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Weapons: ICRC statement to the United Nations

26-10-1995 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 50th session, 26 October 1995. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

 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  

Mr. Chairman,

A few weeks ago, we had assumed that we would be speaking at this session of the First Committee on the results of the first Review Conference of 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 (CCW).

As we know the Conference has been adjourned as it was unable to reach agreement on amendments to Protocol II on landmines and we share the disappointment that was felt in Vienna when this decision had to be taken. However, we are of the opinion that several important gains were made during what may now be termed the first session of the Conference, in particular the adoption of the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons and agreement on certain aspects of Protocol II.

The ICRC would like to express its gratitude for being able to take such an active role in the Review Conference. In so doing, we strive to fulfil our mandate to promote the development of international humanitarian law in a way which gives due weight to humanitarian concerns. Our comments and suggestions are based on our wide practical experience of armed conflicts and the problems they engender.

 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons  

The adoption of Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons on 13 October 1995 is a major achievement. Although the ICRC, like many delegations, would have preferred clearer and stronger provisions, this Protocol is an important breakthrough. It is the first time since 1868 that a weapon has been prohibited before it has been used on the battlefield and thus humanity has been spared the horror that such blinding weapons would have created. Quite apart from the actual wording of the instrument, the effect of its adoption is a strong message that States will not tolerate the deliberate blinding of people in any circumstance. As such it is a triumph of civilisation over barbarity. It is also a major achievement that this Protocol includes a prohibition on the transfer of blinding laser weapons thus incorporating, for the first time in a humanitarian law treaty, arms control measures which help ensure the respect of the ban on use.

The ICRC sincerely hopes that States will adhere to this Protocol as quickly as possible and will take all appropriate measures to ensure respect for its provisions.


Mr. Chairman,

During the three-week session of the Review Conference in Vienna, 36 people were killed and 243 maimed by landmines in Cambodia alone and about 1600 people world-wide suffered the same fate. During the same period, medical workers also paid a heavy price, namely, seven killed and twenty-one severely injured as a result of the explosion of anti-vehicle mines in Zaire, Rwanda and Mozambique.

These appalling statistics illustrate the urgency of dealing effectively with the landmine crisis. All delegations in Vienna were certainly aware of the importance of reaching agreement on amendments to Protocol II in order to prevent the slaughter and mutilation that landmines are causing daily in many countries. They expressed their disappointment at the difficulty in re aching an agreement and we share in this disappointment.

The problem centred on the criteria that should be preponderant in making a decision. During the last few days of the session, many delegations began to speak more openly of the difficulties they had, and these illustrated in particular the shortcomings of a technical solution. Some delegations indicated that they would need grace periods of up to fifteen years in order to fit their mines with a minimum metal content and equip them with self-destructing, self-neutralising and/or self-deactivating systems. If mines continue to be sown at the present rate, up to seventy-five million mines could be added in such a period to the existing 110 million. Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that there is uncertainty as to the reliability that may be expected from the so-called " smart mines " to be developed. When used in their millions, hundreds of thousands are likely to remain active for a long period, thus continuing to cause casualties and preventing access to the areas in which they have been used. There is the added danger that they will be perceived as relatively benign and therefore be used widely without fencing or recording.

An equally great concern is that the present chairman's text does not call for the elimination of so-called dumb mines, but allows for their continued use in certain circumstances, including without fencing when " direct enemy military action makes it impossible to comply " . As long as these are available there remains the very real danger that they will continue to be used indiscriminately.

The ICRC appeals to States to evaluate whether measures short of a total ban on anti-personnel landmines will in fact put a stop to the present situation. At least seventeen States are now calling for a total ban and they are joined by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity and the European Parliament. Is the limited military utility of anti-personnel landmines really worth the tragedy they are causing? Should not also strict controls be placed on anti-vehicle mines which regularly kill or maim civilians, including humanitarian workers who are trying to help the victims of war? We earnestly hope that States will rise above short-term national interests in favour of the general interest of humanity as a whole.

 Future developments  

Mr. Chairman,

The Review Conference is due to reconvene in January and again in April 1996. We hope that during this period, many more States will ratify or accede to the Convention, and also that those States that were unable to participate at the Vienna session will be able to do so at the next sessions due to be held in Geneva.

