physical and psychological injuries on civilians in conflict zones, and those who survive endure a lifetime of suffering. While Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) regulates the use of incendiary weapons, loopholes in the protocol have limited its effectiveness.

“The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and Shortcomings of International Law,” a recent online event organized by Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), brought together an incendiary weapon survivor, a military trauma nurse, a burn rehabilitation doctor, and a disarmament lawyer, who collectively highlighted the problems of these cruel weapons. Drawing on their first-hand experiences and professional expertise, the speakers vividly detailed the humanitarian consequences of incendiary weapons and called on states to strengthen international law regulating their use.

Two of the panelists had personally witnessed the horrors of incendiary weapons. “Abu Taim” (pseudonym) was a teacher at a school in Urum al-Kubra, Syria, that was attacked with incendiary weapons in 2013. In pre-recorded video testimony, he recalled exiting the school right after the strike: “I saw bodies, and those bodies were only black. . . . I came closer to their bodies to know, who are those people? Who are those students? I didn’t recognize their faces.”

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December 2, 2020

Incendiary Weapons Through a Humanitarian Disarmament Lens

Posted by Erin Shortell JD'21

On August 26, 2013, 18-year-old Muhammed Assi stood in the courtyard of a Syrian school talking with five classmates. Suddenly, an incendiary bomb landed in the middle of the group of students, immediately killing all but Muhammed.

“The intensity of the explosion threw me a distance of about three to four meters from where the missile struck,” Muhammed said. “We were surrounded by the fire. I used my hands to hit my head to try to snuff out the fire.” Other students screamed in horror, many badly burned and calling out for help, and dead bodies lay in the schoolyard. Muhammed recalled, “Time seems to stop when these things happen to you… [W]ords can’t describe my feelings, but I saw the fire completely surrounding me from everywhere, and when the breeze blew, it fed oxygen into the incendiary substance and made it burn even stronger.”

In a new report entitled, “They Burn Through Everything”: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) detail the human suffering inflicted by incendiary weapons. These weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it has failed to adequately protect civilians like Muhammed. While CCW states parties have expressed concerns about the use of incendiary weapons for years, the report urges them to formalize these discussions at their Review Conference next year and to strengthen Protocol III.

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November 9, 2020

Incendiary Weapons: Human Cost Demands Stronger Law

Clinic, HRW Argue Legal Loopholes Must Close to Prevent Further Civilian Suffering

(Geneva) – The horrific burns and life-long suffering caused by incendiary weapons demand that governments urgently revise existing treaty standards, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic said in a report jointly published today.

The 45-page report, “‘They Burn Through Everything’: The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law,” details the immediate injuries and lasting physical, psychological, and socioeconomic harm of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, used by parties to recent conflicts. Countries should revisit and strengthen the international treaty governing these weapons, which burn people and set civilian structures and property on fire, Human Rights Watch concluded.

“While victims endure the cruel effects of incendiary weapons, countries endlessly debate whether even to hold formal discussions on the weapons,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch and associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the International Human Rights Clinic. “Countries should recognize the long-term suffering of survivors by addressing the shortcomings of existing international law.”

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October 20, 2020

Killer Robots: Precedent for a Ban Treaty


Shared Concerns, Desire for Human Control Should Spur Regulation

A symbolic illustration of a man warding off a missile coming from a  person's mind.
(C) 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch.

(Washington, DC, October 20, 2020) – A treaty to ban fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” is essential and achievable, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released today.

The 25-page report, “New Weapons, Proven Precedent: Elements of and Models for a Treaty on Killer Robots,” outlines key elements for a future treaty to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force and prohibit weapons systems that operate without such control. It should consist of both positive obligations and prohibitions as well as elaborate on the components of “meaningful human control.”

“International law was written for humans, not machines, and needs to be strengthened to retain meaningful human control over the use of force,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection in the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. “A new international treaty is the only effective way to prevent the delegation of life-and-death decisions to machines.”

The report was co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is senior arms researcher. HRW coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

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February 13, 2020

Despite Progress, Work Remains to be Done on Explosive Weapons Political Declaration

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

Efforts to protect civilians from the harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in towns and cities took a step forward this week when more than 70 countries met in Geneva to discuss draft elements of a new political declaration.

