Statement at 76th United Nations General Assembly, First Committee General debate on all disarmament and international security agenda items

Statement at 76th United Nations General Assembly, First Committee General debate on all disarmament and international security agenda items

Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — 11 October 2021
Statement 11 October 2021

Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is grateful for the opportunity to address the First Committee at this critical juncture in multilateral disarmament efforts and in international humanitarian law (IHL).

Disarmament and arms limitation are not only tools to maintain international peace and security or to prevent and end armed conflict, they are also critical in mitigating the impact of armed conflict when it does occur. This is the very aim of IHL

In striking a pragmatic balance between military necessity and humanitarian imperatives, to protect civilians and other people affected by armed conflicts, IHL embodies the principle that military needs can never justify using inhumane or indiscriminate weapons.

This recognition – based on the actual or foreseeable human costs of specific weapons and methods of warfare – has long driven arms control and disarmament. Indeed, limiting weapons, a task that falls within the mandate of the First Committee, is a critical means to reduce the humanitarian consequences of armed conflict by reducing risks to civilians and saving lives.

Today, the international community faces significant challenges. We observe two major trends that, independently or in conjunction, are expected to shape, and indeed are already shaping, the future of warfare: ever-increasing urbanization and the rapid development and use of new means and methods of warfare following advances in science and technology.

Modern armed conflicts generally last longer and are more fragmented than at any time in the recent past and they are increasingly taking place in urban settings. With the urbanization of warfare, civilian harm also increases exponentially. This harm is both direct and indirect, immediate and long term, visible and invisible.

The way conflicts are fought is also evolving because of developments in science and technology. Such advances can and should be used to reduce human suffering, including civilian harm resulting from the conduct of hostilities.

Their use in the development of new weapons, however, gives rise to serious legal and ethical dilemmas and risks causing profound human suffering. Assessing the legality of new weapons,2 means and methods of warfare under international law, including in light of the principles of humanity and the dictates of public conscience, is therefore vitally important, particularly given the rapid development of new weapons technologies.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the very first resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly. This seminal resolution aspired to achieve "the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction". In light of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament continues to be an urgent humanitarian imperative.

Ever since the first atomic bombings unleashed horrific suffering on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been advocating for the prohibition and full elimination of nuclear weapons: the most inhumane weapons ever created.

In 2017, 122 States responded to this call by adopting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). Its entry into force earlier this year was a truly historic achievement and a victory for humanity and multilateralism. The treaty sends a clear signal that any use, threat of use or possession of nuclear weapons is unacceptable in humanitarian, moral and legal terms.

Indeed, in the view of the ICRC, it is extremely doubtful that nuclear weapons could ever be used in accordance with IHL, given what we know about their devastating and inhumane effects on the human body and on the environment. Their use against concentrations of civilians, such as cities, or against targets in or near populated areas – all scenarios were considered in Cold-War nuclear doctrines and it is unclear whether they have been retained today – would blatantly violate key IHL principles and rules on distinction and proportionality.

The risk of nuclear weapons being used continues to grow. It is fuelled by international and regional tensions, the modernization of nuclear arsenals, including the development of smaller nuclear weapons said to be more useable, and technological advances that make such weapons and their command-and-control systems susceptible to cyber attack. Concerted efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use are urgently needed.

The tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) will be a crucial opportunity to halt and reverse the disturbing trend towards a new nuclear arms race, including by implementing long-standing risk-reduction commitments.

This includes taking nuclear weapons off high-alert status and reducing their role in military doctrines, pending their total elimination. The NPT is a cornerstone of nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, and States party to it must make urgent and tangible progress on its nuclear disarmament pillar, in particular in implementing Article VI, if the treaty is to maintain its credibility.

The TPNW and the NPT are complementary and mutually strengthening instruments, and both are critical elements in the broader nuclear disarmament architecture. They have a common objective: a world free of nuclear weapons.

