In these times of heightened international tension, shared humanitarian values must be the common ground for states to move forward

In these times of heightened international tension, shared humanitarian values must be the common ground for states to move forward

Statement delivered by Laurent Gisel, Head of the Arms and Conduct of Hostilities Unit at the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, First Committee General Debate on all disarmament and international security agenda items — 12 October 2022.
Statement 13 October 2022

Mr Chair, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is grateful for the opportunity to address the First Committee.

Every year, the ICRC has stood before you in this forum to highlight the humanitarian consequences of weapons. Mitigating and preventing the adverse humanitarian consequences of weapons for civilians and combatants should be at the centre of disarmament and arms-limitation debates and efforts. In these times of heightened international tension, shared humanitarian values must be the common ground for states to move forward and address the international community's most pressing challenges.

As the First Committee commences against the backdrop of multiple, interlocking crises, we are, once again, faced with serious challenges in addressing the ways in which armed conflicts are waged. This renders multilateral cooperation and the role of this Committee more essential than ever.

To the critically important issues on the Committee agenda, the ICRC brings its field-based experience as a humanitarian organization working to protect and assist victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence around the world, and its expertise in international humanitarian law (IHL).

The rapid development and use of new means and methods of warfare and ever-increasing urbanization are the two major trends that, independently or in conjunction, are expected to shape, and indeed are already shaping, the future of warfare. New means and methods of warfare must prompt the international community to review the adequacy of existing rules in light of persistent and new challenges, and to clarify or develop these rules as needed. The tremendous suffering, innumerable deaths and massive destruction caused by urban warfare and the use of conventional weapons must be a wake-up call to strengthen the existing humanitarian disarmament and arms-control architecture.

Widespread availability of arms and ammunitions prolongs conflicts, drives displacement and impacts on development. As we are going through a climate crisis, we cannot ignore the concerns raised by the detrimental effects that certain weapons have on the natural environment and the climate resilience of communities. Nor can we ignore today the differential impacts of weapons on women, men, girls and boys. These are interconnected challenges that we must consider as we go forward.

Mr Chair,

If there is one area where the need to strengthen the existing disarmament and arms-control framework is most urgent, it is that of nuclear weapons.

There are currently over 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world; a number which, according to recent studies, is expected to grow. Nuclear weapons continue to feature prominently in military doctrines and security policies. Over the past months, we have witnessed an alarming increase in the rhetoric around nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence theories regaining vigour.

The risk of nuclear weapons being used is growing at a worrying pace, compounded by regional and international tensions. This risk is further fuelled by the modernization of nuclear arsenals, including the development of smaller nuclear weapons alleged to be more useable, and technological developments that may increase the vulnerability of nuclear weapons and their command-and-control systems to human or machine errors and cyberattacks.

These developments are taking place despite the overwhelming evidence of the horrific, long-term and irreversible effects of nuclear weapons on health, the environment, the climate and food security – despite the absence of adequate capacity for a humanitarian response in the case of nuclear-weapon use, and despite the risk of escalation that any use would involve. Nuclear weapons are one of the biggest threats to humanity. Their use would cause irreversible harm to future generations and threaten the very survival of humankind.

During times of international instability such as those we are experiencing now, some states may be tempted to view nuclear weapons as a tool of security. This logic is dangerous. On the contrary, the existence of nuclear weapons is a continued source of insecurity for current and future generations.

Mr Chair,

The growing risk that nuclear weapons may be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would ensue reinforce the urgent imperative of nuclear disarmament. This year saw the First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) adopt an ambitious framework for the treaty's implementation through the Vienna Declaration and Action Plan. The ICRC welcomes this development and calls on states parties to abide by the important commitments they made in the Declaration and the Action Plan.

This year also saw the 10th Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) again fail to adopt an outcome document by consensus. The ICRC is deeply concerned by this outcome. Nuclear risk reduction measures and tangible progress towards nuclear disarmament are urgently needed. The ICRC urges states parties to spare no effort and work constructively together to fully implement the NPT, in particular Article VI, driven by the humanitarian rationale that motivated its adoption in the first place: the need to prevent the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear-weapon use from ever occurring again.

