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.
Residents had taken to scavenging the remnants of war, to sell, harvest for scrap metal or explosives, or put on commemorative display. The team heard stories of children playing with ammunition in their classrooms, even after so-called “risk educators” warned them of the dangers.
“One of the more shocking things we heard from the risk educators is how desensitized children in Libya have become towards death,” said Rebecca Richards MA ’13, of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “That attitude makes their job particularly complex and arduous.”
For many residents, though, the problem seemed to be a simple lack of awareness. When Anna Crowe LL.M. ’12, approached a man ripping scrap metal off tanks, he explained through a translator that NATO had bombed the area, which meant it was safe. Also, the man said, weapons would not be in city centers, close to so many people, if they had the potential to explode.
In fact, a man and his two sons were killed in an explosion this spring while scavenging for scrap in Zintan, according to a demining group. And a few weeks before the team arrived, a cache stored behind a police station in a neighborhood of Daphnia exploded, scattering ammunition and weapons as far as 2 kilometers away.
As the team continued its research, it became clear to them that for all of the efforts to safely destroy these weapons, there remained a real threat. In Misrata, a city of 280,000 people, a member of the local military council told the team: “There are more weapons here than people.”
Dozens of militias remain in the city, each of them with as few as four and as many as 40 shipping containers full of weapons, said the military council member. Demining groups are working hard to educate the militias on how to properly store the weapons, but the task, by any measure, is huge.
During their time in Libya, the team interviewed more than two dozen deminers, military officials, and residents, both local and international. Part of the excitement, the students said, was working in the field with “a pro.” Docherty, who is internationally known for her work on cluster munitions, has been doing fieldwork for years, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Lebanon.
As is standard practice in the International Human Rights Clinic, Docherty conducted the early rounds of interviews, then let the students take on that responsibility when they were ready.
“Just seeing her drawing out the information in a patient but deliberate way really helped us to gain those skills ourselves,” said Crowe.
Beyond the work, there was also the thrill of taking in the post-revolution scene: boys setting up a foosball table in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, just because they could. The clinical team had come to the country after weeks of waiting and wondering what the reception might be. But Crowe said they heard the same words everywhere.
“The main reaction we got was: Welcome. We’re so glad you’re here.”