Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: Ongoing Need for Dedicated Disarmament Instruments

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative 

In recent discussions of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and autonomous weapons systems, some states have argued that existing international law is sufficient. But the UN secretary-general’s recent report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict highlighted the weaknesses of that contention when it lamented the devastating harm caused to civilians from explosive weapons in populated areas even when combatants complied with international humanitarian law. The humanitarian disarmament community, therefore, continues to advocate for stronger protections for civilians in dedicated new instruments. This month’s milestone was Ireland’s announcement that it would hold the final consultations of the explosive weapons political declaration process in mid-June.

In case you missed it: 

  • On April 25, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published a fact sheet reporting that the 2021 world military expenditure increased for the seventh consecutive year, surpassing  US$2 trillion for the first time. 
  • On April 26-27, the chair of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on lethal autonomous weapon systems convened the first of three informal, virtual consultations. The chair proposed three themes for the discussions: possible challenges to the application of international law, possible prohibitions and regulations, and legal reviews. Discussions revolved around various proposals for addressing autonomous weapons systems. Although there are some areas of growing convergence, debate continues over whether a new legally binding instrument is necessary. More details about the consultations can be found in Reaching Critical Will’s CCW Report.
  • The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) states parties held a second round of intersessional meetings from April 26-29. They included meetings of the working groups on effective treaty implementation, treaty universalization, and transparency and reporting, and an informal preparatory meeting for the Eighth Conference of States Parties. States and civil society highlighted concerns about the decline in transparency, caused by an increase in private national reporting, declining rates of compliance with ATT reporting obligations, and challenges with data aggregation. More details about the meetings can be found at Reaching Critical Will’s website.
  • On May 10, the UN secretary-general published the annual report on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The report highlighted the “pattern of devastating harm to civilians in the immediate and long term” caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The secretary-general welcomed the efforts to adopt a political declaration to address the use of such weapons in populated areas and called for states to commit to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effect in populated areas. The report also warned of the prospect of nuclear conflict, the environmental risks associated with armed conflict, and the continuing harm caused by landmines and explosive remnants of war. 
  • On May 17, Congo ratified the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), becoming the 61st state party to the treaty.
  • The International Law Commission adopted its Draft Principles on Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts on May 20, after responding to comments from states and others. The commission will publish its associated commentary in a couple months, and the UN General Assembly will open the principles for comment and adoption later this year. The Conflict and Environment Observatory has offered its initial analysis
  • On May 25, Ireland disseminated a revised draft of the political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which sought to respond to the views expressed at April consultations, in written submissions, and in bilateral meetings. Ireland announced that it plans to hold final consultations on June 17 in Geneva but will not open the text to substantive changes. It will release details about the adoption process then.

June’s humanitarian disarmament calendar is headlined by the explosive weapons meeting and Nuclear Ban Week in Vienna. The latter includes not only the TPNW’s First Meeting of States Parties (June 21-23) but also ICAN’s Nuclear Ban Forum (June 18-19) and Austria’s Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (June 20). In other business, a second round of informational consultations of the CCW GGE on lethal autonomous weapon systems will take place on June 1 and 3. Intersessional meetings for the Mine Ban Treaty are scheduled for June 20-22 in Geneva.