Blog: Human Rights Watch
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February 9, 2022
By Bonnie Docherty, Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch
From the Humanitarian Disarmament website
While the year 2021 ended on an intense and draining note, with the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), 2022 has begun slowly for humanitarian disarmament. The COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to affect progress in the field, has postponed planned negotiations and milestone meetings.
Nevertheless, barring further pandemic-related interference, the new year promises to advance several key humanitarian disarmament issues. It should produce a new political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, see states parties convene for their first meeting under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and mark a turning point in efforts to address the threats posed by autonomous weapons systems.
Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
A new international instrument is on the horizon for dealing with the use in populated areas of explosive weapons, such as mortars, artillery shells, rockets, and air-dropped bombs. This method of war causes extensive civilian harm both at the time of attack and long after. That harm is exacerbated when the explosive weapons have wide area effects because they are inaccurate, have a large blast or fragmentation radius, or deliver multiple munitions at once.
Ireland initiated a process in 2019 to develop a political declaration to protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Draft versions of the declaration recognized the harm this practice inflicts and included commitments for restricting the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects, providing victim assistance, and collecting data.
While the latest draft should be strengthened, the negotiations for the final version have been at the mercy of COVID-19. The consultations to conclude the document, originally scheduled for late March 2020, were the first major disarmament meeting to fall victim to the global pandemic. After at last being able to reschedule the consultations for February 2022, Ireland was compelled to postpone them once again when the Omicron variant meant that the relevant state and civil society representatives would be unable to attend an in-person meeting in Geneva.
Although a new date has not yet been set, Ireland reportedly aims to hold the negotiations in the first half of 2022. If it succeeds, humanitarian disarmament will have another instrument in its toolbox—a political commitment that addresses one of the most significant humanitarian concerns of contemporary armed conflict.
In addition to celebrating the “Banniversary” of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the first anniversary of its entry into force, on January 22, states and civil society have been busy preparing for the treaty’s First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP). The meeting was previously moved from January to March 2022, and Austria, president of the meeting, recently announced it will need to be rescheduled again, most likely until mid-year.
Whenever it takes place, the 1MSP will be a crucial moment in the life of the TPNW. It provides states parties the opportunity to set priorities for the years ahead and to begin the process of turning the treaty’s obligations into actions.
Discussions around the TPNW’s “positive obligations” for victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation and assistance will be particularly important for advancing the humanitarian disarmament agenda. These obligations ensure that the treaty provides a comprehensive response to the consequences of nuclear weapons, i.e., addressing the harm from past use and testing as well as preventing future harm. The 1MSP’s declaration and action plan should commit states parties to establishing an implementation framework, approving an intersessional workplan, developing reporting guidelines, and including affected communities at all stages.
A working paper from Kazakhstan and Kiribati, which Austria appointed co-facilitators of the 1MSP’s work on the positive obligations, recommended addressing these and other measures in the 1MSP’s outcome documents. Many states parties and civil society organizations expressed their support in written submissions, and consultations are ongoing.
Other important areas that the 1MSP will deal with include universalization and deadlines and verification procedures for dismantling nuclear arsenals.
For killer robots, the significance of 2022 is the opportunity it presents for supporters of a new treaty to change direction.
Weapons systems that select and engage targets based on sensor processing rather than human inputs raise a host of moral, legal, accountability, and security concerns. As a result, the majority of states at the CCW’s Sixth Review Conference called for negotiations to create a new legally binding instrument on the topic. Most called for a combination of prohibitions on weapons that lack meaningful human control, prohibitions on autonomous weapons systems that target people, and restrictions on all other autonomous weapons systems to ensure that they are never used without meaningful human control.
The failure of the conference to adopt a negotiation mandate underscored the shortcomings of that forum and the inability of this consensus body to make real progress on a matter of grave and urgent humanitarian concern. After eight years, CCW discussions on lethal autonomous weapons systems have more than run their course.
It is time, therefore, for states that support a legally binding instrument on these emerging weapons to pursue negotiations in an alternative forum. They can look for models to the origins of other humanitarian disarmament treaties, notably the independent processes that led to the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the UN General Assembly process that led to the TPNW.
Many states said that they could not consider alternative forums until after the Review Conference, but that moment has passed and the CCW has failed to produce results. This year presents a clean slate. It is time for all supporters of a treaty to shift their sights and for champion states to step up and take the lead on a new process.
While the pandemic is likely to play a role in the timing of progress this year, humanitarian disarmament—not a global disease—should determine 2022’s developments.
