Blog: Nicolette Boehland
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January 4, 2021
Trusted to listen: Nicolette Waldman ’13 dedicates her career to documenting human rights violations
Posted by Dana Walters
After her first interview in Afghanistan, Nicolette Waldman ’13 realized she had found the career she was meant to pursue. It was the summer after her first year at Harvard Law School, and Waldman had a fellowship with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to research torture of conflict-related detainees. The man she was meeting had escaped from an Afghan prison. He had never been interviewed before, and she could tell he was nervous. A newly minted law student, she was nervous too.
“As the questions went on, he realized that he could lead and all I wanted to do was listen,” she said. “I had thought that interviewing was going to be more adversarial. But this was a shared process where we were both trying to get at what had happened to him. I felt like my role was to be a partner.”
Since graduating from HLS less than a decade ago, Waldman has, by now, interviewed hundreds of people. Some have survived the horrific abuses. Others have committed such abuses themselves. From death camps in Syria to conflicts in Gaza and Somalia, she has documented some of the worst moments of the last few decades. Still, she vividly recalls that first interview in Afghanistan, and how it set a course for her future trajectory.
“There’s something instinctual about knowing when your rights have been violated. It’s incredibly meaningful to sit across from someone and bear witness to their story and to have that individual trust you to tell that story to the world,” she said. “Human rights interviewing is a very niche type of documentation, but I think if it’s done right it can make survivors feel like they’re not alone,” she added.
Waldman (née Boehland) grew up in rural, northern Minnesota and studied English Literature and International Affairs at Lewis & Clark College. After college, she worked for Human Rights Watch and Save the Children. She realized that law school might give her the right tools to make the impact she sought, although it would be deeply difficult to take a step back from the world in which she had already immersed herself. The HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) helped bridge that gap, allowing Waldman to work in the field, in post-conflict zones and under close supervision, as part of her legal education.Continue Reading…
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.
August 20, 2014
Posted by Cara Solomon
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.
August 2, 2012
Report finds Qaddafi’s weapons pose threat to civilians
Abandoned arms stockpiles must be immediately secured or destroyed
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.”Continue Reading…
May 17, 2012
Posted by Cara Solomon
Note: This story was originally published on the Harvard Law School homepage.
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.Continue Reading…
December 8, 2011
Reflections on a Major Weapons Victory: Overcoming Powerful Opposition, Ban on Cluster Munitions Strengthened
Posted by Anna Crowe, LLM '12, Nicolette Boehland, JD '13, and Robert Yoskowitz, JD '13
“We are the voices of victims, not just diplomats. . . . If we have to pay a political price, if we can just save one single life, it is worth it. And I think we are not alone.”– Representative of Costa Rica, the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons
At precisely 7:05pm on Friday, November 25, the chair of the Fourth Review Conference for the Convention on Conventional Weapons concluded that there was no consensus in the room on the adoption of a proposed protocol regulating cluster munitions. This seemingly banal statement marked the end of a decade of deliberations and political machinations, and hundreds of days of diplomatic meetings. More important, it marked a victory for the supporters of the Convention on Cluster Munitions and its goal of eliminating these weapons and the harm they cause.
As the Clinic had argued in a joint paper with Human Rights Watch—and in other documents distributed at the Conference—adding a new treaty to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons would have constituted an unprecedented step backwards for the laws of war. The proposed weak treaty would have legitimized rather than stigmatized future use of cluster munitions, and we are thrilled that it was rejected. The outcome was in no way certain.
The Clinic has been working for years first to help create and then to promote the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits not just the use of these weapons, but also their production, stockpiling, and transfer. Currently, 108 states have signed on to the ban, which took legal effect last year, and 66 are full states parties.
The United States, however, wanted to produce a separate treaty that would have allowed cluster munition use under the Convention on Conventional Weapons framework. The idea had received support from Russia, China, Israel, India, South Korea, and a range of other states.Continue Reading…
November 23, 2011
Posted by Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, and Anna Crowe, LLM ’12
Diplomats from more than 100 countries are currently engaged in heated deliberations in Geneva over a proposed protocol, put forward by the United States and others, that would allow the use of certain cluster munitions indefinitely. The International Human Rights Clinic has joined a group of nongovernmental organizations in arguing against the proposal, which would threaten the impact of an existing international treaty that protects civilians by absolutely banning the weapons.
