Restarting disarmament

On ‘domestic’ issues such as the introduction of new medical technologies or pharmaceuticals governments will often be concerned about inadvertent harms to their own citizens, but with weapons the victims are generally expected to be elsewhere, in other countries and other parts of the world. Civil society coalitions can try to represent those interests

Richard Moyes Thomas Nash
4 May 2012

Against a background of technological and social change, weapons continue to pose humanitarian and moral challenges.  It is widely recognised that certain weapons are unacceptable and that others need to be subject to particular controls, but there are significant challenges to developing new and more effective standards to protect people from harm.

The problems posed by weapons are extensive.  Guns and ammunition are traded around the world without effective controls. Towns and cities are bombed and bombarded on a daily basis. Explosives and toxic materials continue to kill and harm after the fighting has stopped. There are drones, computers and robots capable of remote and even automated killing, using new and changing technologies with which we cannot keep pace. As a result of armed violence, civilians suffer deaths in unknown numbers and often without any recognition. In this context a small group of states hold 20,000 nuclear weapons, claiming the right to unleash a humanitarian catastrophe.

In all of these areas, coalitions of civil society organisations are proposing reforms and solutions that would set new international standards and save lives.  But the machinery of ‘disarmament’ – the standing committees and conventions of the United Nations – is not capable of taking up or exploring these issues in an effective way.  Not only do these established mechanisms fail to take issues forward, but they also soak up the time and resources required to get more productive discussions started.  There is a pressing need to restart disarmament based on a commitment to establish strong standards and not be held hostage to the vetoes of states with no wish to promote reform.

Controlling the flow of arms around the world 

The unregulated flow of guns, explosive weapons and ammunition around the world is fuelling armed violence and undermining development. Through the Control Arms Coalition, civil society is calling for tighter controls on the arms trade and a new Arms Trade Treaty is in the final stages of negotiation at the United Nations this year. But with negotiations being undertaken by ‘consensus’, governments will have to take a strong line if the outcome is not going to be fatally weakened.

Explosive weapons in populated areas 

The bombardment of the Syrian town of Homs in the first few months of 2012 has provided another clear example of the unacceptable impact of explosive weapons in populated areas. Research by the NGO Action on Armed Violence suggests that in 2011 some 21,499 civilians were reported killed and injured in 68 countries and territories. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) is a civil society partnership calling on governments to stop the use in populated areas of artillery, rockets and other explosive weapons with wide area effects.

Remnants of conflict: landmines, explosives and toxic materials

Landmines, cluster bombs and other explosive weapons kill and cause injury to civilians long after the guns fall silent. Following global civil society campaigns, landmines and cluster munitions have both been banned under international treaties. However, challenges remain - more countries need to join these treaties, in particular the ban on cluster bombs, and more needs to be done to fulfil the obligations they stipulate for the clearance of land and assistance to victims. The legacy of war also goes beyond the explosive weapons left behind.  The problems posed by hazardous materials used in conflict are now being more closely scrutinised by the recently established project on Toxic Remnants of War.

Prohibiting fully autonomous weapons 

Autonomous weapons are military systems that are able to select and attack targets themselves, without human decision-making.  The development of such technologies passes responsibility from human beings to sensors and algorithms.  The use of drones and military robots is increasingly widespread, but a line must be drawn at the use of fully autonomous weapons.  While it may sound like science fiction today, civil society should organise now to promote an international ban on fully autonomous weapons and to develop a better framework for reviewing new weapons before they enter into widespread use.

Casualty recording

It is the impact of weapons on people that is the foundation of all of these issues. Living in some liberal democracies, we take it for granted that were a loved one killed violently we would be informed of their death promptly, there would be medical records and investigative processes in the interests of justice.  For many people living in situations of conflict and violence there can be no such expectation. Deaths simply go unrecorded and uninvestigated. The Every Casualty Campaign is calling for an international commitment that would build on the ‘Charter for the recognition of every casualty of armed violence’ launched in 2011 by the Oxford Research Group. This reflects the belief that fully understanding the impact of violence is vital to the rights of victims and to the development of responses.

Nuclear weapons

One cannot consider the world of weapons, protection of civilians, and disarmament without tackling nuclear weapons.  When the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement passed a resolution on nuclear weapons at the end of last year, they made a point of highlighting the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.  The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is calling on states to develop an international treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. A key part of the strategy must be for states without nuclear weapons to drive forward negotiations on such a treaty - to take responsibility for setting a clear standard that these weapons are illegal. Such a process would in itself change the landscape in the world of nuclear disarmament and should begin with the recently announced conference to be held in Norway in early 2013 on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

Mechanisms of change 

All of these issues and proposed responses share common characteristics. The first is that they are being promoted by civil society organisations working in coalitions.  Such coalitions provide a mechanism for partner organisations in different countries to work together to shape a common agenda.  Very often they take as their starting point a representation of the concerns of the victims (or potential victims) of the weapons in question.  Whilst on ‘domestic’ issues such as the introduction of new medical technologies or pharmaceuticals governments will often be concerned about inadvertent harms to their own citizens, with weapons the victims are generally expected to be elsewhere, in other countries and other parts of the world.  Civil society coalitions can try to represent those interests, can gather evidence of problems caused and challenge governments with such evidence and arguments in the fora of national and international decision-making.

But the fora of international decision-making are a significant part of the problem.  Bodies such as the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons rely on a consensus decision-making practice, which effectively gives a veto to any one state to block agreement.  The UN’s First Committee on Disarmament is similarly stifled and the UN Conference on Disarmament has not been able to agree on a meaningful work programme for years. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a treaty that was supposed to promote the renunciation of nuclear weapons, nuclear armed states such as the UK claim they that they have received a legal stamp of approval to continue holding and even upgrading these weapons.  All of these frameworks, which demand the time of civil servants and diplomats throughout the calendar year, not only cost money through UN subsidies but also leave little time or space for government officials to work in settings where they might be able to make a difference.

In December 2008, states signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Oslo, demonstrating that the model set out by the ban on landmines in 1997 was not a ‘one-off’. This campaign is explored in a chapter for this year’s Global Civil Society Yearbook, which considers some of the building blocks of the so-called Oslo Process to ban cluster bombs[TN1] . The treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions provide indications of a positive way forward – states committed to reform coming together in a format where they are not held hostage by those that prefer the status quo, and with an emphasis on setting standards rather than getting everyone on board. But we have to recognize their limitations in the current context.  Such processes require substantial funding, time and energy and can be very difficult to initiate against the backdrop of standing meetings already in place.


All of the weapons issues considered here are pressing concerns in their own right.  But a wider concern should be that our current international frameworks so rarely allow space for the sort of responses that we know are possible.  The challenge then is for governments concerned with these issues to find cost-effective and time-efficient ways to come together to engage with these problems and to articulate the common standards they hold.  In doing so they will exert a wider influence and set the terms of public discussion under which those that transgress these standards must operate, whether they like it or not.  Civil society coalitions, with public engagement and support, need to urge states to create that space and not to fall back on the established disarmament machinery as a fig leaf for their own lack of courage and commitment.

 [TN1]See Global Civil Society 2012

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