HRP hosts symposium on civilian harm caused by armed conflict

Kenneth Rutherford was working as a humanitarian aid worker in Somalia in 1993. He was driving with a colleague through a rural area near the city of Mogadishu on a clear, blue day when his vehicle hit a landmine. The explosion tore through the vehicle.

Rutherford looked to his colleague to his right, who was black, and saw that he had been turned white because he was covered in dust from the explosion. Rutherford’s legs were so badly damaged that both would later have to be amputated below the knee.

“I was on my deathbed on the rocky, hard, Somali ground,” Rutherford recounted for a Harvard Law School audience last week. “Blood was running down both of the backs of my legs, blood was coming out of my mouth and onto my shirt.”

But he did not despair.

“I can still smell and taste my own blood, standing before you right now. But in my heart, I remember like yesterday, I was blazing with the munificent power of gratitude for everything that life has given me,” Rutherford said. “I never miss an opportunity to praise God for being above ground.”

Two years later, Rutherford founded the Landmine Survivors Network, which shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its part in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Rutherford went on to play a leadership role in humanitarian projects in countries around the globe, as well as the successful effort to negotiate a treaty banning cluster munitions. He is now the Director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery at James Madison University in Virginia.

What brought Rutherford to Harvard Law School was last week’s Human Rights Program symposium: “Acknowledge, Amend, Assist: Addressing Civilian Harm Caused by Armed Conflict and Armed Violence.” The two-day summit, organized by HLS Senior Clinical Instructor Bonnie Docherty, gathered policy experts, fieldwork leaders and government officials from around the world to try to develop a framework to increase collaboration on assistance to conflict victims. The event was co-organized by Action on Armed Violence, a UK nongovernmental organization.

The international symposium kicked off on Thursday with welcoming remarks from HLS Dean Martha Minow, who said the efforts of the assembled group went to the very heart of any notion of human rights.

“I really personally think there’s nothing more compelling and important than this subject,” Minow said.

HLS’s Human Rights Program hosted the event and Minow, Rutherford, and other speakers highlighted the program’s International Human Rights Clinic as an organization that can especially make an impact. The clinic involves approximately 40 students per semester who work in small teams on human rights projects under the supervision of over a half-dozen human rights practitioners.

Thursday’s opening session was a clarion call to the students of the clinic and to the veteran victims rights advocates present. Every speaker drove home the point that those in the room were uniquely positioned and prepared to extend a helping hand to those in peril, and had a duty to do so.

In a screening of a film specially prepared for the symposium, British photojournalist Paul Conroy chronicled his travels inside war-torn Syria, specifically in the devastated city of Homs. Conroy talked about his experiences as the film showed gripping images and video of the city and its inhabitants, who had no means of escape as their neighborhoods were pummeled by the Syrian government’s arsenal of artillery and tanks.

“It was absolute slaughter,” Conroy said. “We witnessed babies, teenagers, 5-year olds, 80-year olds, being brought in, in pieces.”

“The use of these weapons in populated civilian areas leaves its scars for generations. These children have been in hell.”

One morning, rockets hit the house where Conroy, American journalist Marie Colvin and French photojournalist Remi Ochlik were taking shelter. Conroy felt a pain in his leg and when he reached down to touch the spot, he put his hand straight through the gaping hole the shrapnel had created. Colvin and Ochlik, just yards away, were killed.

The world must confront the use of battlefield weapons on civilian neighborhoods, Conroy said, if innocent victims in Syria or the next conflict zone are to escape the same fate.

“I just hope that these great minds in this room can come up with something that will make the lives of civilians caught in these tragic situations just a little bit better,” Conroy concluded.

Organizers and attendees said they hope the symposium will lead to a “Harvard Declaration” that might chart the best way forward to do just that, and more.

“Every night when my head hits the pillow, I wonder, why am I so lucky?” Rutherford told the audience. “Therefore my responsibility, and a responsibility I think many of us share, is to these victims.”

“We can, more than any other people in the world today,” he said “make the world a better place for the lives of victims of armed conflict.”

“Let’s leave a positive legacy for having taken up seats that others could have sat in.”