CCW Report, Vol. 4, No. 6

Editorial: Need more than “slow but steady” when lives are at stake
19 December 2016 

Ray Acheson

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After a frustrating week in Geneva, in which states participating in the Fifth Review Conference of the Convention of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) debated whether or not to take action to prevent humanitarian harm from some of the most injurious weapons humankind has created, they did in the end decide to begin a formal process next year to discuss lethal autonomous weapon systems. They also decided to undertake discussions on incendiary weapons, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and mines other than anti-personnel mines—though only as agenda items at the 2017 annual meeting of CCW states parties. Overall, despite the best efforts of a few states parties who seem committed to advancing the principles and objectives of the treaty, states parties took the most minimal steps possible on each of the issues before them.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the civil society coalition working to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons, welcomed the establishment of the GGE but noted that it is the “bare minimum required to demonstrate credible progress in the process to discuss questions relating to these future weapons that would select and attack targets without meaningful human control.” The development of increasing autonomy in weapon systems—and thus the increasing mechanisation of violence and warfare—poses an immediate and dangerous risk to humanity.

Experts and others participating in the three informal groups of experts from 2014–2016 have extensively explored the ethical, legal, political, and technical challenges raised by autonomous weapons. In addition to the expert presentations, the majority of states participating in those meetings articulated a number of problems or challenges arising from autonomous weapons. All of this considered, at least 19 states, as well as civil society groups affiliated with the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, want states to undertake negotiations to prohibit autonomous weapons. The GGE mandates further discussions, which must be used to propel this issue forward to negotiations. As the Campaign has pointed out, other GGE’s have led to the negotiation of CCW protocols, such as the ban on blinding laser weapons.

The work on autonomous weapons must also be considered in the context of the use of other weapon systems that are already deployed. As CCW states parties deliberated last week, outside the conference room conventional weapons wrecked havoc around the world. Aleppo fell to massive air bombardment by Syrian and Russian forces; Yemen suffered attacks with cluster bombs and other explosive weapons. Weapons manufacturers and their government arms dealers made profits off these conflicts and many others. Within the CCW meeting, there were moments when it seemed as if states were more interested in undermining existing law than sustaining it—even though those same states are the same ones that argue existing law is adequate to govern use of weapons in conflict.

Some states took this approach with the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. After much tortured debate on the relevance of discussing this issue, and after removing both the phrases “explosive weapons” and “populated areas” from the discussion mandate, the Review Conference did agree to look at the impact of the use of conventional weapons, particularly in urban areas.

This issue is also being taken up outside the CCW, where Austria has been leading a process to develop a political commitment to prevent the humanitarian harm from the use of such weapons. However, neither the CCW nor other work on this issue has been urgent or progressive enough to end the bombing and bombardment of civilians and civilian infrastructure. Many states, international organisations, and civil society groups have highlighted this as an urgent priority, given that it is resulting in death and destruction around the world as we speak. Yet, it proved almost impossible to get onto the agenda of a treaty body dealing exclusively with conventional weapons—and even then it risked being worded in a way that would have undermined international law were it not for the efforts of New Zealand, Chile, Ireland, and a few others who stayed on top of attempts to obfuscate or undermine the law.

Similarly, states also agreed to discuss the issue of incendiary weapons next year despite the argument that existing regulations under protocol III is sufficient. The Review Conference could have gone further had it not been for the objections of states such as the Russia, France, the United States, and Canada. As it stands, instead of a review of protocol III supported by most states participating in the discussion on this issue, incendiary weapons will be an issue on the agenda of the 2017 meeting of states parties. That said, states did collectively condemn the use of incendiary weapons against civilians in the final declaration. And this is the first time that they have set aside time since 1980 to discuss the topic further. Next year, they must use the time for substantive discussions that truly seek to end humanitarian harm from these heinous weapons.

Work on mines other than anti-personnel mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) will also continue; in both circumstances the humanitarian harm caused is indiscriminate and directly effects civilians. In the case of IEDs, however, pushback continued against reflecting the “effects” of IEDs rather than just the uses or specific users. This is something states and civil society will have to continue to work on moving forward in order to make true progress.

Broadly speaking, while the final declaration and decisions reflect forward movement on each issue considered, that movement is about as minimal as could be achieved. This is not the most ambitious form of “progressive development” of the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict that states could achieve if their primary interest was ending humanitarian harm or protecting civilians. Restricting or prohibiting weapons is imperative for either. The financial profits of the weapons industry, and the geopolitical profits of managing or facilitating armed conflict, rather than preventing or ending it, clearly speak louder than the suffering of humans. Yet still we come to the CCW and fight for something different, and hold states to account, and try to demonstrate that a different path is possible, practical, and absolutely imperative. There were will be many opportunities to forge a different path next year. Let’s use them.

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