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Weapons: ICRC statement to the United Nations

20-10-1999 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 54th session. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 20 October 1999.

 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  


 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction  


Mr. Chairman,

The global proliferation and widespread abuse of weapons of war must be considered as one of the major humanitarian issues of our times. This issue presents an enormous challenge to the ICRC, whose mission is to promote respect for international humanitarian law and to assist victims of armed conflict. Both aspects of this mission are being undermined today by the uncontrolled spread and undisciplined use of weapons – small arms and light weapons in particular.

In recognition of the high number of civilian casualties claimed by recent conflicts, the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, in 1995, called upon the ICRC " to examine, on the basis of firsthand information available to it, the extent to which the availability of weapons is contributing to the proliferation and aggravation of violations of humanitarian law in armed con flicts and the deterioration of the situation of civilians " .

The ICRC's observations and recommendations on this subject have now been consolidated in a recently published study entitled Arms Availability and the Situation of Civilians in Armed Conflict , which is available through our delegation. To our knowledge, this is the first time that an international humanitarian organization has attempted to systematically and rigorously document the human costs of arms availability, based upon its own field experience.

The ICRC study shows a strong link between high levels of arms availability and high levels of civilian casualties – both during and after periods of conflict. In a region of Afghanistan where inter-factional fighting had ended but people had not been disarmed, the number of weapon injuries was found to have decreased only slightly. In north-western Cambodia, the prevalence of such injuries actually grew after the departure of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which had experienced difficulties in meeting its disarmament objectives. The study also revealed that inappropriate use of mortars and artillery accounted for the majority of civilian casualties suffered during inter-factional clashes. In social violence more generally, intentional wounds inflicted with assault rifles were by far the most frequently observed type of injury. These findings suggest the need for a much more nuanced approach by those who wish to prevent such tragedies. Furthermore, experienced ICRC delegates overwhelmingly agree that, in situations of conflict, assault rifles appear to be the primary instrument of civilian death and injury.

Allow me, Mr. Chairman, to highlight some of the other principal themes and conclusions of our study:

»Firstly, the study conf irms that civilian casualties represent a substantial proportion of all people injured by weapons. Moreover, disease, starvation and ill-treatment of civilians increase when humanitarian agencies, including the ICRC, are directly attacked and must suspend operations or leave a country. Suffering can go on, often for years after the end of a conflict, as the continued availability of arms undermines the rule of law, hampers efforts at reconciliation among former warring parties and contributes to a " culture of violence " .

»Secondly, as international arms transfers, particularly of small arms and light weapons, have become easier, promoting respect for humanitarian law has become vastly more difficult. The proliferation of weapons in the hands of new and often undisciplined users has outpaced efforts to ensure compliance with basic rules of warfare.

»Thirdly, while recognizing that the primary responsibility for compliance with humanitarian law lies with users of weapons, the study stresses that States and enterprises involved in production and export bear a degree of political, moral and, in some cases, legal responsibility towards the international community for the use that is made of their weapons and ammunition.

The ICRC therefore calls on States to urgently review their policies concerning the production, availability and transfer of arms and ammunition in light of their responsibility to " respect and ensure respect " for humanitarian law. We also urge States to include criteria based on the likelihood of humanitarian law being respected when devising their national policies and making decisions on arms transfers and related international codes of conduct. We welcome the important work being done in this field by this Committee, the proposals of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Small Arms and the wide variety of relevant national and regional initiatives. In this connection, we invite those concerned to take into account the ICRC study and its specific recommendations.

One of the weapons whose proliferation and abuse has caused untold suffering in this decade is landmines . The huge, costly and long-term effort required to address the damage caused by these weapons is reason enough to prevent the proliferation of other weapons – particularly among those unwilling or unable to respect the rules of war. We welcome the entry into force this year of the Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-personnel Mines and the establishment by the States Parties in Maputo of an inter-sessional mechanism to support the long and arduous task of implementing its provisions. The ICRC calls on all States to adhere to this new treaty of humanitarian law without delay. Later this month the entire International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement will adopt its own long-term strategy for responding to the global epidemic of landmine injuries, including efforts in the areas of victim assistance, mine awareness and advocacy.

