Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: Calls to Action and the Loss of a Disarmament Champion

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

Headline events and anniversaries over the past few weeks have sparked urgent calls to action on several humanitarian disarmament issues, including nuclear weapons, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and landmines and cluster munitions. Meanwhile, the premature death of Christof Heyns, a champion of humanitarian disarmament and human rights, inspired tributes from around the world.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons shared this message on its tenth anniversary. Credit: INEW, 2021.
The International Network on Explosive Weapons shared this message on its tenth anniversary. Credit: INEW, 2021.

In case you missed it:

  • The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) issued the second of three data launches about arms transfers on March 15 in the lead-up to its annual yearbook. In this data launch, SIPRI found that international arms transfers remained at the same level between 2011-15 and 2016-20 and remain close to the highest level since the end of the Cold War. Increases in exports by the United States, France, and Germany were offset by decreases in exports by Russia and China. The Middle East saw the biggest spike in arms imports, with a growth of 25 percent.
  • On March 16, the United Kingdom announced it would raise the cap on its nuclear warheads stockpile by 40 percent. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) criticized the decision for undermining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in five critical ways, including by contravening disarmament obligations, heightening the risk of nuclear conflict, and inciting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In the aftermath of this news, more than forty civil society organizations signed onto a letter urging NatWest Group, a majority state-owned banking group in the UK, to update its Defence Sector Policy to exclude nuclear weapons producers in their entirety. 
  • On March 18, New York City council members introduced a bill to prohibit the New York City Police Department from “using or threatening to use robots armed with a weapon or to use robots in any manner that is substantially likely to cause death or serious physical injury.” Human Rights Watch praised the bill as an “innovative legislative proposal” and called for policymakers around the world to replicate this regulatory proposal. 
  • The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots held its annual global campaigners’ meeting on March 24. Advocates from around the world participated in this year’s online forum, which included discussions about the campaign’s values, policy positions, and efforts to prevent the dehumanization of war. 
  • Human rights and disarmament advocates around the world mourned the loss of Christof Heyns, who died on March 28 at age 62. Amnesty International described the South African lawyer was a “giant of human rights.” Among his many achievements, Heyns helped kickstart multilateral discussions of fully autonomous weapons in 2013 when, as UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, he raised the alarm about the emerging systems in a report to the Human Rights Council. He was also widely admired for his kindness and generosity. As Bonnie Docherty of Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic wrote, “Christof was a perfect advocate for a ban on killer robots because he exuded the humanity he was fighting to preserve.”
  • March 29 marked the tenth anniversary of the founding of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW). To mark the date, INEW published a series of tweets that highlighted the devastating impacts of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and called on states to immediately adopt and implement a strong political declaration that protects civilians from this harm. 
  • The humanitarian disarmament community observed the International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on April 4. The UN launched a virtual exhibit, “Perseverance, Partnership, Progress” highlighting mine action around the world. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on states to “complete the work: to survey, clear and destroy these deadly devices.” The Convention on Cluster Munitions Implementation Support Unit published an overview of the status of implementation of the convention. Those interested in learning more about landmines and/or cluster munitions and the relevant international legal frameworks can take the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs short course on landmines and short course on cluster munitions.
  • On April 6, the US Department of Defense announced that it would not change the Trump administration’s policy on landmines, calling the weapons a “vital tool in conventional warfare.” Two days later, the US representative to the United Nations said that the policy would be reviewed and that President Biden plans to roll back his predecessor’s policy. 

The Arms Trade Treaty’s Seventh Conference of States Parties preparatory meeting is scheduled for the end of the month, April 26-30. Looking further ahead, the second part of the Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions is expected to be held June 2-3.