Dr. Helen Durham

40th Anniversary of the CCW: States must not let military technology put aside humanitarian concerns

Statement to Event on the 40th Anniversary of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons
Statement 22 October 2020

As delivered by Dr. Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy

The 40th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) gives us a moment to pause and reflect on the important role this Convention has played in addressing and reducing suffering during times of armed conflict.

Now, the Convention and its protocols restrict the use of weapons that raise humanitarian and legal concerns, and in particular, weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering or that may have indiscriminate effects.

Now along with the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, the CCW is a major part of the framework of international humanitarian law, and over the years, the ICRC has played a strong role in the development and promotion of this treaty.

Indeed, we convened a group of experts that laid the foundational framework for the creation of the treaty, we're engaged in a number of the negotiations at a diplomatic sense, and over the years we have worked very hard to bring issues such as blinding laser weapons and the Protocol on explosive remnants of war, among others, to the attention of this Convention resulting in initiatives that launched prohibitions.

At the time of the adoption of the Convention in 1980, the ICRC said, this Convention has "...great importance... in avoiding unnecessary suffering and further protecting the civilian population". We also at the time expressed the hope that the Convention "will not only reduce the harm caused by war, but also mitigate the hatred among belligerents" and that it must be considered "as a step forward in the difficult path towards universal peace." Now, this remain true today.

Over past 40 years, the CCW has demonstrated it is a dynamic instrument that can respond to advancements in weapons and evolving ways of warfare. This is illustrated by the work on new weapons technologies, from the blinding laser weapons issues in the 1990's to autonomous weapon systems today and the current work on improvised explosive devices.

In our view, the Convention reflects minimum standards applicable in all armed conflicts, and thus, ICRC calls on all States to adhere to the Convention and its Protocols as soon as possible.
The Convention has proven to be a framework within which humanitarian concerns can be addressed on new or existing weapons.

Now all eyes are currently on the CCW as it grapples with the humanitarian, legal and fundamental ethical questions that relate to autonomous weapon systems.

After seven years of discussion at the CCW, it now is time to take action and demonstrate once again the relevance of the CCW – its ability to adapt and to face the evolving nature of warfare.

States should draw on the Convention's past successes as well as the challenges and learn and move forward. They must not let military technology put aside humanitarian concerns. We must work urgently to establish internationally agreed upon limits on autonomous weapons systems. Now, the preparations for the Sixth Review Conference in 2021 provide an ideal opportunity and we must seize this initiative.