Blog: Kim Phuc

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January 19, 2022

IHRC’s Bonnie Docherty Shares Thoughts on the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons

By Sarah Foote with Bonnie Docherty

Countries party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major international disarmament treaty, convened last month at the United Nations in Geneva for its Sixth Review Conference. They focused much of their attention on two topics: killer robots, which they refer to as lethal autonomous weapons systems, and incendiary weapons. Students from the International Human Rights Clinic, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, have contributed to civil society efforts to push for negotiations of a new treaty on killer robots, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The Clinic and Human Rights Watch have also spearheaded advocacy to initiate a process to revisit and strengthen CCW Protocol III, which governs incendiary weapons. That protocol has loopholes that undermine its ability to protect civilians from the horrors of incendiary weapons, the source of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering. 

In the conversation below, Bonnie Docherty reflects on the Review Conference, its outcomes, and the next steps for these critical humanitarian issues.

Q. You weren’t able to travel to Geneva for the Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons held last December due to COVID. Were you able to watch the talks?

Bonnie Docherty: I watched all of the sessions from 4 am -12 pm for two and a half weeks through the UN Web TV live stream. Delegates from some countries and organizations did attend in person. However, due to COVID and Omicron, many civil societies representatives and diplomats did not attend for safety reasons. I participated actively through text messages, What’s App, emails, and meetings via Zoom with diplomats and colleagues. I used these tools to advocate for our issues and keep up-to-date with the people on the ground.

Although I could not make remote interventions myself, a Human Rights Watch representative read a statement that expressed our position on killer robots and incendiary weapons. A colleague from Mines Action Canada also delivered a statement I wrote on behalf of eight civil society organizations regarding incendiary weapons.

Lode Dewaegheneire of Mines Action Canada.

Q. What were the most important takeaways from the CCW discussions?

Bonnie Docherty: With regard to incendiary weapons, the outcome of the Review Conference on paper was disappointing because Russia refused to agree to put Protocol III on the agenda for next year. CCW operates by consensus so any one state can block progress. It was very discouraging after our all efforts to put forward a reasonable request—to hold dedicated discussions of the topic next year.

That said, there were powerful and encouraging statements from many states who supported having these discussions. There were impassioned pleas to stop the cruelty that incendiary weapons can cause. These countries understood the true human impact these types of weapons have, and this was important progress. They also recognized victims and the harm they have suffered.

Regarding autonomous weapons systems, the Review Conference made clear that progress on this issue cannot be made in a consensus body. Hopefully, the failure of the Conference to agree to negotiate a legally binding instrument will inspire states to go to a different forum and adopt a new treaty to make real change.

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June 8, 2012

“White Phosphorous: The New Napalm?”

Posted by Cara Solomon

On the 40th anniversary of one of the most iconic images to come out of the Vietnam War, Bonnie and Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch have co-authored an important piece in Salon about the lingering threat posed by incendiary weapons.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

“Too hot! Too hot!” wailed 9-year-old Kim Phuc as sticky napalm burned through her clothes and skin. Forty years ago this week, Kim Phuc was photographed running down the road away from her burning village after a South Vietnamese plane dropped incendiary weapons.

The photograph, taken by Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut for Associated Press on June 8, 1972, became emblematic of the terrible impact on civilians of the U.S.-led bombing campaigns over Southeast Asia.

In the decade that followed, the shocking consequences that napalm inflicted on civilians in Vietnam and elsewhere became a major factor motivating adoption of a new international law restricting the use of some incendiary weapons. But that law, Protocol III to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), has failed to live up to its promise.

Today, children continue to endure the devastating impacts of incendiary weapons. It is time for governments to revisit CCW Protocol III and strengthen existing law to minimize that suffering.

Click here for the rest of the article.

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September 30, 2011

Inside the Classroom: Using Literature and History to Introduce Disarmament Law

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

“Gassed,” by John Singer Sargent (1918), a reminder of what motivates advocates for disarmament. Imperial War Museum.

Before my first class this fall, a student approached me to say she had spent the previous evening at the kitchen table reading her assignment and crying. Normally I would feel that I had failed as a teacher if I made a student cry, but this time I was both touched by her reaction and pleased that the initial readings for my course had had an impact.

In my new seminar, “The Promises and Challenges of Disarmament,” students will spend much of the semester poring over the negotiating histories and provisions of international weapons treaties.  They will have ample opportunity to analyze legal sources in depth.  But to start off, I felt it was important for the students to grasp the reasons for and the value of the law governing weapons.

Drawing from my training as an undergraduate history and literature concentrator, I turned to readings that are atypical for a law school class but that had affected me personally and would help the students understand what motivates most modern disarmament advocates, including myself.

Over the course of a decade of war zone field research, I have been moved by the testimonies of survivors of armed conflict.  I wanted the students, too, to see human suffering from an individual perspective.

For the opening reading, I chose a poem, a reminder that literature can have a place in the study of law.  In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” World War I poet and soldier Wilfred Owen describes a comrade who had inhaled poison gas “guttering, choking, drowning. . . . with white eyes writhing in his face.”

To show the impact of a nuclear weapon, I then gave them excerpts from journalist John Hersey’s Hiroshima, which was originally published in 1946 but banned in Japan by US occupying forces. Hersey recounts the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb and the unprecedented horrors they witnessed.

When I pulled out my copy of Hiroshima this summer, I saw I had annotated in college a passage about the skin slipping off a victim’s hands “in huge, glove-like pieces” with the note that it was the most gruesome description I had ever read.  I have since seen first-hand many of the effects of armed conflict—gaping wounds, lost limbs, body parts of a dead child—but I still find Hersey’s image as haunting as I did then.

To highlight the harm from types of munitions used in contemporary armed conflict, I turned to the story behind an iconic image: Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War photograph of a naked girl, Kim Phuc, fleeing a napalm attack.  Passages from a biography of  Phuc illustrate the excruciating and enduring pain caused by incendiary weapons.  These weapons can burn at almost incomprehensible temperatures of up to 1,200° celsius; according to one of Phuc’s doctors, treatment for the wounds they cause is comparable to being “flayed alive.”

Finally, I included Ken Rutherford’s account of losing both his legs to a landmine while he was a humanitarian aid worker in Somalia in 1993.  He describes how, immediately after the explosion, he saw a foot on the floorboard of his Land Cruiser.  Realizing it was his own, he kept trying to reattach it.

Ken Rutherford and Bonnie Docherty smile and pose at the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
Ken and me at the 2008 signing ceremony for the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

My friendship with Ken, whom I met during the campaign to ban cluster munitions, gives his tale special resonance for me.

As a teacher, you never know how students will react to readings, particularly when the course is new.  But during class, students opened up and shared their personal responses.  They wondered aloud how people could design such cruel weapons as napalm, which spreads burning gel across the body as a victim instinctively tries to wipe it off.  One student related to Ken’s experience because she could envision being a field worker someday; another said she could imagine reacting to a nuclear bomb like the witness who ran around Hiroshima in disbelief for hours after the attack.

Students were also able to look beyond the narratives to identify how weapons differ in technology, use, and the harm they cause.  It was gratifying for me as an instructor to see them so engaged.

I know from experience that when one is absorbed in the minutiae of arms treaty work, it is possible to lose sight of the suffering that makes it a humanitarian imperative.  My hope is that our discussion of literature and history will continue to remind students of the individuals whose protection underlies disarmament law.

Course readings:

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