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First Review Conference of the 1980 UN Weapons Convention

26-09-1995 Statement

Review Conference of the States Parties to the 1980 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, Vienna, 26 September 1995. Statement by Mr. Cornelio Sommaruga, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

 "I was asleep in front of the house when I was awakened by the sound of an explosion and my son's voice calling for help. My grandson was lying in the road, his left leg shattered by the mine blast. My son ran off to seek help. I was there looking at the child who was writhing in pain and I took him into my arms. When I started to get up I lost my balance a little and my right foot hit something. My right leg was amputated at mid-thigh. My grandson's left leg was cut off a little higher up. A few years ago my elder son and my daughter in-law were killed by mines. Now I can no longer feed my family and this makes me ashamed." [Testimony of You Eng, 65, Cambodia. Photo, with grandson, is projected as text is read.]  


This conference has an historic moral, political and legal obligation: to put an end to the " mass destruction in slow motion " caused by anti-personnel mines. It can also prevent a similar horror through the prohibition of blinding laser weapons. Sixty-five year old You Eng, whose testimony you have just heard, sought help in an ICRC orthopaedic centre in Battambang, Cambodia. He has seen three generations of his family ravaged by landmines. These same horrific scenes are replayed many thousands of times over, month after month. Our surgeons and nurses have seen more than enough suffering from these perverse weapons. They appeal to you today to stop this slaughter of innocents.

There is little further need to establish the facts, which were fully acknowledged just ten weeks ago at the I nternational Meeting on Mine Clearance in Geneva. The production, transfer and use of anti-personnel mines is out of control. When available, in modern conflicts, they are used indiscriminately with horrific results. These weapons have caused a global epidemic of staggering proportions and have torn apart the social and economic fabric of dozens of societies.

There is no need to attribute responsibility. Mines have been produced and sold by some fifty States from both north and south. They have been used indiscriminately in many others.

This conference is the moment for States to face their responsibilities and to take actions which they know will be effective in the shortest possible time . The landmine issue may not again be addressed in such a forum for many years. What this means is that governments, through you, are deciding the fate of some hundred thousand potential mine victims over the next half decade, at least. Inaction, or ineffective action, will have tragic consequences which can be avoided.

The ICRC is convinced that a dramatic reduction in the number of landmine victims will only occur through the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive set of measures, including:

- total prohibition of the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel mines,

- extension of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to cover non-international armed conflicts,

- a requirement that anti-vehicle mines be detectable and do not contain anti-handling devices, and

- an effective regime to monitor compliance and punish violations.

The ICRC has carefully studied proposals aimed at alleviating the landmine problem through the increased use of self-destructing mines and new requirements for detectability. Whilst this might seem to be an advance, we are deeply concerned that a regime based on these measures could lead to an overall increase in the use and transfer of mines, particularly if users believe such mines to be less threatening to civilians or compensate for their short life through use in larger numbers. We are also not confident that an acceptable maximum failure rate can be achieved, that the reliability of self-destruct mechanisms will be internationally verified or that States and insurgents in likely conflict zones are prepared to pay for their higher cost. The " grace period " for transition to such a regime is likely to be measured in decades of continued civilian suffering.

I encourage delegates honestly to ask themselves if the combination of partial measures short of a total ban, which are currently being considered by many States, will be rapidly and effectively implemented and lead to a significant reduction in civilian landmine casualties. If not, I appeal to your governments to join a growing number of States, the Organisation of African Unity, the European Parliament, the UN Secretary General, scores of humanitarian agencies and many hundreds of NGOs in calling for a total ban on anti-personnel mines. This solution is simpler and more effective. It can be more rapidly implemented and far more easily verified than complex alternatives. The limited military advantage of anti-personnel mines is far outweighed by their horrific consequences.

Because even measures as strong as a total ban will take time to have an effect on the ground the immediate needs of mine casualties and other war victims urgently need to be addressed in the CCW. For this reason the ICRC has called for amendments to Article 8 which would ensure the clearance of a path through minefields or designation of a safe alternative route when its access to victims is blocked. This is the minimum necessary to ensure the access which States have undertaken, in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, to provide. Similar protections are needed for other humanitarian organisations.

This conference also has the unique opportunity to prohibit a new and abhorrent method of warfare - the use of blinding laser weapons. As has now been widely acknowledged, laser weapons suitable for blinding large numbers of soldiers or civilians at long distances are on the verge of large-scale production and export. Once produced in large numbers these small arms will cost little more than an ordinary rifle and will proliferate rapidly not only to traditional armies but to terrorists and criminals. Whatever the intention of producers may be, like landmines, once they proliferate laser weapons are likely to be used indiscriminately.

The ICRC appeals to this conference to agree on the adoption of a new Fourth Protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons which would prohibit the use of laser beams to blind persons as a method of warfare. We also call on States to refrain from the production of weapons suitable for such use and to begin vigorous efforts to prevent their proliferation. It is essential to address this problem now. Later may simply be too late.

Ensuring the continued relevance and effectiveness of the 1980 Convention, and of the decisions of this conference, will require sustained efforts and concerted diplomatic action over many years. For this reason we believe that a decision to provide for regular review of the Convention could be one of the most lasting contributions this conference can make to the development of international humanitarian law.

Th e landmine issue is but a part of a phenomenon of increasing concern to the ICRC: the virtually unrestricted transfer of vast quantities of weapons, particularly small arms, throughout the world and their consistent use in flagrant violation of the basic norms of international humanitarian law.   The ICRC intends to actively study, as requested by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts for the Protection of War Victims, the relationship between arms availability and violations of humanitarian law and to initiate a process of dialogue within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on these matters.

The international community is not impotent in the face of the world-wide scourge of landmines. It is not helpless against the advance of abhorrent technologies. Your predecessors in 1925 largely stopped the use of poison gas in warfare. Your colleagues in 1972 and 1993 forever banned biological and chemical weapons. Public horror at the effects of nuclear weapons and fear of their possible use has been one of the principal forces which has prevented their use and inhibited their proliferation.

You and your governments can, in the coming weeks, prohibit anti-personnel landmines, prevent the horror of blinding laser weapons and reinforce a Convention which seeks to maintain a modicum of humanity, even in warfare. In so doing the public will surely support you. In so doing you might begin to rekindle public faith in international law and institutions at a moment when the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations is being celebrated.

Over the past ten years ICRC medical staff have treated more than twenty-eight thousand mine victims and fitted some eighty thousand artificial limbs on those who have survived. They have too often held in their arms children like You Eng's grandson, whose limbs and lives have been shattered by mines.

It is unacceptable that ten years from now ICRC doctors will have to look into the eyes of You Eng's great-grandchildren, also crippled by a mine blast, and know that in October 1995 something could have been done to prevent it but wasn't. We will all lose something of our humanity if in future years ICRC medical staff must look helplessly into the eyes of soldiers or civilians whose retinas have been burnt by lasers, knowing something could have been done to stop it.

The world awaits a sign from Vienna that there are still certain minimum norms of humanity which civilised countries are unwilling to abandon. You can, in the coming weeks, prevent the unnecessary suffering of a new generation. On behalf of all potential victims I express to you hope and gratitude for your efforts.

Ref. UN(1995)20b