Blog: Human Rights Watch
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…
October 3, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
For the past few years, we’ve kept an eye on a promising addition to the local film scene: the DocYard, which screens documentaries primarily at the much-beloved Brattle Theater. This autumn, we’re pleased to report the series includes three human rights-focused films, including a showing of “Watchers of the Sky” that we’re co-sponsoring in early November.
But first up, this Monday, Oct. 6., is “E-Team,” which focuses on four members of the Emergencies Team, the “boots on the ground” division of Human Rights Watch. A panel discussion will follow with filmmaker Ross Kauffman and Carroll Bogert, Deputy Executive Director of External Relations at Human Rights Watch, moderated by Robb Moss, filmmaker and professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. The documentary starts at 7 p.m.
Next, on Oct. 20, the series features “Return to Homs,” which follows “the journey of two close friends whose lives had been upended by the battle raging in Syria….When the army cracks down and their beloved city of Homs becomes a bombed-out ghost town, these two peaceful protesters finally take up arms and transform into rebel insurgents.” After the screening, Robb Moss will ask questions of filmmaker Talal Derki via Skype.
Lastly, on Nov. 8, the Human Rights Program is co-sponsoring a showing of the award-winning film, “Watchers of the Sky,” which focuses on the life of Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jew who created the word “genocide.” Following the screening, HLS Dean Martha Minow will participate in a discussion, along with the film’s director, Edet Belzberg, and HLS professors Alex Whiting and Sam Moyn.
September 3, 2014
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.”
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. Continue Reading…
August 20, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
We use all kinds of strategies here at the International Human Rights Clinic to push for change. Litigation. Treaty negotiation. Documentation and reporting.
As Communications Coordinator, I’ve always been partial to advocacy. Media advocacy, to be more precise. This summer, our alumni are putting it to great use in outlets all over the world.
On Monday, The Huffington Post ran a column by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, a Satter fellow with the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documenting the devastating toll the conflict in Gaza is taking on civilians. For the column, Nicolette spoke by phone with Gazans she met last year while researching civilian perspectives on involvement, status, and risk in armed conflict, including in Libya, Bosnia, and Somalia.
In “No Safe Place in Gaza,” she writes:
A young woman described the crippling fear she had experienced over the last four weeks: “The worst of all is the night time,” she said. “There is no power, no electricity, and there are tens of drones in the sky. Whenever you hear a rocket, you think it’s targeting your house. You are running from one room to another. I know this is silly — if your house is hit, it won’t matter which room you were in.”
Each night, her family of six gathered on mattresses that they had pulled together in the middle of the living room, “far away from the windows, so that they don’t break,” she said. This way, if their house was hit, the whole family would be killed together. “We don’t want one of the family to survive and then have to grieve for the rest of us,” she said.
At the end of the column, Nicolette lists several strategies the Israeli government and Hamas could use to limit civilian suffering.
Closer to home, as police in combat gear clashed last week with protesters in Ferguson, MO, Sara Zampierin, JD ’11, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, was quoted in a New Yorker article, “The Economics of Police Militarization.” The article attributed some of the tension in Ferguson to the underlying problem of “criminal justice debt,” which can often pit law enforcement against residents.
Now, across much of America, what starts as a simple speeding ticket can, if you’re too poor to pay, mushroom into an insurmountable debt, padded by probation fees and, if you don’t appear in court, by warrant fees…What happens when people fall behind on their payments? Often, police show up at their doorsteps and take them to jail.
From there, the snowball rolls. “Going to jail has huge impacts on people at the edge of poverty,” Sara Zampierin, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. “They lose their job, they lose custody of their kids, they get behind on their home-foreclosure payments,” the sum total of which, she said, is “devastating.” While in prison, “user fees” often accumulate, so that, even after you leave, you’re not quite free.
And earlier this summer, Clara Long, JD ’12, an immigration and border policy researcher with Human Rights Watch, waded into the heated debate over the surge of migration at the southeastern US border. In an Op-Ed she co-authored for The Guardian, Clara railed against the Obama administration’s plans to open more family detention centers. The headline read: “Obama pledged to limit the practice of detaining minors. What happened?”
