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Vienna Diplomatic Conference Achieves New Prohibition on Blinding Laser Weapons and Deadlock on Landmines


Review Conference of the States Party to the United Nations Convention on certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), Vienna, 25 September- 13 October 1995

 Outcome of the Conference  

 Geneva, 13 October 1995 . The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) welcomes the adoption today of a new legally binding humanitarian law instrument which will prohibit the intentional use of laser weapons to blind soldiers or civilians. This is one of the few times that a particularly barbarous form of warfare has been prohibited in advance. However the Vienna Review Conference of the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which has just concluded three weeks of negotiations in Vienna, was unable to fulfil its principal mandate of negotiating new restrictions on the use of landmines, which currently kill and maim some 2,000 persons per month throughout the world. The Conference will reconvene in Geneva from January 15 to 19, 1996 to consider certain technical and legal aspects and again, in full session, in Geneva from April 22 until May 3.

 Overly technical proposals and political unwillingness to limit the use of landmines  

The ICRC deeply regrets that the Review Conference was unable to agree on measures to prohibit or severely restrict the use of landmines. This unfortunate outcome reflects both the overly complex technical nature of many of the proposals considered and an unwillingness on the part of many States to place significant limits on landmine use to achieve the humanitarian goals of the Conference.

Since it opened on 25 September the Vienna Review Conference achieved a large measure of provisional agreement on amendments to the CCW's Protocol II on landmines which the ICRC considers important steps forward, including:

- Extension of the scope of the landmine restrictions to cover internal as well as international armed conflicts;

- Assignment of responsibility for the clearance of landmines to those who lay them;

- Increased protection from landmines for ICRC, national Red Cross and Red Crescent personnel and other humanitarian workers;

- A requirement that all minefields be recorded; and

- A prohibition on the use of mechanisms which cause a mine to explode when an electromagnetic detector, such as those used by mine clearance teams, comes near it.

A number of other rules were considered but either ran into deadlock over technical issues or were weakened by the introduction of exceptions:

- A prohibition on the use of anti-personnel mines which are not detectable (however no agreement was possible on specifying a minimum metallic content for achieving this or on the maximum time period for its implementation) ;

- A prohibition of the use of long-lived anti-personnel mines except in fenced, marked and guarded minefields (however, most delegations were willing to waive this provision in situations "where direct enemy military action makes it impossible to comply") ;

- A requirement to use self-destructing mines in areas from which civilians are not excluded by physical barriers (however there was no agreement either on a maximum permissible failure rate of self-destructing mechanisms or on the length of the "grace period" for implementation of this provision) .

The ICRC regrets that, in the course of negotiations, proposals were blocked which would have required that anti-tank mines be detectable and which would prohibit their use with anti-handling mechanisms - which cause a mine to explode when clearance teams attempt to remove it. It also regrets that no verification provisions were agreed upon, either for the reliability rates of self-destructing mines or for alleged violations of the amended Protocol.

 Until a ban is achieved, mines must be subject to greater international scrutiny, regular review and national legislation  

Despite the impasse over landmines, the ICRC sees the Vienna Review Conference as a step towards the stigmatization and elimination of anti-personnel landmines. The Conference clearly demonstrated that the international public outcry about these weapons has broken the consensus that they are legitimate weapons of war. By the first week of the Review Conference some sixteen states had joined with the ICRC, the UN Secretary General, the Organization of African Unity and the European Parliament in calling for total prohibition. Other groupings of States supported bans on all non-self destructing anti-personnel mines, on all remotely-delivered mines and on the use of mines in international armed conflicts. Most States and insurgent groups now understand that the use of these weapons will be subject to increasing international scrutiny.

The ICRC supports the Conference's decision to continue negotiations with the aim of urgently arriving at more effective results than would have been achieved in Vienna and plans to play an active role in the preparation of this meeting. In the meantime, the ICRC urges States to begin implementing immediately and unilaterally the types of measures for the protection of civilians which they advocated in the Review Conference.

In addition, enhanced public efforts at the national level will be needed to ensure:

- The maintenance and strengthening of existing moratoria on the international transfer of anti-personnel mines;

- The prohibition of national production and use of such mines;

- For States which have not yet done so, accession to the 1980 Convention including its existing landmine Protocol; and

- Promotion of more stringent measures, including a total ban on anti-personnel mines.

 Blinding Laser Weapons: new Protocol bans use and transfer  

The Conference's addition of a new fourth Protocol prohibiting intentional blinding with laser weapons represents a significant breakthrough in international humanitarian law. The prohibition, in advance, of the use of an abhorrent new weapon the production and proliferation of which appeared imminent is an historic step for humanity. It represents the first time since 1868, when the use of exploding bullets was banned, that a weapon of military interest has been banned before its use on the battlefield and before a stream of victims gave visible proof of its tragic effects.  

The new Protocol prohibits both the use and transfer of laser weapons specifically designed, as one of their combat functions, to blind permanently. It also requires States to take all feasible precautions, including training of armed forces, to avoid permanent blinding through the legitimate use of other laser systems. This Protocol is the first time that both the use and transfer of a weapon has been entirely prohibited under international humanitarian law. This demonstrates the strict nature of the prohibition.

Efforts to achieve this Protocol were initiated by Sweden and Switzerland at the 1986 International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and pursued by the ICRC in accordance with its mandate for the promotion and development of international humanitarian law. Between 1989 and 1991 the ICRC convened four international meetings of experts on this issue and in 1993 published Blinding Weapons - the primary reference work on the subject.

As with landmines, the ICRC stresses the importance of vigorous national efforts to ensure implementation of the new Protocol on blinding laser weapons, including:

- Acceptance of the Protocol by national governments at the earliest possible date; and

- National measures to prevent the production and proliferation of blinding laser weapons.

 Solution lies in political decisions  

The deadlock with which the Vienna Review Conference ended demonstrates that not enough countries yet consider the landmine issue to be a major humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. The ICRC encourages all states which will participate in the resumed session of the Review Conference to rise above their narrow national interests in the general interest of humanity.