The ICRC also considers that the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has an important role to play in limiting the use of all landmines and in prohibiting other abhorrent weapons such as blinding lasers. The first annual meeting, in December 1999, of the States party to amended Protocol II on landmines and the preparatory process to begin next year for the 2001 CCW Review Conference, will be important opportunities to evaluate the implementation of this Protocol and to address the unfinished business of the 1996 Review Conference – particularly the problems posed by anti-vehicle mines. The ICRC strongly urges States which are not yet party to this important international instrument t o adhere to the Convention and its four protocols in the coming year. We are particularly concerned that more than three years after the adoption of amended Protocol II and the new Protocol IV on blinding laser weapons, there are only about 40 States party thereto – despite the fact that both of these instruments were adopted by consensus. Therefore, we see no reason why they should not rapidly become universal.

In preparation for the upcoming CCW Review Conference, the ICRC intends to host a meeting of governmental and other experts in the second quarter of next year to consider a comprehensive approach to the serious problem created by explosive remnants of war – including anti-vehicle mines, cluster bombs and other munitions which fail to detonate as intended. We will also promote an extension of the scope of the CCW so that it applies in non-international armed conflicts as well.

In addition to the development of new norms, the ICRC is equally concerned with the faithful application of existing humanitarian law governing the use of weapons. In recent years our medical personnel, together with a wide range of military and civilian medical professionals, have developed a tool to assist States in fulfilling their obligation to assess the legality of weapons before their deployment (Article 36 of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions). The SIrUS Project , now endorsed by 15 national medical associations, collects hospital and casualty data on injuries sustained in conflicts over the past 50 years in order to identify and quantify the types of injuries and suffering resulting from the use of weapons in these situations. The ICRC has proposed that the data on weapons injuries gathered by the project be taken into account in determining which weapons may cause s uperfluous inj ury or unnecessary suffering (SIrUS). Under existing law, all new weapons must be reviewed to establish whether by their nature or design they inflict such injury. The ICRC considers that the information provided by the SIrUS Project provides a tool for more objective discussion and decision-making regarding new weapons. It does so by pinpointing the injuries which have most often been sustained in conflicts over the past few decades and those which have been relatively rare. It does not give a definition of the notion of superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.

The 1868 Saint Petersburg Declaration prohibited the use of explosive bullets in order to protect soldiers from sufferings which serve no military purpose and is therefore contrary to the laws of humanity. It is disturbing to learn that, in recent years, bullets capable of exploding on impact with a human body have been produced, sold and used. In early 1999 the ICRC hosted a meeting of technical and legal governmental experts who reaffirmed that the proliferation of such bullets is a serious problem and undermines the very purpose of the St Petersburg Declaration. We urge all States to refrain from the production and export of such bullets and those that possess them to strictly prohibit their use against persons, a practice which violates existing law. The ICRC expects to report on this problem and seek appropriate action during the 2001 CCW Review Conference.

Mr. Chairman,

Recent reports, including one published by the British Medical Association early this year, have highlighted the potential for abuse of remarkable and rapid advances in the fields of microbiology, genetic engineering and biotechnology. Exploiting such advances for hostile purposes would clearly violate both ancient taboos and twentieth century legal prohibitions on the use of biological weapons. Yet if ex isting norms are to be maintained, an effective monitoring regime is urgently needed to help ensure that knowledge in these fields, which should benefit humanity, is not turned against it. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. The observance next year of the 25th anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention's entry into force and the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare must be marked by concrete action to ensure that the evil of biological warfare is never unleashed. The ICRC calls on States to spare no effort in concluding negotiations next year on an effective monitoring regime for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Ref. LG 1999-193-ENG