We trust that the gains made at the Vienna session will remain, namely, the agreement to extend the application of Protocol II to non-international armed conflicts, the assignment of responsibility for the clearance of mines at the end of active hostilities and measures to enable humanitarian personnel accomplish their work in favour of victims of conflicts in mined areas. In this regard, we are particularly grateful to States for their willingness to give specific protection to personnel of the ICRC and of Red Cross and Red Crescent organisations.

The work of the Conference, however, will have an effect beyond the regulation of the use of landmines. The discussions that will take place on implementation mechanisms are of major importance for the real effect of the amended Protocol . However, the Convention as a whole must be seen to be a living and effective instrument. We earnestly hope that a frequent and regular review of the Convention will take place so as to enable the international community to evalu ate the effectiveness of its existing provisions, to encourage further accessions and to allow for amendments or additional Protocols as the need arises. In this way the spirit of international humanitarian law could remain alive and we could be proud of a Convention that spares humanity from the tragedy of weapons that are indiscriminate or excessively cruel.

 Arms transfers  

Mr. Chairman,

Our concern about landmines and blinding weapons is rooted in our experience with a much larger phenomenon - the virtually unrestricted flow of vast quantities of weapons, particularly small arms, around the world and their consistent use in flagrant violation of the norms of international humanitarian law. Our first hand experience in the dozens of conflicts which are raging in various regions is that enormous quantities of small arms are available to almost any organization which seeks them and that when these arms are used humanitarian law is either unknown or simply not respected.

The ICRC strongly encourages this Committee to make the issue of global arms transfers a matter of high priority and to consider both the inclusion of small arms transfers in the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms and possible restraints on such transfers. For its part the ICRC intends to actively study, as requested by the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on the Protection of War Victims, the relationship between arms availability and violations of international humanitarian law and to publish a report on this in late 1996. It also intends to initiate a process of dialogue on this issue within the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole.

One important step this body has taken in regards to arms transfers has been its resolution (A/RES/49/75D) encouraging national moratoria on the export of anti-personnel mines. Given the disappointing outcome of the Vienna Review Conference this resolution deserves to be reaffirmed and strengthened in 1995. An estimated 100 million landmines remain stockpiled throughout the world and the protection of civilians from the continued spread of these indiscriminate weapons requires a massive increase in mine clearance efforts and expanded national moratoria on their export. The low level of pledges at the July 1995 International Meeting on Mine Clearance convened by the U.N. Secretary-General demonstrates that international commitments are insufficient to ensure the rapid removal of mines already in place. Any relaxation of attempts to bar exports of anti-personnel mines will only exacerbate an already catastrophic situation.

 Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons  

The March gas attack on civilians on the Tokyo underground and several subsequent incidents, remind us of the urgency of controlling the threat of chemical and biological weapons. They also demonstrate the need to ensure that weapons, the use of which is prohibited, do not nonetheless proliferate and become available for use in violation of the law. When this happens, as was tragically demonstrated in Tokyo, civilians are the most common victims. We urge States which have not already done so to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and to ensure its early entry into force. We welcome efforts to introduce a verification regime into the Biological Weapons Convention and encourage non-party States to adhere at the earliest opportunity. For the same reasons we encourage early negotiations, in the disarmament context, to ensure that blinding laser weapons as well as any landmines which are entirely prohibited by the Vienna Review Conference are not produced and do not spread.

Finally, we would like to recall, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the nuclear age and the commencement of considerations by the international Court of Justice of the legality of the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, the position of the ICRC on this matter. Any use of weapons which would violate the norms of existing international humanitarian law, including customary law, is already prohibited. In addition, we hope that any deliberations on nuclear weapons will take into account what would probably happen if the threshold were breached and nuclear weapons were actually used. The ICRC has already indicated its opinion that the only effective solution for particularly dangerous weapons is their total prohibition and this has been achieved for chemical and biological weapons and for blinding laser weapons. We hope that the end of the cold war will allow States to work towards achieving the same result for nuclear weapons.

Thank you Mr. Chairman

Ref. UN(1995)23b