If adopted, the proposed protocol would directly compete with the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty that seeks to eliminate the devastating effects of cluster munitions on civilians. More than 108 countries have signed on to that convention, which went into force August 2010, and 66 states are full parties, bound by all its provisions. The convention prohibits use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions and obliges states to provide assistance to victims of past use.
The United States, which is not a party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, has led the charge for the new protocol over the last week at the Review Conference of the Convention for Conventional Weapons (CCW) in Geneva. The protocol would be attached to the CCW framework convention, an umbrella treaty with protocols governing specific types of weapons. Protocol supporters argue that certain major stockpilers and users of cluster munitions who are not currently party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions might join this proposed protocol because it is not a complete ban.
But the Clinic argued in a paper distributed to delegates last week that the new protocol would constitute an unprecedented step backwards in terms of international humanitarian law. The international community has never adopted a treaty that provides weaker protections for civilians from armed conflict than a treaty already in force.Continue Reading…
September 18, 2011
Posted by Nicolette Boehland, JD '13
Several days ago, on a sunny morning in southern Lebanon, my clinical instructor, Bonnie Docherty, and I witnessed the explosion of a submunition left from a cluster munition attack in 2006. After the blast, which happened so close to us I felt the earth move as a result of its force, I smiled broadly at Bonnie.
Why was I grinning in response to such a ground-shaking jolt and ear-splitting boom? Because this was no accidental submunition explosion; it was a controlled detonation conducted by the Lebanese military as a part of a clearance campaign for the village area of Nabatieh. The detonation of this dud submunition, which dated to the Lebanon war five years ago, represented one small but necessary step in the effort to eradicate the remnants of war from the area, and to restore the property and livelihoods of the community.
Bonnie and I had traveled to Lebanon to support this effort, serving as representatives of the International Human Rights Clinic, Human Rights Watch, and the Cluster Munition Coalition at the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. At the meeting, which began last Monday and ended Friday, around 600 representatives of states, international organizations, and civil society convened to promote the implementation and universalization of the Convention, which prohibits all use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. They cause civilian casualties during attacks due to their wide area effect, and for months or years afterwards because many of them do not explode on impact and become de facto landmines.
Lebanon seemed an especially fitting base for the meeting, since, according to the UN Development Program, Israel dropped an estimated 4.2 million submunitions over the country during the conflict in 2006. These submunitions contaminated approximately 54.9 square kilometers, including residential neighborhoods, homes, schools, hospitals, and farmland. At this point, the Lebanese military, humanitarian organizations like the Mines Advisory Group, and other members of the international community have worked tirelessly to clear more than two-thirds of the contaminated land.
Bonnie and I participated in the field visit to Nabatieh in advance of the meeting, hoping to see first-hand how various actors in Lebanon, are working together to clear land contaminated by cluster munitions.
As the call to prayer echoed through the hills surrounding the village, the military shuttled us first to a mock “CAS-EVAC” drill to show us how they would evacuate a deminer if he or she were injured on the job. Then, after the submunition detonation, they gave us a tutorial on proper equipment and protective clothing for clearance. Finally, since we were in Lebanon after all, we were treated to cheese and zatar sandwiches, strong Arabic coffee, and an impromptu traditional Arabic dance (“debke”) session, where soldiers, NGO workers, state delegates, cluster munition survivors, and doctors held hands and danced their hearts out.
To me, the unexpected and joyous scene looked like a blessing for a community that once seemed permanently damaged by the effects of cluster munitions— that, too, made me smile.
Click here for more from Human Rights Watch on last week’s meeting in Beirut.
Nicolette Boehland, JD ’13, recently returned from Afghanistan, where she worked this summer with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. This semester, she is a member of the Clinic and a participant on Bonnie’s cluster munitions team.
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