Disarmament efforts essential to address humanitarian concerns of weapons technologies

Statement to the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, First Committee: General debate on all disarmament and international security agenda items
Statement 19 October 2020

Delivered by Ms. Véronique Christory, Senior Arms Control Adviser, ICRC New York

Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is grateful for this opportunity to address the First Committee and the critically important issues on its agenda. The ICRC brings to these discussions its experience as a humanitarian organization working worldwide to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict, its knowledge of the effects of weapons on civilians and combatants, and its expertise in international humanitarian law (IHL).

This year we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter. The birth of the United Nations in 1945 instilled in us the hope that we could save succeeding generations from the scourge of war. Since then, the world has not had another world war, and the UN has worked tirelessly to maintain international peace and security. Yet, unfortunately, armed conflicts continue to rage and to cause devastating consequences globally. Today's armed conflicts generally last longer, are more fragmented and more urbanized than at any time in the last few decades, and they are fought with ever evolving technologies.

With the increasing urbanization of warfare comes immense civilian harm. This harm is direct and indirect, immediate and long-term, visible and invisible. Similarly, the pace at which new technology is being developed for use in warfare cannot be ignored. New scientific and technological developments do hold great promise for humanity. While we hear the argument that the development of new weapons technologies may – depending on the technology, the circumstances and how they are used – help reduce civilian harm, their use in warfare also gives rise to serious legal and ethical dilemmas and has the potential to cause profound human suffering. It is critical, therefore, that we all work together to prevent the potentially disastrous effects of unrestrained technological developments being used in war.

It is important to underscore that war must be waged within the bounds of the law and that, in the conduct of military operations, parties must take constant care to spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects. The ICRC urges States to use the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter as an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to respecting and ensuring respect for IHL. This includes good-faith and effective implementation of the rules on the conduct of hostilities and the rules prohibiting or restricting the use of certain weapons.

This year also marks a more sombre anniversary: 75 years since nuclear weapons were first used, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These horrific events have left an indelible mark on humanity's conscience. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has attested to the unimaginable scale of the devastation and suffering wrought by the atomic bombs, including the long-term effects of radiation exposure.

Less than a month after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ICRC called for nuclear weapons to be banned outright. This call resonated widely. A few months later, aware of the dangers posed by these weapons to global order and the rule of law, the UN General Assembly called, in its very first resolution, for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

In 2017, 122 States responded to this longstanding concern by adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Its imminent entry into force is a truly historic achievement, signalling that any use, threat of use or possession of these weapons is unacceptable in humanitarian, moral and now also legal terms. Crucially, it offers a promise to current and future generations that one day we will be freed of the dark shadow of nuclear warfare.

Such a signal is needed more than ever in a world in which the risk of the use of nuclear weapons continues to grow. Concerted efforts to reduce nuclear risks are urgently needed. The tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons will be a crucial opportunity to implement longstanding risk-reduction commitments and halt and reverse the disturbing trend towards a new nuclear arms race.

Mr Chair,

Despite technological advances, today's armed conflicts continue to be fought predominantly using heavy explosive weapons such as artillery, large mortars, bombs and missiles, and multi-barrel rocket launchers. While no general prohibition of these weapons exists under IHL, their wide area effects make them ill-adapted for use in urban environments, where most fighting currently takes place. The ICRC remains deeply concerned by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas. Even when used against military objectives located in populated area, such weapons cause devastating direct and indirect civilian harm. In particular, their use results in unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and destruction, directly caused by the weapons' blast and fragmentation effects. Our first-hand experience shows that it also causes significant indirect (or reverberating) effects such as disruptions in the water and electricity supply, health care and other services essential to the survival of the civilian population. Bombing and shelling cities displaces people and causes major setbacks to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. This grave pattern of harm cannot simply be accepted as a normal and inevitable consequence of war.

