CCW Report, Vol. 9, No. 5

Editorial: CCW struggles
10 September 2021

Ray Acheson | Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

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As the high contracting parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) met this week to prepare for the next Review Conference—scheduled for 13–17 December 2021—they continued to struggle with the structural challenges of the Convention. When it comes to substance, the consensus-as-veto approach to making decisions means that the majority of parties are unable to advance work to prevent grave human suffering. When it comes to finances, the Convention’s coffers are apparently so depleted that states might not even be able to afford to hold the Review Conference at all. We are up against the wall, and it’s time to find a new path.

Militarism vs. humanitarianism

The CCW is said to be important because it “balances” military “necessity” with humanitarian “concerns”. But throughout most of its existence, a handful of its parties have made sure that militarism trumps humanitarianism. When the Convention failed to address the horrific impacts of anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions in the 1990s and 2000s, concerned parties established stand-alone processes to prohibit these weapons. Today, CCW high contracting parties are failing to adequately deal with the insidious impacts of incendiary weapons and mines other than anti-personnel mines (MOTAPM), and the looming threat of autonomous weapon systems.

At this week’s PrepCom, it became clear once again that the majority of CCW states want to review and discuss strengthening the protocol on incendiary weapons, develop a new protocol or other instrument containing prohibitions and restrictions on autonomous weapon systems, and address the human and environmental harms arising from the use of MOTAPM. But in each case, a small number of high contracting parties are preventing progressive action. On incendiary weapons, Russia and a few others say the protocol is good enough as it is, it just needs to be implemented. On autonomous weapons, Russia, the United States, Israel, India, Australia, the Republic of Korea, and a few others say no new restrictions are necessary because these weapons do not exist and therefore prohibiting or restricting them is premature. On MOTAPM, Russia, Pakistan, and a few others say the only problem is “irresponsible use,” otherwise they are legitimate weapons.

The reality, of course, is much different. Incendiary weapons, which cause excruciating burns that are difficult to treat and lead to long-term physical and psychological injury, are restricted by CCW protocol III. But this protocol has two major loopholes, as Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Human Rights Watch point out. First, the protocol prohibits the use of air-delivered incendiary weapons in “concentrations of civilians,” but it has weaker regulations for ground-launched types. Second, many high contracting parties believe the current definition does not cover multipurpose munitions, such as white phosphorus, because the definition is based on the purpose for which they were “primarily designed,” rather than on their effects. Thus, the problem with incendiary weapons is not just implementation of the existing protocol but with the protocol itself. Most states speaking on this issue during the CCW preparatory committee recognised this and requested it be added to the agenda at the RevCon, but a handful of others continued to object.

In this context, Russia expressed alarm at the “increasing attempts” by some countries and civil society groups to use humanitarian concerns as an absolute imperative for restrictive and prohibitive norms against some weapons. This concern is also applicable to the support from the majority of CCW high contracting parties for negotiations to begin next year on a new protocol on autonomous weapon systems. The assertion that this is “premature” is a fallacy. For one thing, the idea behind negotiating a new protocol now is to prevent such weapons from ever being developed or used. It is never “premature” to prevent human suffering. Secondly, the assertion that such weapons do not yet exist, and thus there is not enough knowledge on which to base a prohibition, is equally absurd. One only needs to look at the technologies being developed by tech companies and weapon manufacturers under contract with the departments of “defence” in multiple countries to understand what we’re up against. Just this week, multiple stories appeared in mainstream media with headlines like, “Startups Backed By Google, Peter Thiel, Eric Schmidt And James Murdoch Are Building AI And Facial Recognition Surveillance Tools For The Pentagon.”

Deny, delay, defer

The fact that certain heavily militarised countries are building weapons that can surveill, select, and engage targets without human control is not a secret, even if government representatives to the United Nations want to pretend it is. Denial of reality and deference of action is a tried and tested tactic by violent states, and it is clear they are once again trying to delay any action against their perceived “freedom” to develop and use whatever weapons they want, regardless of what it means for humanity or our planet.

This is why the CCW has failed in the past, and why it looks set to fail now on incendiary weapons, autonomous weapons, and other technologies that have grave impacts not just on individual human beings but on the ways in which violence against human beings is carried out.

Overcoming the tyranny of the minority

But this is clearly not in the interests of the majority of the world’s people or governments—and it is up to the majority to figure out how to overcome the aggressive stalemating of the minority. This could mean moving issues outside of the CCW, either to stand-alone processes such as those that resulted in the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions, or to the UN General Assembly, which resulted in the Arms Trade Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Or it could mean forging ahead over the objections of the states who stand in the way of progress within the CCW. Anyone arguing that this is the “most appropriate forum” for these issues needs to figure out how to make that claim credible, whether by changing the rules of procedure or subverting them in creative ways that allow progress to made.

This is not a small thing. But neither is allowing the most heavily militarised countries in the world to determine our collective norms and laws on weapons. This situation is unacceptable, and it crosses multiple forums. Yet states and other actors have managed to make progress in establishing norms, stigmatising weapons, and achieving concrete disarmament and demilitarisation in many circumstances. What should be clear to most at this point is that we cannot afford to allow the intransigence of the few to hold the rest of us hostage anymore. We cannot afford it literally—our treaty bodies are going broke. And more importantly, we cannot afford it in terms of the human lives and suffering, or in terms of the environmental devastation our planet is undergoing. We have to change what we are doing and how we are doing it, or we are just constructing the means of our own extinction.

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