The ICRC calls on all states to promptly sign and ratify or accede to the TPNW, the NPT, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and regional treaties establishing nuclear-weapon-free zones, and calls on all states parties to faithfully fulfil their obligations and commitments under these treaties.

Synergy between these instruments will be instrumental in achieving the goal that they all share – that of a world free from nuclear weapons. States possessing nuclear weapons and their allies have a principal responsibility in this respect, and we call on them to meet their legal and moral obligations.

Mr Chair,

While the threat of the use of nuclear weapons grows, conventional weapons continue to cause devastating civilian harm during increasingly protracted armed conflicts and long after their end. In addition to the worrying phenomenon of fragmented conflicts involving a multitude of actors, a pattern of interstate armed conflict has re-emerged in recent years, bringing its own challenges.

Hostilities often take place in densely populated cities, in bustling neighbourhoods, on the doorsteps of peoples' homes. This is a defining reality of modern conflict and a trend likely to continue, considering the growing urbanization of the world's population. However, armed conflicts in populated areas continue to be fought with weapons that are ill-adapted for use in urban environments, such as explosive weapons with wide area effects. Every day, the ICRC bears witness to the acute suffering caused by the misuse of arms and ammunition, facilitated by poor controls on their possession, transfer and use – ultimately leaving civilians as the main victims of conventional weapons.

We have seen first-hand the devastating consequences for civilians of the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas. These consequences are not only civilian deaths and injuries but also significant indirect effects that often take the form of disruption and degradation of services essential to the survival of civilians, such as electricity, water, sanitation and health care. Lack of essential services typically leads to more death, disease and displacement. In parallel, anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions continue killing and maiming indiscriminately. We are alarmed by the sharp increase in civilian casualties of cluster munitions and anti-personnel mines in the past year, largely due to the increased use of these weapons in today's armed conflicts. These weapons take a heavy toll on civilians not only during active hostilities but even long after the fighting has ended.

Mr Chair,

This year, the Political Declaration on Strengthening the Protection of Civilians from the Humanitarian Consequences arising from the use of Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas was finalized. The ICRC welcomes and firmly supports the political declaration as a strong signal and an essential tool to strengthen the protection of civilians and respect for IHL in populated areas. We encourage all states to endorse the political declaration and to faithfully implement its commitments.

In particular, we reiterate our call on states and all parties to armed conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area in populated areas. 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.

There must also be redoubled efforts to promote universal adherence to all instruments prohibiting or restricting the use or transfer of conventional weapons and in particular to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and its Protocols, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on Cluster Munitions and the Arms Trade Treaty. The ICRC calls on all states that have not yet done so to join these instruments without delay and urges all states and parties to armed conflicts to immediately renounce the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions and other unacceptable weapons.

The question of what constitutes responsible action in the area of arms transfers must also be addressed with renewed urgency. To reduce human suffering caused by the widespread availability of and poor controls on the transfers of arms and ammunition, states must exert greater diligence in assessing the risks posed by arms exports, and implement timely, robust and practical measures that can realistically offset risks of violations. Those who supply the means by which wars are fought assume a special responsibility. They must do everything reasonably in their power to ensure respect for IHL by recipients who are party to an armed conflict. States must refrain from transferring arms where there is a clear risk that these would be used to commit IHL violations. Faithful implementation of the Arms Trade Treaty is a humanitarian imperative and will go a long way in preventing serious violations of IHL.

Mr Chair,

Developments in science and technology influence the way conflicts are fought today and will be fought tomorrow. Such developments can and should be used to reduce human suffering, including civilian harm resulting from the conduct of hostilities.

The use of new and evolving technologies when developing and modifying weapons and methods of warfare, however, gives rise to serious legal and ethical dilemmas, and risks causing profound human suffering. New technologies of warfare allow notably increased remoteness in the projection of force, and increased automation and speed in attack, while reducing the human involvement in the decision-making process for the use of force.

