Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: A Milestone for the Nuclear Ban Movement

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

This month’s update is headlined by the 50th ratification and imminent entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As evidenced by discussions at the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security, however, significant challenges remain to achieving the goal of a nuclear-free world. The humanitarian disarmament community remains active and committed to identifying challenges to progress and proposing solutions to protect people and the environment from arms-inflicted harm.

In case you missed it:

ICAN’s Beatrice Fihn, executive director, and Céline Nahory, operations coordinator, celebrate the TPNW’s 50th ratification. Credit: ICAN, October 2020.
ICAN’s Beatrice Fihn, executive director, and Céline Nahory, operations coordinator, celebrate the TPNW’s 50th ratification. Credit: ICAN, October 2020.
  • On October 24, Honduras became the 50th state to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), triggering the treaty’s entry into force on January 22, 2021, 90 days following the 50th ratification. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons published a series of “ICAN Law School” videos to explain the legal implications of this event.
  • Although diplomatic talks on killer robots have been postponed until 2021, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots continues its advocacy work, and several coalition members published new reports last month. Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic identified key elements and precedent for a treaty to address lethal autonomous weapons systems. Article 36 produced a leaflet with graphics that proposes a structure for the treaty. Reaching Critical Will released two reports that analyze the debate over autonomous weapons through a gender-based lens.
Cover of new Human Rights Watch and International Human Rights Clinic report on incendiary weapons, containing an image of fires rising above a city.
Photo on report cover is by Anas Sabagh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images, 2016.
  • On November 9, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released a major report and video detailing the human suffering caused by incendiary weapons. Drawing on extensive research including interviews with survivors and medical experts, the report documents the physical injuries, psychological harm, and socioeconomic damage caused by the weapons. It calls on states to strengthen existing international law governing the use of incendiary weapons to prevent such suffering in the future.
  • The UN’s First Committee concluded on November 10. The discussions and votes on resolutions showed overwhelming support for humanitarian disarmament initiatives. For example, the majority of states voted in favor of promoting universalization and implementation of the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Arms Trade Treaty, and the TPNW. Nevertheless, civil society voiced concerns that even states that support humanitarian disarmament treaties need to do more to achieve humanitarian goals. Nuclear weapons appeared to be the most contentious and complex issue discussed during First Committee, with about 20 resolutions on the topic. Despite majority support for the TPNW resolution, a majority of states also voted in favor of a resolution on achieving a nuclear-free world that failed to mention the TPNW and ignored many of the agreed outcomes from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s 2010 action plan. More detailed reports on First Committee sessions can be found in the First Committee Monitor by Reaching Critical Will.
  • The International Campaign to Ban Landmines released the Landmine Monitor 2020 on November 12. The Monitor reports the destruction of 55 million stockpiled antipersonnel mines and the clearance of all mined areas in 32 states and one other area since 1999. The recent announcement by the United Kingdom that they have completed clearing landmine contamination in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas brings the total up to 33 states and one other area that have completed clearance obligations. Despite this progress, challenges remain: the year 2019 saw more than 5,000 casualties from the use of landmines and explosive remnants of war; and landmine use was recorded in seven countries, by one state and non-state armed groups. In addition, 32 states parties have remaining clearance obligations.
  • In a Defense News commentary, Jeff Abramson, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, called on US President-elect Joe Biden to “embrace the humanitarian disarmament agenda.” Abramson urged Biden to strengthen US policy on the key humanitarian disarmament issues and to “redefin[e] security as based on human needs—a necessity made more clear each day by a global pandemic for which kinetic weapons provide no defense.”

The remainder of this month will be focused on annual meetings of state parties. The Mine Ban Treaty’s 18th Meeting of States Parties will take place virtually from November 16-20. The Second Review Conference to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will take place in two parts, with the first part taking place in virtual format from November 25-27, and the second part in February 2021.

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