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May 12, 2015
Posted by Bonnie Docherty
The laws governing armed conflict may seem simple on the surface. Soldiers can be targeted; civilians cannot. But the line between these groups is blurry and can have life-and-death implications.
Under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war, civilians can be intentionally killed if they “directly participate in hostilities.” But what does direct participation mean? What if a civilian feeds combatants, drives members of an armed group, provides equipment or intelligence, or takes up arms to protect family members? Does it matter if involvement was voluntary or forced? Do such actions mean the civilian can be lawfully targeted?
A new 84-page report, to which the International Human Rights Clinic contributed a case study, takes a fresh look at this contentious issue. The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict, released Tuesday by the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), documents the experiences of people in four former or current conflict zones: Bosnia, Libya, Gaza, and Somalia. It does not seek to come up with a conclusive definition of direct participation in hostilities. Instead, it aims to inform the debate among military commanders, lawyers, academics, and other experts by adding the voices of those who have lived through war.
The report finds that civilians become involved in conflict in a number of ways, ranging from fighting to providing logistical support to membership in civil defense forces or political parties. While sometimes voluntary, their involvement is often motivated by threats from armed groups or the need to survive. The people CIVIC interviewed had varied understandings of who is a civilian and who is a combatant and found it difficult to delineate the difference. They agreed, however, that the legal status that derives from involvement can not only determine whether civilians are targeted but also affect their lives long after a conflict ends.
In 2013, I led a four-person team, including Lara Berlin, JD ’14, Luca Urech, Fletcher ’13, and Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, on a field mission to Bosnia, where we documented people’s experiences during the war. Later, as a post-graduate fellow at CIVIC, Boehland conducted investigations in three other conflict zones and served as lead author of the final report.
Testimony from those who lived through the Bosnia war of 1992-1995 highlighted the challenge of classifying involvement in a conflict. Some Bosnians told the Clinic’s research team that everyone during the armed conflict was a soldier, while others contended they were all civilians. A 40-year-old gardener from Srebrenica said, “The line between soldiers and civilians in war is invisible. . . . There is almost no line, no distinction.”
Residents of Sarajevo, for example, frequently fought on the front lines on certain days, but took off their uniforms and returned to their families on others. A woman who had lived through the city’s siege captured the confusion about the nature of these people’s involvement: “Many killed [during the conflict] were actually civilians, but I don’t know how to distinguish them. If my uncle is on duty, he’s one thing, but when he’s in line for bread, what is he?”
The stories of Bosnians and others in this report illustrate the modes, motivations, and complexities of people’s involvement in armed conflict. Experts and policymakers would do well to heed these realities as they continue their deliberations about the meaning of direct participation in hostilities.
NOTE: Boehland last week also released a report for Amnesty International, for which she now works, entitled “Death Everywhere”: War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses in Aleppo, Syria. The report documents that Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups have bombarded homes and civilian areas, detained and tortured residents, and created appalling living conditions. Boehland’s recent publications on civilian protection exemplify the work the Clinic hopes its graduates will take on and represents the best of human rights advocacy.
July 16, 2014
Here’s some good news for recent grads committed to doing human rights work: we’re re-opening the application process for our Satter Fellowship!
The Satter Human Rights Fellowship is designed to support and promote human rights defense in response to mass atrocity or widespread and severe patterns of rights abuse.
Past fellows have worked with Amnesty International, building the evidence base and capacity for crimes against humanity and war crimes in West Africa; with Public International Law & Policy Group in Libya providing legal advice on issues related to constitution making, transitional justice and accountability, and access to justice; and with Fortify Rights International in Thailand on monitoring, advocacy, and training to protect and promote human rights in several different regions in Myanmar.
To apply for the Satter, you must have graduated from Harvard Law School within the last three years. Applications will be accepted until the fellowship is filled.
August 2, 2012
Report finds Qaddafi’s weapons pose threat to civilians
Abandoned arms stockpiles must be immediately secured or destroyed
(For a copy of this press release in Arabic, click here)
August 2, 2012, Tripoli, Libya—Abandoned weapons that were once part of Muammar Qaddafi’s vast arsenal threaten civilian lives in Libya, according to a report released today by Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), in partnership with CIVIC and the Center for American Progress.
