Portfolio of Humanitarian Disarmament Challenges

Antipersonnel Landmines

Antipersonnel and antivehicle landmines are inherently indiscriminate weapons that primarily kill and maim civilians. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of antipersonnel mines and requires the destruction of stockpiles within four years, clearance of all mined areas within 10 years, and victim assistance. Established through the ground-breaking, fast-track diplomatic “Ottawa Process” led by Canada that saw the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its then-coordinator Ms. Jody Williams play a central role, acknowledged by the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. The Mine Ban Treaty entered into force on 1 March 1999 and has 164 States Parties.

Autonomous Weapons

Remote-controlled aerial vehicles or “drones” are one example of how technology is moving rapidly towards greater autonomy, a road that could end with the development of fully autonomous weapons or ‘killer robots’ if action is not taken now. Once activated, such weapons systems would select and attack targets on the battlefield without any further human intervention, dramatically changing the nature of warfare and undermining fundamental protections to civilians. In 2013, NGOs launched the global Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. Six months later nations agreed to begin discussing concerns raised by lethal autonomous weapons systems at the Geneva-based Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). The talks continue, but have not delivered the international ban treaty sought by so many.

Biological Weapons

Biological warfare is the intentional use of disease-causing micro-organisms, or other entities, that can replicate themselves-such as viruses, infectious nucleic acids and prions-against humans, animals or plants for hostile purposes. This dangerous form of warfare may also involve the use of toxins, which are poisonous substances produced by living organisms, including micro-organisms, plants and animals, as well as synthetically manufactured toxins used for hostile purposes. Biological weapons could cause casualties of the order of magnitude of a nuclear weapon. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention comprehensively prohibits biological and toxin weapons. It entered into force on 26 March 1975 and has 175 States Parties and eight signatories.

Chemical Weapons

Modern chemical weapons were used for the first time in Belgium during World War I and more recently by the Syrian government forces. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons by States Parties, which must destroy any stocks. The Chemical Weapons Convention entered into force on 29 April 1997 and has 193 States Parties while Israel signed in 1993 but has never ratified.

Cluster Munitions

Cluster munitions pose an immediate threat to civilians during conflict by scattering multiple submunitions or bomblets over a wide area, including many that fail to explode upon impact and–like landmines–pose a threat for years after conflict ends. Established in 2003, the Cluster Munition Coalition cooperated with Norway and like-minded states on the Oslo Process that led to the adoption of the Convention on Cluster Munitions on 30 May 2008. The treaty prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions. It requires destruction of stockpiled cluster munitions within eight years and clearance of contaminated areas within 10 years, and establishes a strong framework for assistance to cluster munition victims. It entered into force on 1 August 2010 and has 108 states parties and 13 signatories.

Controlling Arms Transfers

Thousands of people are killed, injured, raped, and forced to flee from their homes in armed violence fuelled by the global arms trade, which was unregulated until the Arms Trade Treaty was adopted on 2 April 2013 when 155 nations voted in the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the arms treaty text. The Arms Trade Treaty sets a minimum standard for transfers of conventional weapons and munitions. Control Arms leads civil society engagement in the universalization and implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into-force on 24 December 2014 and has 105 states parties and 33 signatories.

Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas

While antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions have been banned due to their devastating impact on civilian populations, there is an urgent need to address the broader problem of civilian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. Such weapons include mortars, artillery shells and aircraft bombs that use blast and fragmentation to kill and injure people. This “wide area of impact can be devastating when the weapons are used in populated areas. Established in 2011, the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW) calls for action to address the humanitarian impact of explosive weapons used in populated areas. In 2020, Ireland has led a process to conclude a political declaration.

Incendiary Weapons

Incendiary weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus are used to attack both personnel and materiel, but cause particularly cruel injuries to both civilians and combatants. They are also prone to being indiscriminate by starting fires and causing casualties over a large area without distinction. Existing international law aimed at regulating incendiary weapons has failed to protect civilians and white phosphorus is not covered as it is not “primarily designed” as an incendiary weapon. Human Rights Watch is campaigning for Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) states parties to review and amend the 30-year-old provisions of Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons, which has 117 States Parties.

“Less Lethal” Weapons

Many potentially problematic weapons and technologies are being developed by the US and other nations under programs of “non lethal” or “less lethal” weapons. Of particular concern are directed energy weapons, including acoustic, laser, and microwave weapons. Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross helped bring about Protocol IV of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which bans blinding laser weapons. Both organizations monitor emerging weapons and technologies for compliance with International Humanitarian Law, including directed energy weapons.

Nuclear Weapons

As shown in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago, the use of nuclear weapons causes death, disfigurement, disease and massive long-term destruction to human society and the environment.  A process to consider the humanitarian consequences and risks associated with the use of nuclear weapons resulted in the adoption on 7 July 2017 by 122 nations of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The treaty prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, transfer, and other activities involving nuclear weapons and includes obligations to support the victims of nuclear weapons use and testing and to remediate environmental damage. Launched in 2007, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) received the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize “for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”

Small arms and light weapons

Small arms and light weapons are distinguished from other weapons by their portability and ease of use, and include everything from pistols to shoulder-held light missile systems. Every year, these weapons are involved in more deaths from conflict and violence than any other type of weapon. Illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons fuel conflicts and illegal activities. Under the 2001 Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in small arms and light weapons contains national, regional and global commitments to address the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects. The 2001 International Tracing Instrument provides a framework to further facilitate the tracking and tracing small arms and light weapons. Since 1999, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), comprised of over 800 NGOs worldwide, has monitored implementation of the Programme of Action on illicit transfers of small arms and light weapons.

Toxic Remnants of War and Depleted Uranium

Depleted Uranium is a chemically toxic and radioactive compound used in armour piercing munitions because of its high density. The International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons (ICBUW) works to achieve a global ban on the use of uranium in all conventional weapon systems, as well as to provide health and environmental assistance to affected communities. In 2011, ICBUW and IKV Pax Christi (now PAX) launched the Toxic Remnants of War research project to catalogue and classify a range of substances that are used during conflict and which may have a long-term health impact on civilians, or result in damage to the environment.

Article 36 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions requires that states ensure that any new weapon, means or method of warfare does not contravene existing rules of international law.

[Last Updated in April 2020 – Contact Us with updates/corrections]