Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: A Pivot Point

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative

The end of the 2021 disarmament marathon raised significant opportunities and challenges for disarmament work next year. The failure of the Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to reach consensus on several important matters means states and civil society organizations that are committed to humanitarian disarmament face pivotal decisions next year. Of particular note, proponents of a new killer robots treaty could seek an alternative to the CCW framework and pursue negotiations in the manner of the Mine Ban Treaty or the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The growing support for the abolition of nuclear weapons and a political declaration on explosive weapons combined with the number of states expressing disappointment at the outcome of the CCW Review Conference show that humanitarian disarmament is thriving. New approaches to autonomous weapons systems may, therefore, be both welcome and successful.

Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. Credit: Bonnie Docherty, 2021

In case you missed it:

  • The 19th Meeting of States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty took place in a virtual format from November 15-19. The meeting reviewed the status of the treaty and progress of implementation, and it considered requests for extensions of stockpile destruction and clearance deadlines. The meeting also highlighted challenges as well as innovations in the mine action sector, including the use of new technologies for clearance and risk education. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines voiced its concerns about new landmine use, prolonged delays in meeting clearance obligations, lack of victim assistance plans, and stalled universalization of the treaty.
  • The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and PAX jointly published a report on financing for nuclear weapons in November. The report, Perilous Profiteering: The Companies Building Nuclear Arsenals and Their Financial Backers, documents the US$685 billion in financing provided by 338 financial institutions to 25 nuclear weapons producing companies. These figures represent a decrease from 2019 in both the number of financial institutions and the amount of financing invested in the nuclear weapons industry.
  • On November 24, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs convened a consultation to discuss civil society access to the upcoming 10th Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The consultation came after over 100 organizations signed onto a letter requesting such access, noting that the participation of civil society was necessary “[f]or the success and legitimacy” of the conference. In the end, in-person civil society access to the conference was denied due to COVID-19.
  • The third session of the CCW Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapon systems met from December 2-3 and 6-8. Although there was significant support for a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding instrument on killer robots, a small group of states used the consensus rule to block any recommendations on a mandate for future work.
  • On December 10, Human Rights Watch and Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic held on an online event, “Incendiary Weapons: The Humanitarian Call for Stronger Law,” that highlighted the cruel effects of incendiary weapons and the need to strengthen international law. Panelists included Kim Phuc, survivor of a 1972 napalm attack in Vietnam, and Dr. Rola Hallam, a British doctor who treated victims of a 2013 incendiary weapons attack in Syria. Roos Boer also presented PAX’s new report, entitled Put Out the Fire: Strengthening International Law and Divestment Policies on Incendiary Weapons.
  • Three more states parties have joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, with Mongolia acceding to the treaty on December 10, Guinea-Bissau ratifying the treaty on December 15, and Peru ratifying the treaty on December 23.  
  • On December 15, Reaching Critical Will published a briefing book to help delegates understand the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and critical issues up for discussion at the upcoming review conference.
  • The Sixth Review Conference of the CCW convened from December 13-17. A small number of states blocked agreement on opening negotiations of a treaty on lethal autonomous weapons systems, and the body instead adopted a 10-day mandate for the GGE to “consider proposals and elaborate, by consensus, possible measures” on the topic. Consensus requirements similarly led to the rejection of proposals to hold informal consultations on the implementation and universalization of Protocol III on incendiary weapons; to convene a group of experts to discuss mines other than anti-personnel mines; and to include a preambular paragraph reaffirming the Review Conference’s “strong determination to protect civilians from the deleterious humanitarian impact of cluster munitions.” Although these proposals all received significant support, the CCW’s practice of making decisions by consensus meant that just one state’s opposition had an outsized influence on the outcome of the conference. Further details about the Sixth Review Conference discussions can be found in Reaching Critical Will’s CCW Report.

States parties and civil society will be busy over the holidays preparing for the 10th Review Conference to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which will be held from January 4-28, 2022. The next round of consultations on a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas is scheduled to take place from February 2-4 in Geneva.

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