Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: New Use, Resolutions, and Recommendations

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative 

While the past month saw egregious use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas in Myanmar and in Gaza and Israel, momentum continues to build toward an international political declaration. Other key developments this month include a new International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) position on autonomous weapon systems, which calls for legally binding prohibitions and regulations.  

An image of the bombed press offices in Gaza by the Israeli Air Force on May 15, 2021. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, 2021.
The Israeli Air Force bombed press offices in Gaza on May 15, 2021. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, 2021.

In case you missed it:

  • On April 14, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic hosted a webinar on the human cost of incendiary weapons and the shortcomings of international law. The event included first-hand testimony from survivors and medical personnel. A summary of the event and video of the panelists’ remarks can be found in this Disarmament Dialogue blog.  
  • On April 21, the Belgium Parliamentary Defense Committee adopted a resolution calling on the government to avoid the use of high-yield explosive weapons in populated areas and to provide assistance to victims. Belgium is the first country to adopt such a resolution.  
  • The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) Seventh Conference of States Parties preparatory meeting took place from April 26-30. The thematic focus of this year’s Conference is “to prevent the illicit trade in SALW [small arms and light weapons] and their diversion, including through stockpile management”; however, civil society participants noted that the Conference should not neglect the role the ATT can and should play in regulating legal arms transfers and the responsibilities of the private sector. All sessions took place remotely and the meeting proceeded in a transparent manner, although oral participation in the virtual meeting was low. More details about the meeting can be found in the Reaching Critical Will ATT Monitor.
  • On April 29, the Defense Ethics Committee of France released an Opinion on the Integration of Autonomy into Lethal Weapon Systems. The opinion defines two types of autonomous weapon systems: partially autonomous lethal weapon systems (PALWS), which “remain under human control,” and lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), which are “capable of changing their rules of operation” and can “perform actions without any assessment of the situation by the command.” While LAWS have been “renounced” by the French government, the opinion provides guidelines for research on, design of, use of, and training on PALWS. 
  • Activist shareholders connected with faith communities proposed resolutions at annual shareholders’ meetings of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and PNC Financial Services in April, calling on the companies to be more transparent about how they are meeting their human rights obligations in light of their continued production or financing of nuclear weapons, which are prohibited under the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. 
  • In statements on April 30 and May 12, respectively, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) highlighted the human suffering caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in Myanmar and in Gaza and Israel and called for the use of those weapons to cease.   
  • INEW and 25 other civil society organizations issued a joint statement ahead of the May 25 UN Security Council Open Debate on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. The statement calls upon UN member states and the international community to take “[a]mbitious action to shift mindsets and invest in robust policies, strategies and practices” in order to “adequately protect civilians caught in armed conflict.” Among its specific recommendations, the statement urges states to “engage constructively in the process to develop a political declaration that would strengthen the protection of civilians from the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects.” In anticipation of the open debate, INEW has also published a briefing on the issue.
  • On May 12, the ICRC announced its new position on autonomous weapon systems. Its recommendations call on states to adopt “legally binding rules” that, in particular: prohibit autonomous weapon systems whose “effects cannot be sufficiently understood, predicted and explained”; prohibit the use of autonomous weapon systems to target human beings; and regulate the design and use of autonomous weapon systems that would not be prohibited to ensure effective human supervision of such systems. 

The second part of the Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions has been postponed, but the intersessional meetings of the Nineteenth Meeting of States Parties of the Mine Ban Treaty are expected to be held virtually from June 22-24. States parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons are scheduled to meet in Geneva for the Group of Governmental Experts on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems from June 28-July 5, although the dates could be affected by Swiss restrictions on gatherings during the pandemic.

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