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Discussions on deadly weapons: report from the 2014 CCW meeting of high contracting parties

Some of the key topics discussed during the 2014 Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) included the extension of the mandate for addressing autonomous weapon systems, the continued use of incendiary weapons against civilians, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, and the issue of mines other than anti-personnel mines. On each of these issues, opinions differed about how to best mitigate humanitarian harm.

Most states that took the floor during the general debate highlighted the importance of the CCW within international law and its obligation to both deal with existing and emerging issues. “Not addressing problems at the right moment can have disastrous consequences and make them almost insoluble,” cautioned the Holy See. While almost all states highlighted the “appropriate” balance that the Convention provides between humanitarian concerns and military considerations, only Sweden emphasised that human beings should be at the centre of disarmament and international security policy.

Autonomous weapon systems

The great majority of the twenty speakers addressing autonomous weapons, including Australia, Austria, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, expressed their support for a continuation of informal meetings and stressed the need for more in-depth discussions, rather than repeating what was said during May 2014’s meeting.

However, some states remained skeptical. The Russian Federation raised some doubts with regard to continuing discussions on autonomous weapons at all, while India thought the previous mandate was broad enough and saw no need to change it for future discussions.

A number of speakers, including Austria, Ireland, and Sierra Leone, valued the complementary debate on autonomous weapon systems within other UN fora, such as the Human Rights Council. In that context, Sierra Leone recalled that the issue of autonomous weapons was first raised and discussed by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, in his report to the Human Rights Council in April 2013. There is still a clear need to focus on human rights aspects of these weapons, among others the rights to life, dignity, security of the persons, and access to remedy.

stopkillerrobots-launchIn addition to the need to respect and implement international humanitarian and human rights law, some speakers stressed the need for “meaningful human control” over attacks, including Austria, Ireland, Netherlands, South Africa, Article 36, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. Some stressed the need for human control over life and death decision-making, such as Germany and Sweden.

In that context and with regard to ensuring more in-depth discussions in the future, Article 36, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control called on states to develop national polices on the matter and to share national experiences of current weapons systems that detect and engage targets. Several speakers also emphasised the need for strengthening reviews of new weapons as contained in Article 36 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949.

Looking ahead to future meetings on autonomous weapons, Croatia highlighted the need for gender diversity in disarmament diplomacy and called for the inclusion of non-male exerts. This call was also taken up by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which urged that such meetings be “not just inclusive of non-governmental organizations, but also diverse in hearing the voices of men and women, of various views, and of all nations.”

In closing the debate on autonomous weapon systems, the Chair Ambassador Remigiusz A. Henczel of Poland suggested a mandate for five days of informal discussions with documentation, to which no one objected at the time. However, the mandate adopted in the final report of the meeting does not elaborate on the question of documentation and indicates the meeting will convene for “up to five days”:

The Meeting decided to convene under the overall responsibility of the Chairperson an informal meeting of experts of up to five days during the week of 13 to 17 April 2015 to discuss the questions related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems, in the context of the objectives and purposes of the Convention. The Chair of the Meeting of Experts will, under his or her own responsibility, submit a report to the 2015 Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention, objectively reflecting the discussions held.

During a side event organised by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots on Thursday, 13 November 2014, Pax Christi International introduced an interfaith call “on all governments to participate in the international debate on the issue, and to work towards a ban on the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons.” Article 36 and ICRAC highlighted the need for more in-depth discussions and concrete action, in particular on the question of meaningful human control.

Armed drones

The Holy See, Cuba, Pakistan, and Palestine argued that discussions on autonomous weapon systems should not overshadow the growing importance of also discussing the use of armed drones. They called on the CCW to start discussions on this issue before drones become a source of even greater destabilization. Cuba called for the development of a legally-binding instrument in the framework of an additional protocol to the CCW on drones for military purposes.