With regard to developing or new technologies of warfare, the adverse humanitarian impact of the unconstrained development of autonomous weapon systems is of particular concern. Autonomous weapon systems, as the ICRC understands them, are those weapon systems that, after initial activation or launch, select and apply force to targets without human intervention. Human decisions about life and death are in effect substituted with sensor, software and machine processes. The associated erosion of human control over the use of force creates clear risks for civilians and combatants who are no longer fighting, challenges for compliance with IHL rules and fundamental ethical concerns for humanity.

For the time being, the use of autonomous weapon systems remains relatively constrained, but trends point towards their use against a wider range or targets, over larger areas, for longer periods, and with reduced human supervision and capacity for intervention and deactivation. This would be of particular concern were they to be used in urban areas, where civilians would be at most risk. Interest in the use of artificial intelligence and machine-learning software to control the critical functions of selecting and applying force raises the prospect of weapons that are unpredictable by design.

How can such risk be addressed? One hundred and fifty-four years ago, the Saint Petersburg Declaration set an example for how the international community can and should react to concerns raised by new technologies of warfare. It is not for the developers of military technologies alone to decide what these limits should be. Rather, it is for states to continue fixing "the technical limits at which the necessities of war ought to yield to the requirements of humanity".

In this regard, last year already the ICRC underscored in front of this Committee the urgent need for states to adopt new, legally binding rules on autonomous weapon systems to ensure that sufficient human control and judgement are retained in the use of force. In our view, this will require prohibiting certain types of autonomous weapon systems and strictly regulating all others. The ICRC is encouraged that a growing number of states view setting internationally agreed limits on autonomous weapons using such a two-pronged approach as both necessary and feasible, and we call on states to take immediate, concrete steps to pave the way towards treaty negotiations.

Mr Chair,

The use of new technologies of warfare in novel domains such as cyberspace and outer space may result in significant humanitarian consequences that come on top of the suffering that the use of more traditional weapons imposes on vulnerable populations during armed conflict.

Recent years have seen an increased use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) by states and non-state actors during armed conflict. In addition, the role of space systems in military operations also continues to grow – despite the long-term desire and commitment of the international community to explore and use space for peaceful purposes – as does the likelihood that these systems would be targeted during armed conflict.

Societies' reliance on digital technologies adds a new layer of risk for civilian populations, especially where the functioning of critical civilian infrastructure is enabled by space systems and ICTs. In recent years, several cyber operations have affected states' critical civilian infrastructure, such as nuclear plants, electricity grids and water systems, as well as humanitarian organizations. The disruption or destruction of space systems serving critical infrastructure could also have wide-reaching consequences for the civilian population, including humanitarian organizations. In addition, the growing involvement of civilians and civilian companies in military cyber operations and other digital activities during armed conflict exposes them to harm and risks undermining the principle of distinction, a central tenet of IHL.

In this respect, the ICRC urges states to consider the risk of adverse humanitarian consequences when taking any decision at the national and multilateral levels with regard to cyber operations during armed conflicts and to military operations in relation to outer space. Essential questions on the protection of civilian life require further discussion and clear positions from states, taking into consideration the specific characteristics of the ICT and space environments. In this respect, we call on states to interpret and apply existing rules of IHL in good faith to ensure sufficient protection for civilians, civilian infrastructure and civilian data. States should also take measures to ensure that humanitarian organizations are protected online as they are offline and that civilians are protected against harmful information such as hate speech. They should also give due consideration to the risk of exposing civilians to harm if encouraging or requiring them to be involved in military cyber operations and other digital activities. In light of the risks of significant civilian harm raised by cyber operations during armed conflicts and by military operations in relation to outer space, states may decide to set additional general prohibitions or specific limits. If new legally binding instruments or other norms, rules and principles are to be developed in this regard, they must be consistent with, and should build on and strengthen, the existing legal framework, including IHL.

To conclude,

Addressing new and persisting challenges for the protection of civilians against the adverse humanitarian consequences of weapons, means and methods of warfare requires the determination and ability to devise appropriate responses. We call on all states to demonstrate these qualities at this First Committee of the United Nations General Assembly and when engaging in meetings on conventional and nuclear disarmament throughout the year.

We stand ready to continue assisting states in their efforts to better implement and, where needed, develop legal constraints on means and methods of warfare to uphold the protection of all civilians affected by armed conflicts around the world.

Thank you.