Blog: Treaties

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January 27, 2021

Banning Nuclear Weapons: Milestones and Memories

Posted by Bonnie Docherty

At the stroke of midnight on January 22, 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was transformed from words on paper to binding law. States parties — countries that have have agreed to be bound by the treaty — are now obliged to uphold a ban on nuclear weapons, take measures to ensure the weapons’ elimination, and address the harm caused by past use and testing. Signatory states may not violate its object and purpose.

The TPNW’s entry into force, triggered last October when Honduras became the 50th state to ratify, is a milestone for humanitarian disarmament, a crucial step toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and an uplifting moment in the midst of a devastating pandemic.

This landmark moment also offers an opportunity to look back on negotiations at the United Nations in New York in 2017. The hard work, determination, and collaboration of hundreds of individuals made the TPNW a reality.

My colleague Anna Crowe LLM’12 and I participated in the negotiations with a four-person team from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. The students included Carina Bentata JD’18, Molly Doggett JD’17, Lan Mei JD’17, and Alice Osman LLM’17.

At a reunion celebration last week, our team reflected on the experience and shared memories that will likely resonate with our fellow campaigners. “Witnessing the treaty’s adoption was overwhelming,” Mei said. “It felt like a key moment in my life. Even though it wouldn’t affect me personally, it was monumental.”

During the four weeks of negotiations, we partnered with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which later received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts. We engaged in advocacy and offered legal advice on a range of topics.

While negotiators devoted much of their attention to the TPNW’s prohibitions on future actions, we focused on the treaty’s positive obligations, affirmative requirements to mitigate the harm already inflicted by nuclear weapons. In partnership with campaigners from Article 36, Mines Action Canada, and Pace University, we argued successfully for obligations on victim assistance and environmental remediation. This group became known as ICAN’s “pos obs team,” after the positive obligations for which we were calling.

Eight individuals smile after the treaty passed. They wear badges and formal clothes.
The “positive obligations” advocacy team, including IHRC students and supervisors, moments after adoption of the nuclear weapon ban treaty on July 7, 2017.
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October 20, 2020

Killer Robots: Precedent for a Ban Treaty


Shared Concerns, Desire for Human Control Should Spur Regulation

A symbolic illustration of a man warding off a missile coming from a  person's mind.
(C) 2020 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch.

(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.”

The report was co-published with Human Rights Watch, for which Docherty is senior arms researcher. HRW coordinates the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

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