Rural Damascus, Mouadamieh. Conflict in Mouadamieh left vast destruction in its wake. Photo: Ali YOUSEF/ICRC

Preserving humanity in times of conflict demands strict abidance by constraints on conventional weapons

Observations by the International Committee of the Red Cross on the occasion of the Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects, held in Geneva from 15 and 17 November 2023. A shorter version of these observations was shared orally on 16 November 2023.
Statement 22 November 2023 Switzerland

Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This meeting is taking place at a time when armed conflicts in many parts of the world are causing widespread destruction and a staggering loss of life.

Civilians in Gaza and Israel are forced to endure tremendous suffering and loss, and there is an urgent need for safe and sustained humanitarian access across Gaza. The international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine is fuelling a devastating humanitarian crisis affecting the lives of millions. In Sudan, brutal violence has left deep scars on families and communities. These and other conflicts have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Violence in the Sahel region has forced nearly two million people from their homes. Seventy per cent of the people living in Yemen rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Over a decade on, millions of people across Syria continue to bear the brunt of a conflict compounded by various crises. And even after conflicts have ended or subsided, unexploded munitions still haunt communities, as in Afghanistan and northern Ethiopia, for example.

Observations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), shared by Maya Brehm, Legal Adviser (Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit), at an informal session of the Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) on 16 November 2023.

In these and many other places where the ICRC works, we continue to witness first-hand the unacceptable human toll exacted by the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). Such weapons have devastating direct and indirect humanitarian consequences over both the short and long term.

We call on all states and parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas, and we urge all states to endorse and fully implement the landmark political declaration on EWIPA.

Mr Chair,

In today's conflicts, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence. This includes children and elderly people, and men and women who are not or no longer participating in the fighting – the very people who should be protected from the dangers of military operations and never be attacked.

Killing civilians serves no legitimate military purpose. Nor does inflicting injury on enemy combatants beyond that which is necessary to place them hors de combat. For this reason, states long ago agreed to abide by international rules on the conduct of hostilities and to limit the use of certain weapons through restrictions such as those enshrined in the protocols annexed to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The strict observance, continued codification and progressive development of specific constraints on conventional weapons remain critical to preserving a measure of humanity in war.

At this time of heightened international tensions, polarization and war, it has become commonplace in multilateral disarmament forums to point to the geostrategic context in an attempt to dilute ambitions and justify diverging from the normative frameworks that were built to ease such tensions, alleviate human suffering and realize the aspiration of all people to live in peace.

That is a dangerous narrative. Let me be clear: There can be no justification for departing from the humanitarian imperative to protect all victims of war.

Mr Chair,

The CCW was crafted precisely for the kinds of situations that we face today. Its drafters did so with the disastrous humanitarian impact of the armed conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s still fresh in their minds. As a standing forum for addressing humanitarian concerns related to conventional weapons, the CCW brings together not only states affected by the use of such weapons, but also states experienced in wielding them.

Accordingly, the protocols annexed to the CCW contain detailed rules, including on landmines and incendiary weapons and on explosive remnants of war (ERW). These rules are meant to safeguard civilians while taking military exigencies fully into account.

Yet, civilian casualties from both improvised and manufactured landmines have spiked dramatically in recent years, including on the territories of High Contracting Parties.

We are particularly concerned about the increasing use of anti-personnel mines, and we urge all those who continue to use these weapons to cease immediately.

We also urge all those who use other types of landmines to step up their efforts to safeguard civilians and strictly comply with the requirements of Amended Protocol II and its annex.

We call on the High Contracting Parties to Protocol V to strictly abide by their obligations and redouble their efforts to mark, clear, remove and destroy ERW, and to take all other feasible measures to prevent and reduce the harm they cause, including through risk awareness, educational activities and an effective victim assistance response. Recording, retaining and transmitting information on the use or abandonment of explosive ordnance is critical to these efforts. We urge all states that have not yet done so to join Protocol V without delay.

Weapons with incendiary effects, including the incendiary weapons governed by Protocol III, continue to inflict horrific wounds, set civilian infrastructure and property alight and spread fires that are difficult to control, especially in populated areas.

The High Contracting Parties, the ICRC and others have raised this ongoing humanitarian concern for many years. We urge the High Contracting Parties to record these expressions of concern in the final report of this meeting, and, going forward, to provide a dedicated space for an in-depth discussion of the humanitarian impacts of weapons with incendiary effects and the implementation of Protocol III.

If the High Contracting Parties do not apply these minimum rules to the letter and in line with the underlying humanitarian rationale, civilians will continue to pay an unacceptable price.

Mr Chair,

It is thanks to the High Contracting Parties' concerted efforts that we have this landmark Convention and its five protocols today. Now, there is a widely recognized need for specific international rules to address the humanitarian, legal and ethical concerns raised by autonomous weapon systems.

In a joint appeal last month, our President, together with the United Nations Secretary-General, called on all states to launch negotiations for a new, legally binding instrument to set clear prohibitions and restrictions on autonomous weapon systems and to conclude these negotiations by 2026. The ICRC recommends prohibiting autonomous weapons that are unpredictable and those that target humans directly.

This deadline reflects the urgent need for an international response. In recent months, we have seen manufacturers increasingly advertising the development of armed drones which may strike autonomously, including in swarms. According to some reports, such weapons have already been used by militaries in armed conflict.

We urge you to seize this moment and start negotiations now on an instrument regulating autonomous weapons, in order to strengthen and enshrine key protections for all those affected by the scourge of war.

Mr Chair,

The ICRC played an important role in developing the CCW and each of its protocols. Indeed, the discussions at the diplomatic conferences where the CCW was negotiated were based on reports from expert meetings that the ICRC had convened with a view to examining the technical characteristics and the military, legal and humanitarian implications of certain conventional weapons.

Since their adoption, it has been our constant endeavour to universalize the Convention and its protocols. On behalf of the ICRC, I congratulate Singapore for joining the Convention as well as Protocols I, III and IV. We hope that Singapore will also accede to the remaining protocols and that all other states that are not yet party to the Convention or one or more of its protocols will follow suit without further delay.

Earlier this year, we provided our technical expertise in meetings convened by the Implementation Support Unit and engaged with states in South-East Asia and the Caribbean Community. We have also convened regional meetings in South Asia and Latin America and engaged with national committees on international humanitarian law and other bodies to promote adherence to these treaties.

The ICRC, through our headquarters in Geneva and our delegations in capitals and in New York, will continue to offer our full support for the faithful implementation and universalization of the Convention, and we stand ready to help the Meeting of High Contracting Parties with our expertise.

Thank you.