The Holy See emphasised that the use of armed drones has implications for international humanitarian and human rights law. Pakistan stressed that the use of armed drones not only violates these laws but also violates state sovereignty and the UN Charter’s right to self-defense. Pakistan also argued that the use of armed drones is also characterised by lack of transparency, responsibility, and accountability.

On Thursday 13 November 2014, the Geneva Forum organised a side event on “New warfare challenges: Drone Operations and Protection of Civilians”. The primary aim of the panel was to discuss the broader effects of the use of drones on civilians and highlight the importance of adequate recording of casualties caused by drones. Broader effects mentioned were the psychological and social impact of living under drones, such as constant fear, stress, and anxiety. These effects can hinder education and the economy, if fear inhibits everyday life and people avoid social gatherings.

As highlighted in the presentation, thorough casualty recording is necessary to provide recognition of and advocate for the rights of victims, ensure compliance with international law, promote dialogue between conflicting parties, and inform the general public. This is also necessary to better understand the impact of drones by providing the possibility for accurate analysis and advocacy. Therefore states need to record and provide information on every casualty caused by drone strikes and on where drone strikes are carried out.

Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 published a short paper, Sex and drone strikes, which looks at gender and identity in targeting and casualty analysis. The paper addresses concerns that the sex of individuals is being used as a signifier to designate people as militants in drone strike targeting decisions and post-strike analysis of casualties. Among other things, these two groups argue that using sex or gender to systematically remove a person’s claim to protection as a civilian is unacceptable.

Mines other than anti-personnel mines

The discussion of mines other than anti-personnel mines (MOTAPM), in particular anti-vehicle mines (AVM), has since 2001 been discussed under Protocol II on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices. A disagreement remains between member states over whether or not this discussion should continue within the CCW.

The session dedicated to MOTAPM opened with a presentation of the new joint publication Humanitarian and Developmental Impact of Anti-Vehicle Mines from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The presentation highlighted that in many aspects MOTAPM are similar to anti-personnel mines but are subject to fewer restrictions under international humanitarian law (IHL) and that therefore stricter rules are needed. The report specifically highlights the considerable impact that anti-vehicle mines have on the delivery of humanitarian assistance and resettlements.

Mexico argued for a total ban on AVMs as indiscriminate weapons inconsistent with IHL.

While most states expressed a need to further discuss MOTAPM in the framework of CCW, Belarus, Brazil, China, Pakistan, and Russia opposed a renewal discussions on MOTAPMs. Most of these delegations expressed the view that this is an issue concerning the implementation of already existing IHL, including Protocol II, and therefore no new legal regime is needed. Russia expressed that it is “still convinced that ‘humanitarian threats’ related to the use of this weapon are irrelevant and biased,” and argued, “Taking into account the vast existing experience in expert work in this field new attempt to go back to developing additional limitations for MOTAPMs in the Convention framework seems counter-productive.”

Brazil argued that AVMs are a “valid and relevant’ element of a country's defence strategy and thus it does not support any measures that “would entail the need of adapting or even replacing existing stocks of AVMs at an excessive financial and operational costs.” Cuba and Pakistan argued that all types of mines are “legitimate defensive weapons,” even anti-personnel mines.

Improvised explosive devices

Several delegations, including the European Union, Australia, Austria, Colombia, France, Israel, Italy, and Russia, expressed concern with the increasing use of improvised explosive devices, in particular by non-state actors. Many of these support the recommendations by the Sixteenth Annual Conference regarding enhanced exchange of information and development of best practices on this issue within Protocol II.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas

ewipa gazaAustria and the Holy See also expressed concern over the wider use of explosive weapons in populated areas due to the severe harm caused to civilians and their communities. Austria stressed that “the international community should step up its efforts and explore ways on how to more effectively implement the existing legal framework in order to provide adequate protection to civilians from the severe harm of these weapons.” The Holy See highighted the lack of protection of civilians in increasing urbanised wars and argued, “For the credibility and the integrity of the Convention and for the respect of the numerous victims,” the issue of explosive weapons in populated areas should be put on the agenda of the CCW.