Explosive Situation: Qaddafi’s Abandoned Weapons and the Threat to Libya’s Civilians documents the risks posed to civilians from the extensive stockpiling and spread of the former dictator’s munitions following the 2011 armed conflict. Based on in-country investigations, the report calls on Libya to immediately secure or destroy unstable stockpiles of weapons, and with international support, set out to clear munitions, educate the population about risks, and assist victims.
“These weapons may have been abandoned, but their ability to harm civilians remains intact,” said Bonnie Docherty, senior clinical instructor at IHRC and leader of the research team. “We’ve seen firsthand the risks they pose to ordinary Libyans and how they urgently need to be secured or destroyed before they can harm another civilian.”
While previous reporting has focused on the problems of international proliferation, Explosive Situation examines how abandoned weapons endanger civilians within Libya. Qaddafi left an arsenal of tens of thousands of tons of weapons, ranging from bullets and mortars to torpedoes and surface-to-air missiles. The report focuses on four major challenges for the transitional government of Libya: stockpile management, clearance of munitions, risk education, and victim assistance.
International deminers told the team that the scale of the problem overshadows what they have seen in other conflict and post-conflict zones.
“Arms are spilling out of hundreds of inadequately secured bunkers,” said Nicolette Boehland, a fellow with CIVIC who previously researched the use of weapons in Libya with the Clinic. “Other weapons have spread across the country to militia stockpiles in urban centers, museums, fields, and even homes.”
The report identified several specific areas of risk, including:
- Civilians displaying weapons as mementos of war or harvesting explosive materials for marketable parts;
- Children playing with weapons;
- Clearance of munitions by untrained community members; and
- Mismanagement of potentially unstable stockpiles by Libyan militias in populated areas.
The report finds the weak and transitional Libyan government has taken a limited, at times non-existent, role in the management and clearance of abandoned ordnance; there is no national strategy and confusion within the government about which agency has jurisdiction over the problem. In addition, the transitional government has provided virtually no support to UN and non-profit organizations that have done most of the work on the issue. According to legal principles and international standards, however, Libya bears primary responsibility for addressing the abandoned ordnance problem and should put in place a national plan to reduce the threat to civilians.
“The recent election of a new government provides Libya an opportunity for a fresh start,” said Docherty. “The ordnance problem is not an easy one to fix, but with assistance from other countries, the new government can respond to the abandoned weapons situation and better protect its people.”
May 17, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
Note: This story was originally published on the Harvard Law School homepage, where there is also a slideshow of the team’s trip.
There she stood, in northern Libya, a spread of explosive weapons before her: mortars and rockets and surface-to-air missiles almost 20 feet long. For all her work in post-conflict zones, senior clinical instructor Bonnie Docherty ’01 had never seen anything like it. The weapons stretched on for miles.
It was March, five months after the revolution had ended, and Docherty was supervising a team from the International Human Rights Clinic on a trip to assess the humanitarian risks of abandoned weapons. As the team traveled from city to city, the scale of the problem was startling.
“We saw huge quantities of weapons—particularly in bombed-out bunkers—many of which were inadequately secured,” said Docherty, a lecturer on law, as well as a senior researcher with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “In our view, these weapons represent a real threat to the safety and stability of Libyans.”
Over the course of eight days, the team traveled to Misrata, the focus of Col. Gaddafi’s bombing campaign; Sirte, where rebels finally defeated the dictator; and Zintan, where NATO bombing had destroyed a complex of more than 70 bunkers full of weapons. Their research will feed into a larger body of work on Libya by the nongovernmental organization CIVIC and the Center for American Progress.
The students prepared for weeks for the trip, researching the scattering of Gaddafi’s abandoned stockpiles, the efforts underway to deal with the weapons, and the relevant legal frameworks. Still, being there, post-revolution, was something else entirely.
“It felt momentous,” said Nicolette Boehland ’13, who is returning to Libya this summer with CIVIC, which promotes assistance for civilians victims of armed conflict. “It definitely felt like a place that was changing by the day.”
In their conversations with locals, the students said they sensed tremendous pride and enthusiasm for what had been accomplished in the revolution; the energy was palpable in the streets. But from the team’s perspective, there were also serious risks for civilians.
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