We urge States to work together constructively to make tangible progress towards this goal, including at the forthcoming and first Meeting of States party to the TPNW. During the meeting, we encourage States Parties to establish a solid framework for the treaty's future implementation, in particular its positive obligations to redress the harm caused by nuclear weapons use and their testing on people and the environment. We strongly encourage States not yet party to the treaty to attend the meeting as observers.


Mr Chair,

The ICRC is gravely concerned about the humanitarian impact of the unconstrained development of autonomous weapon systems, understood as weapon systems that, after initial activation or launch, select and apply force to targets without human intervention.

The associated erosion of human control over the use of force – with human decisions about life and death, in effect, substituted with sensor, software and machine processes – creates clear risks for civilians and combatants who are no longer fighting, challenges related to compliance with IHL and fundamental ethical concerns for humanity.

The use of autonomous weapon systems is currently relatively limited, but new trends point to their development and use being expanded, with reduced human supervision and capacity for intervention and deactivation, including in urban areas where civilians would be most at risk. In addition, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning software to control the critical functions of selecting and applying force is increasingly being explored. These trends and developments dramatically heighten our core concerns.

On this basis, the ICRC recommends that States adopt new, legally binding rules to regulate autonomous weapon systems in order to ensure that sufficient human control and judgement are retained in the use of force. It is the ICRC's view that this will require prohibiting certain types of autonomous weapon systems – specifically, autonomous weapons whose effects cannot be sufficiently understood, predicted and explained, and autonomous weapons designed or used to apply force against persons as opposed to objects – and strictly regulating all others.

This does not preclude autonomous weapon systems from operating within the strict limits yet to be established or other applications of AI and machine learning, which have a variety of military uses, such as in decision-support systems that militaries may use to help them determine who or what to attack and when. Importantly, AI and machine-learning systems are tools that should be used to improve human decision-making – not to replace or weaken it.

States now have an opportunity to negotiate new rules on autonomous weapon systems that effectively strengthen protections for those affected by armed conflict, uphold the legal obligations and moral responsibilities of persons conducting hostilities and safeguard our shared humanity. The forthcoming Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in two months' time is a decisive moment that States must seize urgently.


Mr Chair,

This year has been an important milestone in the international community's efforts to set limits on the use of information and communications technologies (ICT) by States in the context of international security. Such capabilities are another facet of new technologies, which have the potential to be used as a means or method of warfare in armed conflict. The ICRC commends States on the successful conclusion of both the Open-Ended Working Group and the Group of Governmental Experts.

The ICT environment is constantly evolving and so too is the use of cyber operations during armed conflict and the risk that such use poses to humans. Today, the international community recognizes that "a number of States are developing ICT capabilities for military purposes" and that "the use of ICTs in future conflicts between States is becoming more likely" (A/AC.290/2021/CRP.2).

States have also concluded that cyber operations against critical civilian infrastructure risk having "potentially devastating ... humanitarian consequences" (A/AC.290/2021/CRP.2). Our experience confirms that disrupting critical civilian infrastructure has particularly severe consequences in societies that are already weakened by armed conflict.

In light of this reality, the ICRC has long held that cyber operations during armed conflicts do not happen in a "legal void" or "grey zone" – they are subject to the established principles and rules of IHL.

As an essential first step, we welcome that the Group of Governmental Experts in its 2021 report noted that "international humanitarian law applies only in situations of armed conflict", recognized "the need for further study on how and when these [IHL] principles apply to the use of ICTs by States" and underscored that "recalling these principles by no means legitimizes or encourages conflict".

The ICRC calls on States to build on this agreement and deepen the study of how and when IHL imposes limits on cyber operations during armed conflicts. Essential questions on the protection of civilian life require further discussion and clear positioning by States, taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the ICT environment.

For example, we believe that States could learn from each other about what feasible precautions can, or must, be taken during the conduct of military cyber operations in order to avoid and, in any event, to minimize civilian harm. Moreover, in an increasingly data-driven world, it should be a priority for States to agree that civilian data be protected against attack, just as civilian paper files are.


