Five years ago this week, 94 countries gathered in Oslo to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The historic ceremony, held in the hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, was a moment of celebration and inspiration.
The groundbreaking treaty banned a class of weapons that cause serious harm to civilians. It also showed that humanitarian disarmament, which prioritizes humanitarian concerns over security interests, had become an established means of governing weapons.
While the anniversary of the Convention on Cluster Munitions offers an occasion to reflect on an earlier success, the past month also marked a breakthrough for those working to prevent future civilian casualties. At an international disarmament conference in Geneva, 117 countries turned their attention toward another threat: fully autonomous weapons, also known as “killer robots.” On November 15, the last day of the conference, states parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) unanimously agreed to take up the issue next year.
Cluster munitions have caused civilian casualties during and after conflicts for half a century. Fully autonomous weapons, which would target and fire on targets without meaningful human intervention, might do the same over the coming decades. They do not exist yet, but technology is moving rapidly in their direction.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) coordinated by Human Rights Watch, has called for a preemptive prohibition of fully autonomous weapons because of their potential to revolutionize warfare and endanger civilians. The International Human Rights Clinic has supported its efforts through several joint advocacy publications with Human Rights Watch, including one released at CCW in November.
CCW is usually a slow-moving forum so the forthcoming discussions do not mean a treaty banning fully autonomous weapons will be negotiated in 2014. But the fact that parties to the convention, including such military powers as China, Russia, and the United States, have acknowledged the importance of the issue is truly remarkable. It is a tribute in large part to the effort of advocates working on the issue, including the Clinic’s students.
This success comes less than a year after Human Rights Watch and the Clinic published Losing Humanity: The Case against Killer Robots, a major report that sparked international discussions on the topic, and about seven months after NGOs launched the Campaign.
The recent progress on killer robots at CCW occurred in the context of other noteworthy events in humanitarian disarmament. At the same diplomatic conference, countries for the first time publicly condemned Syria’s use of incendiary weapons, which cause exceptionally cruel and painful injuries. Concurrently, the Cluster Munition Coalition, which led the successful campaign to ban cluster munitions, celebrated its 10th anniversary.
December 3 is also the 16th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty, which 161 states have joined. This highly effective ban on antipersonnel landmines was the first humanitarian disarmament treaty.
Much work remains to be done on the disarmament front. More countries need to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions and Mine Ban Treaty, and states parties should enact strong legislation to implement them. International law governing incendiary weapons should be strengthened. Fully autonomous weapons should be banned before countries invest so much in their development that they would be reluctant to give them up.
But this month of milestones should reinvigorate the disarmament movement and remind us of the humanitarian impact that that movement makes possible.