Current state of affairs in the field of disarmament and arms control

Statement of Robert Mardini, Permanent Observer of the ICRC to the United Nations. UN General Assembly, 73rd session First Committee.

17 October 2018

Exchange with the High Representative for Disarmament Affairs and other High-Level Officials on the current state of affairs in the field of disarmament and arms control.

I am honored to address the First Committee today to bring you the perspective of the ICRC, an independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian organization working in over 80 countries to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence, and to promote respect for international humanitarian law (IHL). My focus today will be on the link between "disarmament" and humanitarian principles.

First of all, let me welcome again the UN Secretary-General's Agenda for Disarmament, "Securing our Common Future", which is very timely. Like the Secretary-General, we share the views that "the urbanization of armed conflict has resulted in devastating and well documented impacts on civilians". The ICRC stands ready to work with the UN family towards "Disarmament that saves lives" by addressing the human suffering caused by the widespread availability of conventional arms, the threats to civilian posed by landmines and explosive remnants of war and the high human cost of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Disarmament, IHL and humanitarian principles

Armed conflict is changing. It is now more protracted, deadly, fragmented and urbanized than ever before. Nowhere are these trends more prevalent today than in the conflicts raging in the Middle East, a region for which I oversaw the ICRC's operations over the past 6 years.

The evolving global environment poses profound challenges for civilians, belligerents, and humanitarians. But the changing environment makes respect for these laws more important. These rules, often enshrined in customary law and inspired by public conscience, impose constraints on the development and use of means and methods of warfare. They protect civilians from indiscriminate effects and combatants from unnecessary suffering.

As humanitarian actors we also must deal with the new challenges while remaining faithful to the humanitarian principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement: Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality and Independence.

Throughout its over 150-year history of humanitarian practice, the ICRC has witnessed first-hand the unacceptably high human costs of certain weapons. In response, we have called for the development of new rules to prohibit or restrict the use of these weapons.

We know that disarmament is firmly rooted in humanitarian rules and principles and can saves lives.

I want to touch upon three areas of concern: Firstly, the use of heavy explosive weapons in densely populated, urban areas; secondly, landmines and explosive remnants of war – that is, weapons that keep on harming and killing people long after active hostilities have ended; and thirdly the widespread and poorly controlled availability of conventional arms, fed by irresponsible arms transfers, facilitating serious violations of IHL and human rights and fueling conflict and violence.

Explosive weapons in populated areas

Since 2011 the ICRC has been calling on States and parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in densely populated areas due to the high likelihood of indiscriminate effects in such environments. These weapons were designed for open battlefields and are inappropriate for populated environments where they can have a devastating impact on civilians. Over the last decade, the ICRC has witnessed a pattern of significant direct and indirect civilian harm from the use of these weapons in places such as in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

Heavy explosive weapons not only kill or maim those in the weapon's immediate impact zone, but they can have significant and often long-term indirect effects that ultimately affect a much larger part of the population, especially when critical civilian infrastructure is disabled. So for example, when a power plant is incidentally damaged or destroyed a power failure results. This triggers deadly domino effects on services essential for the survival of the civilian population. Electrical power failures affect the ability of hospitals to provide emergency and primary health care. Patients die and people suffer. Without power, water purification and distribution systems no longer function, leading to water shortage. Eventually diseases spread and further deaths result. When armed conflict is prolonged, services are often damaged beyond repair, making life for civilians in the affected area impossible, which leads to displacement.

This is a daily and deadly reality for thousands of civilians in urban conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. They are forced to bear the tragic cost of means and methods of warfare not adapted to densely populated environments. The consequences of the use of heavy explosive weapons are devastating. In Yemen, for instance, critical infrastructure have been repeatedly attacked and destroyed, disrupting the delivery of essential services to people. The health care system is collapsing. An unprecedented cholera epidemic has broken out. These effects are foreseeable and preventable. And warring sides must adapt their policies and practices regarding their choice of weapons in populated areas to minimize civilian harm. The ICRC continues to engage States and non-State armed groups for this purpose.

On Weapons that keep on killing

Landmines, unexploded cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war kill and injure many thousands of civilians each year both during and long after active hostilities have ended. While significant progress has been made since the adoptions of APMBC and Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in curbing the use of these indiscriminate weapons, ensuring the destruction of existing stockpiles, and clearing contaminated lands, challenges persist. Large areas of the world remain contaminated by anti-personnel mines and explosive remnants, posing a daily threat to civilians, hampering agriculture, trade and development, and hindering humanitarian operations. For instance, in eastern Ukraine, particularly in rural areas, the presence of mines impedes everyday activities, such as travel by road, herding animals, working in the fields, farming and collecting firewood, or crossing checkpoints on the line of contact.

Explosive remnants of war, in particular as a result of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, pose the greatest threat to civilians today, especially in protracted conflicts. A rocket that missed the target and failed to explode, landing in front of a medical facility, will deprive hundreds of civilians from access to life-saving health-care. An unexploded rocket, landing in front of a damaged power plant, will block access for technical personnel able to repair the damaged infrastructure; or it may explode after the end of hostilities, killing or injuring the children playing next to it.

With all these weapons, contamination is fast, and clearance very slow and extremely costly. Every year, the ICRC, Red Cross and Red Crescent societies and other organisations continue to treat thousands of new victims of landmines, cluster munitions and ERW. According to the Landmine Monitor, the vast majority (over three-quarters) of these are civilians, including children, and for cluster munitions this figure skyrockets to 99%, as the Cluster Munitions Monitor attests. The ICRC undertakes specific initiatives to prevent and address the effects of mines, cluster munitions and ERW, including awareness-raising, physical rehabilitation and support for the social and economic inclusion of survivors. The APMBC, the CCM and the Protocol on ERW explicitly establish the collective responsibility of States to provide assistance to the victims of these "weapons that keep on killing". All stakeholders must do more to protect civilians and their communities from the indiscriminate harm caused by these weapons. Their very presence is a major obstacle to the implementation of the SDGs.

Last but not least, on Arms availability and irresponsible arms transfers

Violence and conflicts are fueled by a steady supply of arms and ammunition – which almost always makes things worse. Irresponsible arms transfers can result in weapons – directly or by deviation – falling into the wrong hands. When conventional arms are poorly regulated and widely available, the humanitarian consequences are grim. As we witness in many regions of the world, the result is tremendous human suffering, perpetuation of conflict, and local, regional and global insecurity.

In most of the countries where the ICRC works – be it in the Central African Republic or Yemen, or Syria or Latin America – we continuously witness first-hand these terrible consequences.

Arms suppliers have a duty to consider the risk of the weapons they provide being used to commit, or facilitate, serious violations of human rights and IHL. In fact, all States along the arms transfer chain have a vital role to play in preventing the devastating and irreparable harm that comes when weapons fall into the wrong hands – by upholding IHL and by acting responsibly at every step. This duty is enshrined in Article 1 common to the Geneva Conventions and in the principles of the Arms Trade Treaty. The Treaty – whose very purpose is to prioritize humanitarian interests and, in doing so, to reduce human suffering – will only be effective if it is applied in good faith, consistently, and without bias or discrimination, and at all levels including at the top.

States supporting parties to the conflict have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure respect for IHL. They must use their influence and leverage on parties to the conflict, to make them improve behavior and respect IHL. Simply put: No support without compliance! There should be no support to warring sides if they do not respect the laws of war. This simple condition will save lives.

Allow me to conclude with the words of ICRC President Peter Maurer that summarize the relationship between disarmament and humanitarian principles: ''When there is humanity in war and respect for IHL, there is a better chance for peace''.