CCW Report, Vol. 7, No. 8

The CCW is still standing, but to what end?
18 November 2019

Ray Acheson | Reaching Critical Will of WILPF

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Following directly on the heels of a difficult round of disarmament discussions at the UN General Assembly First Committee in New York, the high contracting parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) met in Geneva for their annual meeting to discuss a range of issues including fully autonomous weapons, the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, incendiary weapons, and mines other than anti-personnel mines. As at First Committee, there was a clash between those governments seeking to prevent humanitarian harm from weapons and those resisting any possible curtailment of the development or use of weapons. Since the CCW operates on the basis of consensus-as-unanimity, the handful of states objecting to regulations or restrictions were once again successful in obstructing further work on pretty much all of the CCW’s agenda items. The meeting adopted its final report by consensus, but the agreed outcomes are once again reflective of the lowest common denominator, not a progressive agenda for preventing human suffering from weapons and war.

Discussions about what to do next regarding fully autonomous weapons continued from the latest round of the group of governmental experts (GGE) on the subject, which met in August 2019. The GGE had mostly agreed to a consensus report after an intense late-night debate but punted to the CCW meeting of high contracting parties a decision about how long it would meet for over the next two years. In the end, the parties decided that the GGE will meet for only ten days in 2020 (22–26 June and 10–14 August) and tentatively for another 10–20 days in 2021. During these meetings, the GGE “is to explore and agree on possible recommendations on options related to emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.” To this end, it is to consider the guiding principles adopted this year, previous conclusions of the GGE, and further work on legal, technological, and military aspects of autonomous weapons, “and use them as a basis for its consensus recommendations on the clarification, consideration and development of aspects of the normative and operational framework on emerging technologies in the area of lethal autonomous weapons systems.” 

This goal, as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has noted, is convoluted and ambiguous. As a result of the eight CCW meetings on fully autonomous weapons held since 2014, the international community has “seen strong convergence on the need for some form of human control over the use of force,” notes the Campaign. “However, states still struggle to agree on credible recommendations for multilateral action due to the objections of a handful of military powers, most notably Russia.” The agreement to spend the next two years exploring possible recommendations on options, and clarifying, considering, and developing aspects of a framework, puts the world in a rather dire predicament as the development of fully autonomous weapons proceeds apace outside of the conference halls.

Meanwhile, high contracting parties could not even agree to put other horrific weapons on the CCW’s formal agenda. Most delegations commenting on incendiary weapons condemned or expressed concern about the use of incendiary weapons and their cruel effects. Many of these called for dedicated CCW discussions and/or strengthening of Protocol III. But states failed to reinstate this as an agenda item for 2020 because only two countries publicly opposed it. In the meantime, as Human Rights Watch has pointed out, incendiary weapons are currently being used by the Russian-Syrian military alliance in or near populated areas in Syria.

Similarly, while the majority of states participating in discussions on mines other than anti-personnel mines (MOTAPM) expressed concern at the humanitarian impact from the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of these weapons, a couple of delegations argued against any further restrictions. Russia argued that portraying MOTAPM as a particular humanitarian threat is not “in keeping with reality” while Belarus argued that “arbitrary restrictions” on the use of MOTAPM to protect states’ sovereignty and integrity are unacceptable. Based on the latest draft of the report available upon writing, MOTAPM is not included as an agenda item next year. In fact, there is no reference to MOTAPM in the report at all.

The only issue relatively unscathed by the CCW’s consensus rule is the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). This is because Austria and Ireland have kick-started a process outside of the CCW to carry discussions and action forward. In October, Austria hosted a conference on protecting civilians from urban warfare, which Ireland is following up with a series of informal consultations towards the development of a political declaration to address humanitarian harm from the use of EWIPA. The first consultation will be held on 18 November 2019, the objective of which is to “initiate an inclusive and transparent process through which the international community can engage in discussions on relevant thematic elements for inclusion in a Political Declaration.” So while a handful of states such as Israel, Russia, and the United States argue that the use of EWIPA is not relevant or appropriate for the CCW, the majority of states have found another way to try to prevent humanitarian suffering from this particular practice.

The argument from most of the “usual suspects” objecting to action on certain types of weapons or the use of certain weapons is that all we need is better implementation of international humanitarian law (IHL). This is rather ironic, considering many of the delegations who assert this are those violating IHL. Their refusal to allow multilateral articulation of restrictions or prohibitions on weapons or the use of weapons in order to ensure compliance with IHL would seem to contradict their stated concern with the law’s implementation.

Further complicating this year’s work at CCW was the unprecedented decision to negotiate the final report behind closed doors, resulting in the exclusion of civil society, a vacant plenary room, and the stuffing of (mostly male) delegates into tiny spaces without language interpretation to “reach agreement” on how to move forward. Several governments objected to this decision, which completely belies the transparent and inclusive manner in which the CCW usually operates. Because of this procedure, and due to the fact that the final report

has not yet been released at the time of publication, we cannot guarantee our reporting on final agreements to be correct and encourage readers to check against the final report once it is published.

And so much like First Committee survived its latest iteration despite geopolitical tensions, the unweaving of multilateral rules and commitments, and financial crisis, the CCW, too, is still standing—although becoming less transparent than ever before and more polarised. But those engaged in the work of trying to maintain the rule of law, prohibit weapons, and restrict the use of force need to ask, what can we do to not just preserve the institutions we have but to advance the agendas we set out for them? Can we protect the treaty bodies and the forums for discussion and negotiation without making that an end in itself? Remembering the mandates of these forums is essential, keeping the UN Charter’s commitment to ending the scourge of war for future generations at the core. If we are not advancing disarmament, if we do not approach weapon prohibition and restriction as necessary for international and human security, then these forums will inevitably fail—because we will have failed them.