December 08, 2008
The following story appeared in the Dec. 5, 2008 issue of The Harvard Crimson
Humanitarian activists from around the world celebrated in Oslo, Norway, last night after the signing of a treaty banning cluster munitions, arguably one of the most important weapons accords in recent memory. Ninety-four countries signed the treaty this week and four have already ratified it.
Among those “exhilarated” activists was Bonnie L. Docherty, a lecturer at Harvard Law School and instructor at the Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic. (See profile of Docherty that appeared in the Fall 2002 Harvard Law Bulletin)
Docherty has been fighting cluster munitions since 2001, when she was hired by Human Rights Watch after graduating from the Law School. Her first assignment after the Sept. 11 attacks was to research the impact of cluster bombs on the war in Afghanistan. She said that it was this work in the field that gave her a true impression of how dangerous the weapons can be.
“People are maimed and injured, there’s a lot of debris,” Docherty said, describing an Afghani site she visited. “You just see over and over again these yellow, soda can-sized munitions as far as the eye can see.”
Cluster bombs explode in midair, releasing many smaller, grenade-like “submunitions,” which can blanket an area the size of a football field. Critics say this indiscriminate method of deployment and the potential for unexploded submunitions to remain in an area long after the end of a conflict, as land mines do, contribute to their danger.
After years of talk, the movement to write a treaty banning cluster bombs began in earnest in January 2007, when several countries got fed up with the usual diplomatic process, Docherty said in an interview from Oslo.
“This is an example of very, very active cooperation with civil society,” she said.
Traditional diplomatic organization like the United Nations have played no role in recent efforts, according to Docherty. Instead, a group known as the Cluster Munitions Coalition, which has over 300 members—including Human Rights Watch—from 80 countries, has been influential in creating the treaty.
Though the U.S. military declared its intention to phase out its use of these weapons this June, the United States refused to sign the treaty. While Docherty said she was disappointed, she said she believed the pressure of international opinion will discourage the U.S. from using the bombs in the future.
Students at the Law School have also been involved in Docherty’s advocacy, joining her on fact-finding trips to Lebanon and at a first round of treaty talks in Dublin this year.
Chris L. Rogers, a student at the Law School who is with Docherty in Oslo, said his experience thus far had taught him important lessons about international humanitarian law.
“I haven’t been involved for an incredibly long time, but I think it’s a reinforcement of the fact that society matters,” he said. “We don’t have to wait for the UN.”
- William N. White