This harsh reality faced by millions of civilians has been exacerbated by the outbreak of COVID-19. Without essential services, simple preventive measures such as handwashing and self-isolation become impossible, and treating patients is just unrealistic. In a joint op-ed published earlier this year with the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, we described how the use of heavy explosive weapons hampers societies' capacity to contain COVID-19, and we called once again on States and all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas. Such an avoidance policy means heavy explosive weapons should not, as a matter of policy and good practice, be used in populated areas, unless sufficient mitigation measures are taken to limit their wide area effects and the consequent risk of civilian harm.

The ICRC firmly supports the ongoing diplomatic process led by Ireland to draft a political declaration addressing the civilian harm caused by explosive weapons in populated areas. We are confident that it will produce strong commitments to strengthen the protection of civilians and facilitate respect for IHL, including the setting out of restrictions and limitations on the use of explosive weapons. We urge all States to work together to this end.

Mr Chair,

Cluster munitions are an example of a weapon with wide area effects whose use raises serious concerns in humanitarian terms wherever they are used, and in particular in urban areas. They also keep on killing long after conflict ends. By comprehensively prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has been of considerable help in saving lives, limbs and livelihoods.

The ICRC urges States to seize the opportunity of the review conference next month, presided by Switzerland, to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, uphold its norms and redouble their efforts towards its faithful implementation, in order to advance the Convention's goal of a world free of cluster munitions. The ICRC is deeply concerned about the repeated reports of cluster munition use in several contexts and of civilians bearing the brunt of that use since the last review conference. Let us be unequivocal: any use, anywhere, by anyone, must be condemned.

The widespread availability of arms and poor control over their transfer, including of small arms, light weapons and ammunition, are also a source of grave human suffering in current armed conflicts. They feed conflict, erode security, provoke displacement within and across borders and can destabilize entire regions. The ICRC is concerned that a steady supply of conventional arms continues to fuel serious violations of IHL and human rights law in armed conflicts and other situations of violence in many parts of the world.

International and regional instruments, most notably the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), are designed to prevent such violations by establishing norms for responsible arms transfers and promoting transparency, with a view to reducing human suffering. The ICRC welcomes progress towards universal adherence to the ATT. But the ATT can only fulfil its promise if humanitarian considerations are at the heart of States Parties' arms transfer decisions at all levels, and if they implement the ATT in a consistent, objective and non-discriminatory manner, to the highest possible standard, bearing in mind their obligation to respect and ensure respect for IHL.

Mr Chair,

In addition to the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter mentioned earlier, this year also marks the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). This gives us the opportunity to recall the important role that the CCW plays in efforts to minimize suffering in armed conflict, in order to both build on its successes and learn from the challenges that it faces. The CCW and its Protocols establish prohibitions and restrictions on the use of weapons which raise specific humanitarian and legal concerns, in particular weapons that may cause unnecessary suffering or that may have indiscriminate effects. The developments in the past 40 years demonstrate that the CCW is a dynamic instrument that can respond to advancements in weapons technology and the evolution of armed conflict, as shown in particular by the Protocols on blinding laser weapons and explosive remnants of war, and the amendment extending the CCW's scope of application to non-international armed conflicts. Today, it is critical that the CCW lives up to its potential, by responding to new advancements in weapons technology.

With regard to new technologies, the ICRC is concerned about developments towards increasingly autonomous weapon systems, understood as weapon systems that select and apply force to targets without human intervention. The associated erosion of human control over the use of force creates clear risks for civilians and combatants who are no longer fighting, challenges related to compliance with IHL, and fundamental ethical concerns about leaving life-and-death decisions to sensors and software.

The ICRC is convinced that internationally agreed limits on autonomous weapons must be established with some urgency – whether in the form of new, legally binding rules, policy standards or best practices. Rapid military technology developments indicate that this is not a question for the future, but a concern for the present.

It is encouraging, therefore, to see the agreement among High Contracting Parties to the CCW that human control or involvement in the use of force must be retained, and a growing convergence of views on the measures that are needed to ensure it. In practice, strict constraints will be needed on the types of autonomous weapon systems used, and the situations in which they are used. Measures aimed at ensuring human control, as proposed by the ICRC – such as limits on the types of targets, constraints on the environment of use, and requirements for human supervision, intervention and deactivation – can inform these internationally agreed limits.

