CCW Report, Vol. 4, No. 1

Editorial: As the world burns
12 December 2016

Ray Acheson

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As governments meet in Geneva to review implementation of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)—the treaty that restricts or prohibits weapons that have been deemed “excessively injurious” or to have indiscriminate effects—the destruction of eastern Aleppo, Syria is well underway.

This city has seen the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, including incendiary weapons, chemical weapons, and cluster munitions. No humanitarian aid has reached the area since July 2016, when the government and Russia cut off the last supply routes into the city. There are currently 275,000 civilians besieged in eastern Aleppo, including 100,000 children, subject to incessant bombing by government forces. Leaflets warning civilians that they would be annihilated if they stay are being dropped and there is widespread concern about the impact of potentially 200,000 residents fleeing to neighbouring countries.

The situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, a failure of the international community’s commitments and obligations to prevent human suffering. It is also a failure of disarmament and arms control regimes, including the CCW.

Many states parties to the CCW pride the treaty on its “appropriate balance” of “military necessity” with “humanitarian cost”. Some of these states have used this formulation to prevent the prohibition of antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions within the CCW, compelling other states to negotiate bans on these weapons in alternative, innovative multilateral processes. While that end result is a positive one, it also demonstrates the limitations of the CCW. Others have misused the CCW’s rule of consensus to prevent the development of truly progressive restrictions or prohibitions on relevant weapon systems for years, fighting off amendments to existing protocols or the development of new ones. This has direct humanitarian consequences in conflicts around the world, where states and non-state actors continue to have access to weapons, or perceived justification for the use of weapons, that should be outlawed under the CCW or other relevant instruments.

When it comes to incendiary weapons, which burn objects and people through flame or heat, Protocol III of the CCW has proven insufficient to prevent human suffering. These weapons have been used against civilians in Syria since 2012, inflicting what Human Rights Watch has described as “unimaginable pain and horrific injuries,” charring some victims “beyond recognition”. Some states, along with civil society groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross, have encouraged the CCW to take up deliberations on amending the protocol. Human Rights Watch has argued that all use of incendiary weapons near civilians should be prohibited, regardless of the means of delivery of the weapons, and that there should be an effects-based definition of incendiary weapons that includes white phosphorus. But some states parties, including those currently using the weapon, have resisted even the convening of discussions about amending the protocol.

Meanwhile, civil society groups have been encouraging states to negotiate a ban on autonomous weapons for years. Witnessing the horrific humanitarian consequences of use of armed drones and wishing to prevent the further automation of means of violence, many states are calling for meaningful human control over all attacks. After three years of informal meetings of experts, the CCW is finally poised to establish a formal Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to address this issue in 2017. But as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has noted, the pace and intensity of deliberations on autonomous weapons is critically lacking. States parties’ recommendation to the Review Conference is for a GGE to come up with “options” for future work. Meanwhile, the pace of technological development may soon make work in the CCW on preventing autonomous weapons irrelevant—which is presumably the goal of some states parties. Either the CCW will need to step up its efforts or the issue of preventing killer robots will need to be taken up elsewhere.

Discussions on mines other than anti-personnel mines (MOTAPM) also continue to be divisive. Some states parties argue that Amended Protocol II is inadequate and limited in protecting against the humanitarian consequences of such mines, and have proposed a mandate for a GGE on this issue. Others argue that this would undermine the CCW as a platform for balancing military necessity with humanitarian concerns. At the same time, many states parties have seemed interested in addressing improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the context of the CCW. But others have raised concern that treating IEDs as distinct from antipersonnel landmines or booby traps, and looking only at non-state actor use, is a way for states parties to avoid their own responsibilities under the CCW or the Mine Ban Treaty.

More broadly, states and others have over the past few years articulated the use of explosive weapons in populated areas as a key concern with relevance for the CCW. In its national capacity, Austria is leading states towards the development of a political commitment to end this practice. While the CCW is not seen by many as a suitable forum for discussion on this particular issue, it has been raised at CCW meetings and will likely continue to be raised, given its intersection with many other relevant issues on the CCW agenda.

How this issue is handled, as with all the other issues mentioned here, is of critical importance to the CCW’s relevance and legitimacy. This treaty was designed to protect civilians and combatants in situations of armed conflict. Its structure as a convention with protocols was a deliberate attempt to ensure the treaty could be expanded and updated to account for technological and methodological developments in warfare. Refusing to discuss proposed amendments to existing protocols or to undertake the negotiation of new protocols goes against the purpose of the treaty and risks further humanitarian devastation. If states parties want the CCW to have any credibility they must start taking their obligations seriously and stop hiding behind—and creating—loopholes to justify violations of international humanitarian law.

The Fifth CCW Review Conference will run from 12 to 16 December. Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament programme of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, will provide full coverage of the conference through this daily report. It will provide analysis and advocacy, highlights from the expert discussions, and reports on side events. You can subscribe to receive this report by email by going to www.reachingcriticalwill.org. On that website, you can also find statements, documents, archived CCW Reports, and more information. 

You can also follow the discussions on Twitter at #CCWUN, #killerrobots, @RCW_, and @BanKillerRobots, among others. 

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