For Joseph G. Phillips ’12, traveling to Geneva last month to lobby for stronger international restrictions on incendiary weapons has been a high point of his Harvard Law School education.

“It’s great working on a project that has value outside the academy walls,” says Phillips, a student in the HLS International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC), the nation’s only clinic working in the field of humanitarian restrictions on weapons. “We’re getting papers published and diplomats are reading them, and it feels like something actually real,” he adds.

Phillips and fellow clinical student Joanne Box LL.M. ’11 were in Geneva for a week in March to attend a U.N. disarmament conference, where they met with diplomats to urge adoption of stronger international laws regarding the use of incendiary weapons. The students worked under the supervision of HLS Lecturer on Law and Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty ’01 [photo below, right], who heads the clinic’s weapons projects. Docherty is one of the country’s leading legal experts on cluster munitions and has expanded her work to other disarmament issues, including incendiary weapons.

“The students have gotten to see diplomacy first-hand,” says Docherty, who launched the clinic’s focus on weapons law when she joined the program in 2005. Her students learn a full range of legal skills including treaty negotiation, advocacy, legal analysis, and research and writing. And, she adds, “This work exposes students to the horrors of war that hopefully they’ll realize they can do something to minimize.”

Incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorus munitions, have the potential to inflict excessively cruel injuries on civilians as well as soldiers. Last month’s trip to Geneva was the second step in the clinic’s efforts to get stronger international restrictions on these weapons. Last November, the Clinic, in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, laid out the legal issues connected to the existing protocol on incendiary weapons, which is part of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. The organizations argue its provisions are too weak to provide meaningful protections for civilians and others. For example, existing treaty law has a loophole excluding munitions containing white phosphorus, a substance that can burn flesh to the bone and which has been used in several recent conflicts. The law also inconsistently regulates other incendiary weapons, including napalm, Docherty says.

At the March U.N. conference, Docherty gave a presentation on incendiary weapons, based on a new Clinic-Human Rights Watch publication, and she shared videos and photographs that demonstrated the harm these weapons cause to civilians. The HLS group also spoke informally with diplomats, seeking their support for stronger.

“We found the diplomats to be very responsive to the descriptions of the harm these weapons cause, which is not just death but very gruesome injuries,” says Docherty. A white phosphorus burn that is cleaned and bandaged may reignite when the bandage is removed and the wound is exposed to oxygen, she notes. “That kind of information has moved the diplomats to take this issue under advisement and – at least behind the scenes – to say they support us and hope to get permission to publicly support us.”

The clinic, together with Human Rights Watch, has called on countries to initiate negotiations of an amended treaty later this year, and to complete those negotiations by the end of 2012, she says. Clinical students are working on another paper to present best options for amending the treaty.

Docherty is teaching the clinical seminar “Humanitarian Protection in Situations of Armed Conflict” this spring. Next fall, she will teach the clinical seminar “The Problems and Challenges of Disarmament.”

As part of her long-term relationship with the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, Docherty launched the incendiary weapons work at the clinic last fall. Her clinical students have also partnered with Human Rights Watch for six years on the campaign to ban cluster munitions. Students have participated in nearly a dozen advocacy missions to international conferences, where they have released numerous publications. Under Docherty’s leadership, the clinic contributed to the negotiation of the groundbreaking Convention on Cluster Munitions and has promoted the convention’s strong implementation and interpretation since its adoption in May 2008.

Click here to read a post by Joe Phillips, “Decades after Dresden, We Must Do More to Protect Civilians from Incendiary Weapons,” on the International Human Right’s Clinic blog.