We are witnessing today a rapid uptake of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for a variety of military applications, especially in "decision-support" or "automated decision-making" applications that "recommend" whom, or what, to attack and when. The ICRC remains convinced of the need for a human-centred approach that allows sufficient time for human control and judgement to apply the law and ensure human agency is retained in decisions with serious consequences for people's lives. AI and machine learning systems are tools that should be used to augment and improve human decision-making, not to replace it.

Mr Chair,

The ICRC welcomes the increasing attention that the two processes mandated by the First Committee – the Group of Governmental Experts and the Open-Ended Working Group – pay to the potential human cost of cyber operations and the applicable international legal framework.

Cyber operations pose a real risk to international security and – more importantly – to people. Over the past few years, the ICRC has repeatedly expressed concern about the potential human cost of cyber operations against critical civilian infrastructure. In recent months and including during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been several reports of cyber operations against medical facilities. And just last month, reports emerged of the first casualty related to a cyber operation, in a ransomware attack against a hospital in Germany. In May 2020, the president of the ICRC joined a group of global leaders to call on governments to work together and assert in unequivocal terms that cyber operations against health-care facilities are unlawful and unacceptable.

States have taken an essential first step to avoid or at least minimize the human cost of cyber operations by affirming that international law applies in cyberspace. The ICRC urges all States to affirm as well that IHL applies to – and therefore restricts – cyber operations during armed conflicts, on the understanding that such affirmation neither encourages the militarization of cyberspace nor legitimizes cyber warfare.

The ICRC's repeated calls for an affirmation that IHL regulates all means and methods of warfare and for discussions on how IHL applies to cyber operations during armed conflict come in response to the changing reality. Today, cyber operations are used during armed conflicts. An increasing number of States are developing military cyber capabilities, and their use is likely to increase in the future. Considering how rapidly our societies are digitizing, it is critical that IHL be interpreted and applied in a way that protects the digital means and tools that we increasingly rely on in every aspect of our lives, just as it protects physical objects. The ICRC shared its views on these issues in a detailed position paper to the two processes mandated by the First Committee.

If States develop or purchase such new means and methods of warfare, they must ensure that these tools are capable of being employed in accordance with IHL, including by conducting legal reviews of new weapons, means and methods of warfare. Moreover, States that envision using cyber means and methods of warfare need to put the necessary procedures in place to ensure respect for IHL, including by taking cyber-specific precautions and developing appropriate processes.

The past year has seen continued militarization in outer space, which could increase the likelihood of hostilities in outer space. Technology enabled by space systems permeates most aspects of civilian life, making the potential consequences of attacks on such systems – whether in space or on earth – a matter of humanitarian concern.

The weaponization of, and possible hostilities in, outer space would not occur in a legal vacuum. They are constrained by existing law, notably the Outer Space Treaty, the UN Charter and IHL rules governing the conduct of hostilities, including prohibitions and limitations on the use of certain means and methods of warfare which afford protection for civilians. The ICRC urges States to acknowledge these limits under IHL and the potentially significant humanitarian consequences of using weapons in outer space.

Mr Chair,

To conclude, let me recall what the ICRC said 40 years ago, at the time of the adoption of the CCW: "... bearing in mind the great importance of the new regulations in avoiding unnecessary suffering and further protecting the civilian population, we must not lose sight of the purpose of such an agreement at a higher level. We hope that the progress we have made today will not only reduce the harm caused by war, but also mitigate the hatred among belligerents. Thus, we may also consider this agreement on conventional weapons as a step forward in the difficult path towards universal peace."

These words hold true to this day, for the CCW but also for all the other treaties mentioned and more broadly for humanitarian disarmament efforts. The ICRC therefore calls upon every State to ratify, or accede to, all these treaties and effectively implement those they are party to. We also call upon every State to join efforts to address new humanitarian concerns raised by the development of weapons technologies and the evolution of conflicts. All these actions are essential to protecting civilians and combatants from unnecessary suffering and the civilian population from the indiscriminate effects of weapons of most concern.