A Decade of Disarmament

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

The past decade (2010-2019) has significantly advanced the objectives of humanitarian disarmament, while underscoring the ongoing threats to civilians in armed conflict. This month’s review focuses on the progress and challenges in humanitarian disarmament law, practice, and awareness-raising over that 10-year period.

Setsuko Thurlow and Beatrice Fihn accept Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of ICAN, December 2017.
Credit: Jo Straube, 2017.

Key moments and notable accomplishments showcase the effectiveness of the humanitarian disarmament approach:

  • The Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force on August 1, 2010. Since then, states parties have destroyed 99 percent of their declared cluster munition stockpiles, and all states parties have ceased production. The number of cluster munition casualties has decreased since 2012. States parties have relied on the 2010 Vientiane Action Plan and the 2015 Dubrovnik Action Plan to guide their implementation of the convention, which will have its Second Review Conference in 2020.
  • The International Network on Explosive Weapons was established in 2011 to advocate for stronger protections for civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In 2019, Austria convened a global conference on the issue, and Ireland hosted the first round of consultations on a political declaration to address the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Ireland aims for states to endorse the final declaration by mid-2020.
  • In response to the moral, legal, accountability, and security concerns posed by fully autonomous weapons, a group of nongovernmental organizations formed the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots in 2012 to work towards a preemptive ban on the development, production, and use of such systems. States parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) began discussions on “lethal autonomous weapons systems” in 2014, and they formalized those talks in a Group of Governmental Experts, which has met annually since 2017.
  • Efforts to reduce the harm caused by toxic remnants of war have gained momentum since civil society began raising the alarm in 2012. The International Law Commission’s Draft Principles on the Protection of Civilians in Relation to Armed Conflict, released in June 2019, propose guidelines to increase protections before, during, and after conflict.
  • The global meetings of the Humanitarian Initiative in 2013 and 2014 successfully reframed nuclear weapons as primarily a humanitarian, rather than national security, issue. In 2017, 122 states adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to achieve the treaty.  
  • The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted in 2013 and entered into force on December 24, 2014. It is the first international treaty to meaningfully connect arms transfers to gender-based violence (GBV). At its Fifth Conference of States Parties in 2019, governments agreed to recognize the gendered impacts of the arms trade, collect gender-disaggregated data on victims, and exchange good practices on implementing the obligation to consider the risk of GBV before authorizing arms or ammunition exports.
  • Over the past decade, the stigma against antipersonnel landmines created by the Mine Ban Treaty has remained strong, despite a few documented uses of antipersonnel mines by states not party and non-state armed groups. The treaty celebrated the 20th anniversary of its entry into force at its Fourth Review Conference in Oslo in 2019. At the conference, states parties adopted the Oslo Action Plan, which provides a roadmap to implementing their treaty obligations with the goal of achieving a mine-free world by 2025.
Experts destroy cluster munition stockpiles in Lübben, Germany, June 2009. Credit: Cluster Munition Coalition, 2009.

While there has been progress in the status and implementation of the humanitarian disarmament treaties, work remains to be done:

  • The Mine Ban Treaty has 164 states parties and one additional signatory. There have been no documented state-to-state transfers of antipersonnel mines, and at least nine states not party have formal moratoriums on the export of antipersonnel mines. Thirty-one states parties and two other states and areas have reported clearance of all antipersonnel mines from their territory, but another 31 states parties have remaining clearance obligations.
  • The Convention on Cluster Munitions has 107 states parties and an additional 14 signatories. There have been no reports of new use of cluster munitions by any state party since the convention’s adoption; however, there have been reports or allegations of new use by at least seven non-signatories. Eight states parties and two other states have completed clearance of areas contaminated by cluster munitions, but 12 states parties still have areas to clear. Sixteen states not party continue to produce the weapons. 
  • There are 105 states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, and an additional 33 signatories. To promote national implementation of the treaty, states parties created a Voluntary Trust Fund, which supported 27 projects in 2017 and 2018 and received US$7.8 million by early 2019. A few states parties have suspended certain arms sales to comply with their treaty obligations, while others face legal challenges over continuing arms transfers that may implicate those obligations.
  • Eighty states have signed the TPNW, including 34 that have ratified or acceded. The treaty needs 16 more ratifications or accessions to enter into force. 
  • Thirty states have called for a prohibition on fully autonomous weapons. The CCW process has been moving slowly, however, indicating the likelihood that states will need to move to another forum in order to make real progress.
Michael Talhami of ICRC presents at Vienna conference that began process for declaration on explosive weapons on populated areas, October 2019. Credit: BMEIA/Mahmoud, 2019.

Looking forward, major humanitarian disarmament challenges to tackle in the next year and new decade include:

  • Universalizing the humanitarian disarmament treaties that have entered into force.
  • Achieving the entry into force of the TPNW, adoption of a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons, and agreement on a political declaration on explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • Ensuring full implementation of the positive as well as preventive obligations of the humanitarian disarmament instruments, including by increasing support for victim assistance, clearance of remnants of war, and environmental remediation.
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