Key Developments in Humanitarian Disarmament: Building Norms and Overcoming Disarmament Divides

Lan Mei, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative 

Events and reports of the past month showcase the challenges of building norms and overcoming divides when a majority of countries favor the goal of humanitarian disarmament and a handful of countries do not. The ability of individual states to significantly endanger civilians in armed conflict despite widespread condemnation of certain weapons highlights the urgent need to develop stronger norms and to close these gaps. While most states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) agree on the need for legally binding regulations to address autonomous weapons systems, the CCW’s consensus decision-making process continues to pose an obstacle to progress on that issue. The Convention on Cluster Munitions marked the 15th anniversary of its adoption but progress toward universalization of the treaty has slowed. Meanwhile, despite near-universal agreement on the need to achieve a nuclear-free world, the handful of nuclear-armed states continue to resist any concrete actions towards denuclearization, and Russia has, for the first time since 1970, deployed nuclear weapons in a foreign country. 

Youth share their messages for G7 leaders at a youth summit held in advance of the G7 meeting in Hiroshima. Credit: ICAN, 2023.

In case you missed it: 

  • The CCW Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) meeting on autonomous weapons systems, held in Geneva from May 15-19, ended without any substantive agreement on the topic. Although more than 90 states have called for a new legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems, the final report of the GGE fails to provide any meaningful basis for negotiations to begin. The report recognizes the need for prohibitions and regulations, but due to the consensus process, its conclusions are much weaker than what the majority of states parties argued for. The final version reiterates that it is unlawful to use autonomous weapons systems that do not comply with international humanitarian law, and it calls for control over autonomous weapon systems but does not provide elements of what control entails. Further details about the GGE can be found in the Reaching Critical Will CCW Report.
  • On May 15-19, the Fifth Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention took place in The Hague. States parties reviewed the implementation of the treaty and discussed matters to improve the operation of the treaty, including achieving universality, conducting verification activities, and enhancing international cooperation and assistance. In the end, the Review Conference adopted a factual report but could not reach consensus on a final document. 
  • The G7, consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, met in Hiroshima from May 19-21. They delivered a statement, “G7 Leaders’ Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament,” committing “to achieving a world without nuclear weapons.” The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), however, has called out the G7 for failing to provide any concrete measures that members will take toward that goal and instead continuing to attempt to legitimize the argument for nuclear deterrence.
  • The UN Security Council held its annual open debate on the protection of civilians in armed conflict on May 23. In his annual report to the Security Council ahead of the open debate, the UN secretary-general observed that in 2022, 94 percent of victims of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas were civilians. He called last November’s adoption of the Political Declaration on Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas a “milestone achievement” and noted that implementation of the declaration must include reviewing policies and practices to mitigate harm to civilians. The NGO Working Group on the Protection of Civilians, ahead of the debate, urged UN member states to take concrete actions to prevent harm to civilians in armed conflict, including through universal endorsement and implementation of the political declaration. It also urged the Security Council and the UN’s other peacebuilding mechanisms to take into account the interlinkages between climate and environmental risks in conflict-affected areas. During the open debate, many representatives of member states similarly welcomed the political declaration on explosive weapons. 
  • May 30 marked the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. On the occasion, the convention’s Implementation Support Unit published a fact sheet demonstrating the progress of implementation of the convention. States parties have ceased their use of cluster munitions, destroyed 99 percent of their cluster munitions stockpiles, and made progress in clearance, victim assistance, and adoption of national legislation. Nevertheless, a few states not party have produced or used cluster munitions and universalization of the convention has slowed. Human Rights Watch urged “greater global efforts to ensure that the [Convention on Cluster Munitions] achieves its goal of ending the suffering and harm caused by these indiscriminate weapons.”
  • From June 5-8, Costa Rica hosted the annual RightsCon conference, which gathers civil society and industry representatives to discuss human rights in the digital era. Stop Killer Robots organized an online workshop entitled “Two sides of the coin? AI and automated decisions in the civil and military spheres.” Through the workshop and participation in other spheres, Stop Killer Robots engaged with participants to reflect on accomplishments thus far and collaborations for future work toward legal frameworks to regulate the use of autonomy in weapons systems. 
  • On June 12, ICAN published a report, Wasted: 2022 Global Nuclear Weapons Spending, documenting the US$82.9 billion spent on nuclear weapons in 2022. Spending by the United States represented more than half of that sum. Meanwhile, the report found that there are at least US$278.6 billion in outstanding nuclear weapons contracts. 
  • The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) launched its annual assessment of the state of armaments, disarmament, and international security on June 12. The SIPRI Yearbook 2023 examines, among other topics, trends in armed conflicts, military expenditures and arms production, nuclear weapons production and use, as well as threats from biological and chemical weapons. The key findings include that the nine nuclear-armed states continue to strengthen their nuclear arsenals, and that several deployed new nuclear-armed or nuclear-capable weapons systems in 2022. 
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on June 17 that Russia had stationed a first batch of tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. On May 20, before the move, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of the United Transitional Cabinet and leader of the democratic forces of Belarus, and Daniel Högsta, interim executive director of ICAN, called Russia’s planned deployment a “dangerous escalation.” They had noted that it would be the first time a nuclear-armed state deployed nuclear weapons abroad since the adoption of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970. 

The first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the NPT will meet from July 31-August 11 in Vienna. The Ninth Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty is scheduled to take place from August 21-25 in Geneva.

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