It appears that the White House has come to view being “thoughtful and humane” as a political liability. The new move to ramp up family detention comes in response to criticism that the administration’s lax immigration enforcement “created a powerful incentive for children to cross into the United States illegally”, as Senator John Cornyn of Texas put it last week.
Obama’s move is all the more disappointing because effective alternatives to detention exist and are used in countries facing similar migration surges. Countries like Italy and Malta, prime entrances for migrants to the EU, have open reception facilities where migrant and asylum-seeking families can come and go at will – and Malta pledged to end immigration detention of children altogether in 2014. Though neither country has a spotless record – Italy summarily returns to Greece some unaccompanied migrant children and Malta sometimes detains unaccompanied migrant kids while authorities try to figure out their ages – their examples show that detaining kids with families is a choice, not a necessity.
Clara wrote another column for The Guardian on border removals in April.
In response to this flurry of activity, we at HRP have just two things to say: Thank you. And well done.
June 16, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
Last week, the UN Human Rights Council took a fresh look at fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Previous international debate had focused on the weapons’ ability to comply with laws of war; the Council, by contrast, examined the issue through the lens of international human rights law, which applies in times of peace as well as armed conflict. In this June 9 post originally published by JURIST, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty argued that killer robots threaten the most fundamental human rights.
Fully autonomous weapons, which could select and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, have the potential to revolutionize the nature of warfare, bringing greater speed and reach to military operations. In the process, though, this emerging technology could endanger both civilians and soldiers.
Nations have been considering the multiple challenges these weapons would pose to the laws of war, also called international humanitarian law. But little attention has been given to the implications for human rights law. If these weapons were developed and used for policing, for example, they would threaten the most basic of these rights, including the right to life, the right to a remedy and the principle of human dignity.
Fully autonomous weapons, also known as autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots,” do not yet exist, but research and technology in a number of countries are moving rapidly in that direction. Because these machines would have the power to determine when to kill, they raise a host of legal, ethical and scientific concerns. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic are advocating for a pre-emptive prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a global coalition of 52 nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Human Rights Watch, is making the same call.Continue Reading…
June 4, 2014
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Last month, Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty traveled with students to Geneva for the first multilateral meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons devoted to fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” Below is her re-cap of the week’s events, published originally on May 23, 2014 in the online forum Just Security.Continue Reading…
May 12, 2014
Keep ‘Killer Robots’ Out of Policing
Fully Autonomous Weapons Threaten Rights in Peace, War
(Geneva, May 12, 2014) – Fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” would jeopardize basic human rights, whether used in wartime or for law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, on the eve of the first multilateral meeting on the subject at the United Nations.
The 26-page report, “Shaking the Foundations: The Human Rights Implications of Killer Robots,” is the first report to assess in detail the risks posed by these weapons during law enforcement operations, expanding the debate beyond the battlefield. Human Rights Watch found that fully autonomous weapons would threaten rights and principles under international law as fundamental as the right to life, the right to a remedy, and the principle of dignity.
“In policing, as well as war, human judgment is critically important to any decision to use a lethal weapon,” said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments need to say no to fully autonomous weapons for any purpose and to preemptively ban them now, before it is too late.”
International debate over fully autonomous weapons has previously focused on their potential role in armed conflict and questions over whether they would be able to comply with international humanitarian law, also called the laws of war. Human Rights Watch, in the new report, examines the potential impact of fully autonomous weapons under human rights law, which applies during peacetime as well as armed conflict.
Nations should adopt a preemptive international ban on these weapons, which would be able to identify and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, Human Rights Watch said. Countries are pursuing ever-greater autonomy in weapons, and precursors already exist.
The release of the report, co-published with Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, coincides with the first multilateral meeting on the weapons. Many of the 117 countries that have joined the Convention on Conventional Weapons are expected to attend the meeting of experts on lethal autonomous weapons systems at the United Nations in Geneva from May 13 to 16, 2014. The members of the convention agreed at their annual meeting on November 2013 to begin work on the issue in 2014.Continue Reading…
November 13, 2013
Posted by Cara Solomon
Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty is in Geneva today at the annual meeting of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, making the case for a pre-emptive ban on fully autonomous weapons, or “killer robots.” By her side are two students from the International Human Rights Clinic: Lara Berlin, JD ’13, and Ben Bastomski, JD ’15.