Participants in the negotiations of the explosive weapons political declaration should ensure the final draft maximizes civilian protection. States, international organizations, civil society groups, and survivors should work together to produce strong 1MSP outcome documents that help the treaty live up to its humanitarian potential in practice. Finally, proponents of a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems should start fresh and focus on what process can best lead them to the strongest humanitarian outcome.
December 1, 2021
Legal Uncertainty, Growing Concerns Show Urgent Need for Regulation
Governments should agree to open negotiations on a new treaty to retain meaningful human control over the use of force, Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School said in a report released today. Countries will be meeting at the United Nations in Geneva in December 2021 to decide whether to begin negotiations to adopt new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems, also known as “killer robots.”
The 23-page report, “Crunch Time on Killer Robots: Why New Law Is Needed and How It Can Be Achieved,” by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, finds that international law should be strengthened and clarified to protect humanity from the dangers posed by weapons systems that select and engage targets without meaningful human control.
“After eight years discussing the far-reaching consequences of removing human control from the use of force, countries now need to decide how to respond to those threats,” said Bonnie Docherty, associate director of armed conflict and civilian protection at the Harvard International Human Rights Clinic and senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There’s an urgent need for a dedicated treaty to address the shortcomings of international humanitarian law and update it to deal with the legal, ethical, and societal challenges of today’s artificial intelligence and emerging technologies.”
The Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), scheduled to be held from December 13-17, is a major juncture for international talks on killer robots. At the last CCW meeting on killer robots in September, most countries that spoke called for a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems. Chile, Mexico, and Brazil urged treaty members to agree to initiate negotiations of new international law. Other proponents included the ‘Group of Ten’ states (Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Palestine, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Sierra Leone, and Uruguay) and states of the Non-Aligned Movement.
There are various possible forums for negotiating a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems. Other than the CCW, options include a stand-alone process, as was used for the treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions, and the United Nations General Assembly, where the nuclear weapons ban treaty was negotiated.
Existing international humanitarian law is not adequate to address the problems posed by autonomous weapons systems, Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Clinic said. There is widespread support for developing new law and any divergence of views reinforces the need to clarify existing law. A new treaty would address the concerns raised by these weapons systems under international humanitarian law, ethics, international human rights law, accountability, and security.
Such a treaty should cover weapons systems that select and engage targets on the basis of sensor, rather than human, inputs. Most treaty proponents have called for a prohibition on weapons systems that by their nature select and engage targets without meaningful human control, such as complex systems using machine-learning algorithms that produce unpredictable or inexplicable effects.Continue Reading…
November 29, 2021
Posted by By Cindy Wu, JD’22
This month, world leaders and business executives convened in Glasgow for COP26, the 26th United Nations climate conference. Outside the conference rooms, a different kind of convening took place, as hundreds of thousands of activists gathered in Glasgow and globally to demand more immediate and drastic action on climate change. Amongst these protesters was Greta Thunberg, who repeatedly referred to COP26 as a “greenwashing” event.
This refrain resounded among activists. But what is greenwashing? And how can those with a genuine interest in saving the planet avoid the trap of greenwashing? I offer two simple but loaded words as the answer: human rights.
What is greenwashing and why has COP26 been criticized as greenwashing?
The term greenwashing was coined by Jay Westerveld in the 1980s in reference to the practice of companies holding out their “green” activities to the consuming public while obscuring the degradation caused by their other activities. Think Nestlé Waters proudly announcing a plastic water bottle made from “100% sustainable and renewable resources,” while simultaneously depleting aquifers and other public water sources, including on Indigenous land.
Activists are also now using the label to criticize what they view as empty promises made by world leaders at COP26. Among those promises are a pledge from 40 countries to phase out coal, an agreement from 105 countries to reverse deforestation, and a commitment from a coalition of banks to have net-zero investments by 2050. Although these pledges have the appearance of curbing emissions, many observers view them as toothless, empty promises, especially given the fact that some communities are already knee-deep in the effects of the climate crisis.Continue Reading…
May 4, 2021
Posted by Jacqulyn Kantack, Human Rights Watch
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.”Continue Reading…
December 2, 2020
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.Continue Reading…
November 9, 2020
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.”Continue Reading…
October 20, 2020
Shared Concerns, Desire for Human Control Should Spur Regulation
(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.”Continue Reading…
February 13, 2020
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.
November 16, 2018
(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.
September 26, 2018
International Human Rights Clinic Students Contribute Research
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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