A Call to Arms: Reflecting on the CCW and the Achievements of Humanitarian Disarmament Treaties

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

This week, the disarmament world is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, as well as marked progress towards full implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty. The just-concluded 17th Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty also took concrete decisions to build on this progress, with renewed commitments to implementation of the treaty and an agreement to treat a new threat—antipersonnel mines of an improvised nature—in the same manner as factory-made mines.

Meanwhile, the recent Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) concluded with a disappointing lack of progress on lethal autonomous weapons systems (also known as fully autonomous weapons or “killer robots”) and a possible retrogression on incendiary weapons. Not only did the meeting set aside inadequate time in 2019 to examine and agree on next steps for killer robots, it took incendiary weapons off next year’s agenda entirely.

The stark differences in approach to disarmament highlighted by these events raise serious doubts about the efficacy of the CCW as the main forum for addressing the dangers of killer robots and incendiary weapons.

Inaction at the CCW Meeting of the High Contracting Parties

UN blog photo
Credit: Jean-Marc Ferré, 2014

Killer robots dominated the discussions at the CCW’s annual meeting in November, and most states expressed a desire for a new, legally binding instrument. Almost all states also stressed the importance of maintaining human control over the selection and engagement of targets, and 28 states have called for a complete and preemptive ban of fully autonomous weapons. Despite all this, the time allocated for focused discussions on killer robots in 2019 fell from the 10 days recommended by the CCW’s own Group of Governmental Experts to a mere seven. Russia insisted that a shorter meeting was sufficient given differences that still exist, and it apparently believed that the CCW should not devote additional time to try and resolve those differences. Although states that spoke at the meeting almost universally supported dedicating 10 days for the next experts meeting on killer robots, Russia was able single-handedly to reduce the time because the CCW operates on consensus.

The shortened 2019 meeting will allow for limited headway towards a treaty to preserve meaningful human control over the use of force. It took two days for states at the November CCW meeting just to talk about how much time they should spend talking about killer robots next year. A new treaty is needed to clarify existing international humanitarian law, protect rights to life and to human dignity, and avoid an accountability gap.

CCW’s annual meeting also removed Protocol III on incendiary weapons from its 2019 agenda. Given growing concerns about these cruel weapons, the 2016 Review Conference had dedicated time to address the issue. At this year’s meeting, states parties voiced strong condemnations of recent use of incendiary weapons in Syria, and many countries called for continuing the conversation and strengthening Protocol III. As with killer robots, however, Russia’s (ab)use of the requirement for consensus decision-making led to removal of the agenda item. Despite the humanitarian evidence to the contrary, Russia contended that separate discussions on incendiaries were unnecessary.

Achievements of the Humanitarian Disarmament Treaties

The failure of the CCW to take decisive action to protect civilians from existing and future weapons recalls its past failures to take action on antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions. Both of these weapons were later banned in independent humanitarian disarmament forums.

In each case, a small group of frustrated states decided that the humanitarian impacts of these weapons were too alarming to wait for the CCW body to reach consensus, and they started negotiations on ban treaties in new forums. Today, both treaties are approaching universalization and have made significant progress towards implementation:

  • There are 164 states parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and 104 States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions;
  • More than half of affected states parties to the Mine Ban Treaty have completed clearance of landmines on their territory, and more than one third of affected states parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions have completed clearance of cluster munition remnants;
  • Only three states parties to the Mine Ban Treaty and only six to the Convention on Cluster Munitions have remaining stockpile destruction obligations; and
  • Most states have implemented some measures to provide assistance to victims, although work remains to be done in this area.

These examples of the success of the humanitarian disarmament model urge a strategic examination of whether current approaches towards killer robots and incendiary weapons are working. In a world in which we have made progress in recent decades toward the prioritization of civilian protection, it is especially disappointing that a minority of states are able to continue blocking concrete action at the CCW.

Given that there is an opportunity to act now on killer robots before the weapons are developed and deployed, and given that amending the law on incendiary weapons would be legally straightforward, states have a moral imperative to take steps to supplement and strengthen existing law now. The Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions are a timely reminder that if the CCW forum fails, states can, and may need to, step outside the CCW to prevent future victimization of civilians by weapons that are incompatible with humanitarian principles.