The Clinic has been working closely with Human Rights Watch (HRW) for more than a year on the threat of fully autonomous weapons, which would have the ability to identify and fire on human targets without intervention. Today, they released their latest joint paper on the topic and urged international talks to begin. Thanks to Bonnie, Lara, Ben, and Elina Katz, JD ’14, for their work on the paper.
For more information, read the HRW press release below.
UN: Start International Talks on ‘Killer Robots’
Conventional Weapons Meeting Provides Opportunity for Action
(Geneva, November 13, 2013) – Governments should agree this week to begin international discussions in 2014 on fully autonomous robot weapons, with a view to a future treaty banning the weapons, said Human Rights Watch today.
Human Rights Watch, together with the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic, issued a report making the case for a pre-emptive ban to government delegates attending the annual meeting in Geneva of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).
“As technology races ahead, governments need to engage now in intensive discussions on the potential dangers of fully autonomous weapons,” said Mary Wareham, arms division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and coordinator of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. “Deliberations about killer robots need to include nongovernmental groups, and be underpinned by a clear sense of urgency and purpose if they are to result in concrete action.”Continue Reading…
May 29, 2013
Posted by Jonathan Nomamiukor, JD ’13
Last summer, after two years at Harvard Law School, I elected to take a leave of absence to join President Obama’s re-election campaign. My decision had less to do with any affinity for the President and more to do with my disillusionment with law school in general. I had enrolled with aspirations to enter public service, believing that by simply attending classes in the same building as Charles Hamilton Houston, the famed civil rights lawyer, I’d follow in his footsteps.
After a month of lectures about water property lines, chicken sexing, and figuring out whether a tomato was a fruit or a vegetable, I began to question whether law school was really the right choice for me. If my goal was to combat systemic inequities, could an education that focused on how to work within the status quo—rather than challenge it—be the best path? As the saying goes: will the master’s tools ever be good enough to dismantle the master’s house?
In London recently, I had the opportunity to find out. I traveled there with a team from the International Human Rights Clinic, which I joined after returning to HLS in January. For the past few months, we had been working on the controversial topic of fully autonomous weapons, which are essentially drones that can target and kill without any human intervention. These weapons don’t exist yet, but technology is moving rapidly in that direction, and precursors are already in use.
A coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had gathered to launch a campaign to ban these “killer robots,” and I was there with my clinical supervisor, Bonnie Docherty, also a senior arms researcher at Human Rights Watch, to participate in it. At a pre-launch forum for campaigners, Docherty was busy giving a presentation in one room while I slipped into a session on the ethics involved with fully autonomous weapons.Continue Reading…
April 16, 2013
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
Today we released a joint paper with Human Rights Watch advocating for stricter U.S. policy on fully autonomous weapons, sometimes known as “killer robots.” The paper critiques a new U.S. Department of Defense policy on these weapons, which represents a positive step but is not a panacea to the problem.
See below for the press release from Human Rights Watch, and stay tuned for news of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which launches in London next week.
U.S.: Ban Fully Autonomous Weapons
U.S. Policy on Autonomy in Weapons Systems is First in the World
(Washington, DC, April 16, 2013) – Temporary US restrictions on lethal fully autonomous weapons should be strengthened and made permanent. Fully autonomous weapons, sometimes called “killer robots,” would be able to select and attack targets on their own without any human intervention.
In acknowledgement of the challenges such weapons would pose, the US Department of Defense issued a directive on November 21, 2012, that, for now, requires a human being to be “in-the-loop” when decisions are made about using lethal force. This was the department’s first public policy on autonomy in weapons systems and the first policy announcement by any country on fully autonomous weapons.
“This policy shows that the United States shares our concern that fully autonomous weapons could endanger civilians in many ways,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. “Humans should never delegate to machines the power to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield. US policy should lay the basis for a permanent, comprehensive ban on fully autonomous weapons.”
The briefing paper by Human Rights Watch and the Harvard Law School International Human Rights Clinic reviews the content of the new directive and notes that it is a positive step. For up to 10 years, Directive Number 3000.09 generally allows the Department of Defense to develop or use only fully autonomous systems that deliver non-lethal force. In effect, it constitutes the world’s first moratorium on lethal fully autonomous weapons.Continue Reading…