According to a new paper co-published by the International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch, the text is a good foundation for further work, but several areas need to be strengthened in order to maximize the protection of civilians.

Explosive weapons, such as airdropped bombs, rockets, and missiles, produce a pattern of immediate and reverberating effects when they are used in populated areas. In addition to killing and injuring civilians at the time of an attack, they can damage critical infrastructure, which in turn interferes with essential services such as health care and education. The problem is exacerbated if the weapons have a wide area effect due to inaccuracy, a large blast or fragmentation radius, or the delivery of multiple munitions at once.

In their new paper, the Clinic and Human Rights Watch call on countries to commit to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. They also recommend that the declaration include strong commitments on assistance for victims, data collection and sharing, and follow-up meetings to review progress.

This week’s gathering, held at the United Nations in Geneva, represented the second round of consultations in an Irish-led process that began last November. Ireland plans to hold negotiations of the declaration at the next meeting on March 23-24 and to invite states to Dublin to endorse the final instrument in late May.

The Clinic has been actively involved in efforts to reduce the suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas since 2011. Through its field research and legal analysis, it has supported the campaign for a new political declaration on the topic.

The recent Clinic-Human Rights Watch analysis of the draft text was produced by Bonnie Docherty, the Clinic’s associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection, and clinical students Jillian Rafferty, JD/MPP ’20, and Parker White, JD/MPP ’20. Docherty and White also participated in the consultations in Geneva.

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November 16, 2018

Clinic, Human Rights Watch Call for Urgent Action on Incendiary Weapons


(Geneva, November 14, 2018) – Countries at an upcoming United Nations disarmament conference, faced with evidence of 30 new incendiary weapons attacks in Syria, should agree to strengthen the international law that governs their use, the International Human Rights Clinic said in a report released this week.

The 13-page report, “Myths and Realities About Incendiary Weapons,” counters common misconceptions that have slowed international progress in this area. Incendiary weapons produce heat and fire through the chemical reaction of a flammable substance. While often designed for marking and signaling or producing smokescreens, incendiary weapons can burn human flesh to the bone, leave extensive scarring, and cause respiratory damage and psychological trauma. They also start fires that destroy civilian objects and infrastructure.

“The excruciating burns and lifelong disabilities inflicted by incendiary weapons demand a global response,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of conflict and civilian protection at the Clinic. “Simple changes in international law could help save civilian lives during wartime.”

The report details the exceptionally cruel harm caused by incendiary weapons, explains the shortcomings of existing law, and lays out steps countries should take in response. The report, designed as an accessible overview of the incendiary weapons issue, was jointly published with Human Rights Watch.

Countries that are party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) are scheduled to address incendiary weapons at the UN in Geneva from November 19 to 23. Protocol III to this treaty imposes some restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, but it does not provide sufficient protections for civilians.
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September 26, 2018

Human Rights Watch Releases Brief on Houthi Hostage-Taking in Yemen

International Human Rights Clinic Students Contribute Research

Illustration Credit: Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch released a brief on Tuesday documenting illegal imprisonment and serious abuses by Yemen’s Houthi rebel forces against detainees in their custody.  The brief uses investigative and legal research conducted by students of the International Human Rights Clinic on Houthi practices of hostage-taking and torture, and documents dozens of cases in which Houthis held people unlawfully and profited from their detention since 2014.  It also calls on the United Nations Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen to investigate and identify those responsible for abuses.

“The Houthis have added profiteering to their long list of abuses and offenses against the people under their control in Yemen,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Rather than treat detainees humanely, some Houthi officials are exploiting their power to turn a profit through detention, torture, and murder.”

International Human Rights Clinic students who contributed to this research include Zeineb Bouraoui, LLM ’18, Danesha Grady (Berkeley) ’JD 18, Tarek Zeidan, HKS MPA ’18, and Canem Ozyildirim, JD ’18.

Read the full brief here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/09/25/yemen-houthi-hostage-taking.

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June 20, 2016

Losing Control: The Dangers of Killer Robots

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.

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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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April 9, 2015

Clinic and HRW Release Report: “Mind the Gap: The Lack of Accountability for Killer Robots”


PRESS RELEASE


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.

Report cover shows a robot overtaking an office buildin.

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.”

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