Mr Chair,

The ICRC continues to witness the devastating effects of other conventional weapons on conflict-torn societies, such as landmines and cluster munitions and, more broadly, explosive remnants of war. They take a heavy toll on civilians during active hostilities and even decades after the fighting has ended.

The Anti-personnel Mine-Ban Convention, the Convention on6 Cluster Munitions (CCM) and the convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War have made a major contribution to the saving of lives, limbs and livelihoods, and we urge all States not yet party to these instruments to adhere to them.

In particular, we welcome the adoption by the recent CCM Review Conference of the Lausanne Declaration, which condemns any use of cluster munitions by any actor. We further welcome the adoption of the Lausanne Action Plan, which identifies specific actions and indicators to measure the implementation of the convention's key obligations and will serve as a roadmap for the next review cycle.

In light of the alarmingly slow pace of universalization, the ICRC urges States to join the CCM without delay and States Parties to double their efforts to increase the convention's membership.

Every day, ICRC delegates around the world witness the acute suffering caused by the misuse of arms and ammunition, facilitated by inadequate controls over their possession, transfer and use. The widespread availability of weapons prolongs conflicts, triggers the displacement of people within a country and across borders, and has the potential to destabilize entire regions. In many countries around the world, the steady (overt and covert) supply of conventional arms fuels serious violations of IHL and human rights law.

International and regional instruments, most notably the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), aim at preventing such violations by establishing norms for responsible arms transfers and by promoting transparency. The ICRC urges States to adhere to these instruments and to faithfully implement them, including by making humanitarian considerations intrinsic to their arms transfer decisions at all levels.

We call on all States party to the ATT to implement it 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. 

The CCW has played and continues to play an important role in efforts to minimize suffering in armed conflict. We urge all States that have not yet done so to join the convention and its protocols without delay.

The forthcoming Review Conference is an opportunity to both take stock and to look ahead, in order to ensure that, as warfare evolves and changes, the convention continues to offer sufficient and effective protection to victims of war – to men, women, boys and girls – and to the natural environment upon which they depend.


Mr Chair,

Let us now, finally, consider the use of outer space in contemporary warfare, which military operations have relied on for several decades. As the role of space systems in military operations during armed conflict continues to increase, so does the likelihood of them being targeted by kinetic or non-kinetic means.

However, technologies enabled by space systems also permeate most aspects of civilian life. The use of weapons in outer space could therefore have a significant impact on civilians on earth, affecting activities and services that are critical to their safety or essential to their survival. The increasing risk of hostilities in outer space is therefore of serious humanitarian concern.

Military operations 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 that afford protection for civilians.

These views were articulated in the ICRC's position paper on "The Potential Human Cost of the Use of Weapons in Outer Space and the Protection Afforded by International Humanitarian Law", which was published in April this year following and in response to the adoption of General Assembly Resolution 75/36.

We welcome discussions at the First Committee to establish an inclusive process to take forward the issue of reducing threats in space based on the recommendations in the Report of the Secretary-General, "Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours" (A/76/77).

We recommend that future discussions and processes, including those in relation to responsible behaviour in outer space, acknowledge the potentially significant impact that the use of weapons in outer space would have on civilians on earth; and that they acknowledge the protection afforded by the rules of IHL and of other applicable bodies of international law by restricting belligerents' choice of means and methods of warfare, including in outer space.

We reiterate that acknowledging the applicability of IHL neither legitimizes the weaponization of outer space or any hostilities conducted there, nor does it in any way encourage or justify the use of force in outer space.


To conclude,

As a humanitarian organization working worldwide to protect and assist people affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence, and with a mandate to work for the understanding and dissemination of knowledge of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts and to prepare any development thereof, the ICRC stands ready to continue assisting States in their efforts to better implement and, where needed, develop the law, including the means and methods of warfare.

Addressing new and persisting challenges in the protection of civilians requires agility and determination. We call on all States to demonstrate these qualities when engaging in the forthcoming meetings on conventional and nuclear disarmament.

Thank you.