Venezuela argued that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, such as is the case in the Gaza, constitute a violation of IHL. Cuba and Venezuela also joined Palestine in condemning Israel’s use of unconventional and internationally prohibited weapons designed to cause maximum damage to civilian populations. Palestine called for the need of members to the CCW to unite against all forms of violation of the Convention.

The particular concern over explosive weapons in populated areas was also included in the final report, which notes “the concerns raised by some High Contracting Parties regarding the implementation of existing international humanitarian law, in particular the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.” In its intervention, the civil society group Article 36 described the bombing and shelling of towns and cities as the “most important humanitarian challenge regarding protection of civilians” and called for an end to the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

Incendiary weapons

Incendiary weapons are largely prohibited under Protocol III, however, due to limitations of the protocol’s definition of incendiary weapons and loopholes that permit certain use of ground-launched incendiary weapons, many states and civil society actors believe that further work is needed on this issue.

Among others, Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, Pakistan, Switzerland, and the United States expressed concern with the continued use of incendiary weapons, especially in Ukraine or Syria, and some states supported further formal discussions on Protocol III. Croatia called for a “strengthening of the Protocol’s definitions and scope by focusing on actual effects of the weapon, and not its intended effects,” and Austria called for an examination of the existing provisions on incendiary weapons under the CCW. The final report “noted the concerns raised by a number of High Contracting Parties over the allegations of use of incendiary weapons against civilians.”

Article 36 called for the use of incendiary weapons to be prohibited, as suggested by a 22-nation initiative in 1979. The group invited those states involved in that proposal to lead the way on this topic in the CCW. In its intervention, Human Rights Watch (HRW) also noted the possibility of an outright ban on incendiary weapons, noting that it would have the most humanitarian benefit. HRW also called for an effects-based definition of incendiary weapons in order to capture all such weapons, including white phosphorus.

HRW also held a side event looking at “Recent Developments on Incendiary Weapons and Cluster Munitions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere”, were representatives of the organisation presented findings from field data collection. HRW presented documentation about the use of incendiary weapons in conflict areas of Ukraine and Syria. Its field research shows evidence that incendiary weapons have been used in the two towns close to Donetsk, Ukraine. With regard to Syria, HRW has recorded at least 57 attacks during the last two years where the Syrian government used incendiary weapons.

HRW also presented strong evidence that Ukrainian government forces were responsible for several cluster munition attacks on central Donetsk in early October this year. Researchers documented 12 incidents, where in addition to evidence from the impact site, eye-witness testimonies confirmed that the cluster munitions came from government-controlled areas southwest of Donetsk. Several rockets that had malfunctioned were found in the area “clearly establishing the flight path of the rockets.”

Conclusion

The weapon systems discussed in CCW meetings are some of the most horrific that humanity has created. Incendiary weapons “inflict excruciatingly painful burns that require equally painful treatment,” as HRW described. Armed drones have caused many civilian casualties and grave psychological and developmental damage, and are currently being operated without transparency largely outside of international law. And autonomous weapons pose the risk of further lowering the threshold of armed violence, undermining human rights and humanitarian law, and stripping human beings of our dignity.

Preventing human suffering should be to overriding concern of a treaty such as the CCW and its Protocols. Its parties have not always put humanitarian protection above military interests, but human security must become central to the evolution of work within the CCW in order to ensure the Convention’s continued relevance. To this end, WILPF stands with those states and organisations that have called for a prohibition on the use of incendiary weapons and on the development of autonomous weapon systems. We call for meaningful human control over all individual attacks by any weapon system and for serious discussions and concrete action related to the use, operation, and proliferation of armed drones. And above all, the bombing and shelling of towns and cities must end, now. It is up to all of us acting within human society to confront and end violent force and the weapons that enable it.