Humanitarian Disarmament’s Power and Potential at the Turn of the Decade

Bonnie Docherty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

At the dawn of the last decade, humanitarian disarmament was a relatively new means of regulating weapons. The adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in 2008 had demonstrated that this people-centered approach, which originated with the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, was not an aberration. The extent of humanitarian disarmament’s potential, however, remained to be determined.

Today, humanitarian disarmament is an established and effective way of addressing disarmament challenges. A decade characterized by achievement, adaptation, and expansion has solidified its international status and energized a growing number of proponents. Attention to these aspects of its work will ensure humanitarian disarmament’s continued progress in the next ten years.

Humanitarian disarmament seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment and implementation of norms. In contrast to traditional disarmament approaches, humanitarian disarmament prioritizes protecting the security and well-being of people rather than states. It pursues its goals through an inclusive process distinguished by close collaboration and open communication among civil society, states, and international organizations.

The past decade witnessed a string of remarkable achievements in humanitarian disarmament. In August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force with its ratification by a thirtieth state. Implementation of that convention and the Mine Ban Treaty led to the destruction and clearance of millions of cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines as well as a significant decrease in their use. States also negotiated and adopted two new humanitarian disarmament instruments—the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

The adaptability of humanitarian disarmament played a major role in these victories. In 2010, for example, many skeptics said the humanitarian approach could not be applied to nuclear weapons. They argued that the national security implications of nuclear weapons put them in a class by themselves. Undeterred, proponents of nuclear disarmament emphasized the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, which were a matter of concern to all states. This reframing of the debate paved the way for a General Assembly mandate to negotiate a nuclear weapon ban treaty in the United Nations. Like its humanitarian disarmament predecessors, the TPNW absolutely prohibited an inhumane and indiscriminate weapon. By tailoring its safeguards and provisions on victim assistance and environmental remediation to the most contentious disarmament subject, it also adapted legal precedent.

The 2010s saw an expansion of humanitarian disarmament into different kinds of arms-related issues addressed by new civil society campaigns. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), founded in 2011, for example, sought to reduce civilian harm caused by a targeting method—the use of explosive weapons in populated areas—instead of a particular type of weapon. Given some states’ resistance to adopting new law in this area, INEW called for a political commitment rather than a treaty. INEW’s approach proved effective; in 2019, Austria and Ireland initiated an international process to negotiate a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. A final document is expected to open for state endorsement by mid-2020.

To remain a powerful instrument for reducing arms-inflicted harm in the next decade, humanitarian disarmament must build on these accomplishments while continuing to evolve.

The setting of ambitious but reasonable goals can lead to tangible achievements. Universalization and implementation of existing humanitarian disarmament treaties are essential to fulfilling their promise. Two priorities for this decade are the entry into force of the TPNW and the realization of a landmine-free world by 2025.

Through ongoing adaptation, humanitarian disarmament can confront new challenges, such as those presented by emerging technologies. Preempting the moral, legal, technological, and security risks posed by fully autonomous weapons, for instance, may require going beyond the terms of a traditional ban treaty. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, launched in 2013, is advocating for an instrument that addresses conduct as well as technology. The proposed treaty would establish an overarching requirement to maintain meaningful human control over the use of force, ban weapons systems that inherently lack such control, and include positive obligations that ensure control is maintained in the use of all other systems that can independently select and engage targets.

Humanitarian disarmament can expand its reach through application to areas of concern less commonly associated with arms. It offers a useful model for efforts to reduce environmental damage caused by use and testing of certain weapons and other military activities, such as bombing industrial facilities and using burn pits to destroy waste. The International Law Commission is currently engaged in a process to develop principles that would enhance the “protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts,” and a comment period on the commission’s first provisionally adopted draft is underway. Advocates can draw on precedent from humanitarian disarmament to bolster their case for preserving the principles’ inclusion of preventive and remedial measures and for sharpening provisions on assistance to victims.

By focusing on achievement, adaptation, and expansion in the coming decade, humanitarian disarmament can further its people-centered agenda. While specific arms-related issues pose different challenges, proponents can advance their work by exchanging lessons learned, promoting each other’s successes, pooling resources, and increasing public awareness of humanitarian disarmament. If they seek out and seize opportunities to coordinate and collaborate, they will maximize their collective impact. 

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