By Sarah Foote with Bonnie Docherty

Countries party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), a major international disarmament treaty, convened last month at the United Nations in Geneva for its Sixth Review Conference. They focused much of their attention on two topics: killer robots, which they refer to as lethal autonomous weapons systems, and incendiary weapons. Students from the International Human Rights Clinic, under the supervision of Bonnie Docherty, have contributed to civil society efforts to push for negotiations of a new treaty on killer robots, which would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. The Clinic and Human Rights Watch have also spearheaded advocacy to initiate a process to revisit and strengthen CCW Protocol III, which governs incendiary weapons. That protocol has loopholes that undermine its ability to protect civilians from the horrors of incendiary weapons, the source of excruciating burns and lifelong suffering. 

In the conversation below, Bonnie Docherty reflects on the Review Conference, its outcomes, and the next steps for these critical humanitarian issues.

Q. You weren’t able to travel to Geneva for the Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons held last December due to COVID. Were you able to watch the talks?

Bonnie Docherty: I watched all of the sessions from 4 am -12 pm for two and a half weeks through the UN Web TV live stream. Delegates from some countries and organizations did attend in person. However, due to COVID and Omicron, many civil societies representatives and diplomats did not attend for safety reasons. I participated actively through text messages, What’s App, emails, and meetings via Zoom with diplomats and colleagues. I used these tools to advocate for our issues and keep up-to-date with the people on the ground.

Although I could not make remote interventions myself, a Human Rights Watch representative read a statement that expressed our position on killer robots and incendiary weapons. A colleague from Mines Action Canada also delivered a statement I wrote on behalf of eight civil society organizations regarding incendiary weapons.

Lode Dewaegheneire of Mines Action Canada speaking at CCW
Lode Dewaegheneire of Mines Action Canada.

Q. What were the most important takeaways from the CCW discussions?

Bonnie Docherty: With regard to incendiary weapons, the outcome of the Review Conference on paper was disappointing because Russia refused to agree to put Protocol III on the agenda for next year. CCW operates by consensus so any one state can block progress. It was very discouraging after our all efforts to put forward a reasonable request—to hold dedicated discussions of the topic next year.

That said, there were powerful and encouraging statements from many states who supported having these discussions. There were impassioned pleas to stop the cruelty that incendiary weapons can cause. These countries understood the true human impact these types of weapons have, and this was important progress. They also recognized victims and the harm they have suffered.

Regarding autonomous weapons systems, the Review Conference made clear that progress on this issue cannot be made in a consensus body. Hopefully, the failure of the Conference to agree to negotiate a legally binding instrument will inspire states to go to a different forum and adopt a new treaty to make real change.

Q. How did the Clinic’s work contribute to the Review Conference?

Bonnie Docherty: I think the work we did made a difference. For example, we organized a powerful event on incendiary weapons before the CCW Review Conference with Kim Phuc, who was the girl in the famous photo of a Vietnam War napalm attack; Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who spoke about the horrors of incendiary weapons as a healthcare provider who had treated Syrian victims; and Roos Boer, of the Dutch peace organization PAX, who talked about divestment from the weapons.

We presented some of Kim’s testimony in our Review Conference statement on incendiary weapons. Ensuring her voice was heard by the diplomats who were not able to attend the original event was really important. States mentioned the human costs of incendiary weapons in their statements and this definitely contributed to the talks.

The Clinic also released a report, co-published with Human Rights Watch, in advance of the Conference. Entitled Crunch Time on Killer Robots, the report argues why a new treaty on autonomous weapons systems is needed and examines different forums in which it could be negotiated.

Headshot of Bonnie Docherty
Bonnie Docherty

Q. What is the United States’ stance on killer robots and incendiary weapons? What concerns did the US voice during the Conference?

Bonnie Docherty: The United States was open to holding informal consultations on Protocol III even though it did not support including the protocol as a formal agenda item in 2022. The US opposes strengthening Protocol III and, in particular closing the protocol’s loophole that allows for the use of white phosphorus munitions, a multipurpose munition that is excluded by the treaty but has horrific incendiary effects. The US uses white phosphorous as a smokescreen. The US was willing to support informal consultations on incendiary weapons, which was progress, but Russia wouldn’t support any discussions so it became a non-issue.

On killer robots, the US does not support negotiating a new treaty. The US is willing to consider weaker nonbinding measures such as exchanging best practices or compiling existing international law, but they fall short of what is necessary to address the threats posed by killer robots, which have been called the third revolution of warfare after gunpowder and nuclear weapons. Sharing best practices does not cut it.

Q. It’s the start of a new year, what progress would you like to see going forward?

Bonnie Docherty: For incendiary weapons, I hope states will continue to work actively to address these exceptionally cruel weapons. It’s a humanitarian imperative. I commend the states that stood up at the CCW. Even when they knew there was a strong likelihood that Russia would block the issue, they argued passionately for further work on this issue.

The countries that held firm to humanitarian principles did a great service for incendiary weapons survivors, who endure a lifetime of suffering. It was great to see.

With killer robots, countries need to do some soul searching. The CCW is not the right forum to make progress. These talks need to take place elsewhere in the future. There is strong support for a new treaty prohibiting and regulating autonomous weapons systems. Now some states need to step up and serve as champions of a process to negotiate a new treaty. If they do, I believe others will join them.  

Bonnie Docherty is the Associate Director, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection, at the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School and a Lecturer on Law. Read Docherty’s summary of the Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons on the Humanitarian Disarmament website.