Since the mid-1990s, the humanitarian approach to disarmament has been applied to a range of arms-related issues. Each of the issues discussed here has inspired the creation of a global civil society coalition focused on a specific weapon or activity. These cases illuminate the humanitarian impacts of arms and how humanitarian disarmament can address them. The application of this approach extends beyond formal campaigns, however. Efforts to strengthen norms against other arms, such as incendiary weapons and armed drones, have also been guided by humanitarian disarmament.
Antipersonnel landmines, which are placed under or on the ground, are designed to explode “by the presence, proximity or contact of a person.” They cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians and cause thousands of civilian casualties every year. They have also interfered with economic development and contributed to forced displacement. The concept of “humanitarian disarmament” originated in the groundbreaking Ottawa Process that was initiated to end this suffering. The process involved a partnership of a like-minded states led by Canada, international organizations, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), a global civil society coalition. The resulting 1997 Mine Ban Treaty prohibits the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of antipersonnel landmines. It also obliges states parties to destroy their stockpiles, clear mined areas, and provide international support to assist victims. The ICBL and then-coordinator Jody Williams received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for their role in the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty.
Poor regulation of the global arms trade has led to the death, injury, and rape of countless individuals. It has also fueled violence, exacerbated poverty, displaced communities, and caused human rights abuses. The Control Arms Coalition was formed in 2003 to advocate for better regulation of the licit arms trade, an important first step to reducing illicit trade. It helped pressure the UN General Assembly to initiate the negotiations of the Arms Trade Treaty, which was adopted in 2013. The treaty regulates the transfer of conventional arms ranging from small arms and light weapons to tanks, combat aircraft, and warships. It obliges states parties to assess the risks of proposed arms exports and not to authorize transfers if the risks cannot be mitigated. The treaty expressly prohibits transfers of arms that a state party knows would be used to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and serious human rights violations.
Cluster munitions are large weapons, such as bombs or rockets, that contain dozens and often hundreds of smaller submunitions. Whether air dropped or surface launched, cluster munitions disperse their submunitions over a wide area and pose a humanitarian threat both during and after attacks. When cluster munitions are used in populated areas, as they frequently have been, they almost inevitably kill or injure civilians because the submunitions cannot distinguish between combatants and civilians. In addition, many of the submunitions fail to explode on impact and become de facto landmines, endangering civilians for months or years to come. In 2007, the Cluster Munition Coalition and a core group of countries, led by Norway, initiated the Oslo Process to negotiate a treaty aiming to end the suffering caused cluster munitions. The Convention on Cluster Munitions, adopted in 2008, bans the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of these weapons. It also includes remedial measures that require states parties to destroy stockpiles, clear contaminated areas, and assist victims.
Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas
Explosive weapons operate through the detonation of a high explosive substance that creates blast and fragmentation effects. They encompass a range of air-dropped and surface-launched weapons, such as aircraft bombs, artillery projectiles, rockets, and missiles. Every year, their use in populated areas causes tens of thousands of casualties, most of whom are civilians. The damage they inflict on homes and infrastructure can lead to displacement and adversely affect health care, education, and other services. Explosive weapons are particularly dangerous when they are used in populated areas and when they have wide area effects due to a large blast radius, an inaccurate delivery mechanism, or the delivery of multiple munitions. The International Network on Explosive Weapons, which was formed in 2011, calls on countries to commit to ending the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas and to meet the needs of survivors. In 2015, Austria convened like-minded countries to discuss this issue, and a core group of countries has been working towards a political commitment on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas since then.
Fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots” or lethal autonomous weapons systems, would select and engage targets without meaningful human control. While currently under development, these weapons are moving rapidly closer to reality as the role of autonomy in military technology increases. Fully autonomous weapons raise a host of moral, legal, accountability, technological, and security concerns. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, launched in 2013, calls on countries to preempt these problems through an international treaty banning the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons. States parties to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) have held discussions on these weapons since 2014. Although a small number of major military powers have blocked negotiations in this consensus forum, the majority of countries party to the CCW have expressed support for new international law that would maintain human control over the use of force or prohibit fully autonomous weapons. Requiring meaningful human control over the use of force is effectively equivalent to banning weapons that lack such control.
Nuclear weapons, the most devastating weapons yet developed, produce catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences. The weapons release heat and explosive force that incinerate or crush people near the hypocenter and burn or otherwise injure those farther away. Radioactive fallout spreads the harm across time and space, causing long-term health effects, such as cancer and birth defects. Nuclear weapons also destroy the environment, impede development, and displace communities. About 70 years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and like-minded states reframed nuclear weapons as a matter of humanitarian, rather than national security, concern. In 2013 Norway launched the Humanitarian Initiative, a series of international conferences that ultimately led the UN General Assembly to mandate treaty negotiations. The 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons bans the development, possession, transfer, testing, and use of nuclear weapons and requires possessing states parties to destroy their nuclear arsenals. The treaty also includes positive obligations to assist victims of use and testing and to remediate contaminated environments. ICAN received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in achieving this treaty.
Toxic Remnants of War
The term toxic remnants of war (TRW) refers to “any toxic or radiological substance resulting from military activities that forms a hazard to humans or ecosystems.” Toxic remnants of war come from a range of sources, including: the use or testing of certain types of weapons, such as nuclear weapons, Agent Orange, and depleted uranium; the bombing of industrial facilities, which can release pollution; the setting of oil fires; and the burning of military waste. Formed in 2015, the Toxic Remnants of War Network has raised awareness of this issue at the international level and worked to promote measures to reduce the humanitarian and environmental impact of pollution from conflict and military activities. Since 2013, the International Law Commission has been working to develop principles on the protection of the environment in relation to armed conflicts; the principles address toxic and hazardous remnants of war, data sharing and transparency, and cooperation on post-conflict assessments and remedial measures. The UN Environment Assembly passed resolutions in 2016 and 2017 on the protection of the environment in areas affected by conflict and on the mitigation of conflict pollution.