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Countering Consensus through Humanitarian Disarmament: Incendiary Weapons and Killer Robots

Published in: Humanitarian Disarmament

The Sixth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) illustrated both the dangers of consensus diplomacy and the strength of humanitarian disarmament. 

The CCW, unlike some disarmament forums, operates by consensus, which allows a single country to block a proposal. As a result, a few countries were able to prevent the Review Conference from making progress on incendiary weapons and autonomous weapons systems. At the same time, the conference showcased how humanitarian disarmament can challenge the abuse of consensus rules by placing the goal of reducing arms-inflicted human suffering above the interests of individual countries.

This dichotomy was exemplified by the debate over Protocol III on incendiary weapons, which governs weapons that set fires and cause excruciating burns. Twenty countries called for dedicated discussions to review the protocol in light of the grievous humanitarian consequences of using these weapons.

Russia and Cuba, however, blocked Ireland’s widely supported proposal for holding informal consultations on Protocol III next year. 

While the Review Conference agreed to condemn the use of incendiary weapons against civilians, the failure to approve focused discussions on the effectiveness of the existing protocol was discouraging for those who care about protecting civilians from the horrors of war. Nevertheless, the unwavering resolve of countries that believe in a humanitarian approach to governing weapons, along with statements from new government supporters, was heartening. 

Capturing the views of many countries, Mexico eloquently expressed the need to address the “horrific loss of life” and injuries inflicted by incendiary weapons. This people-centered perspective is the essence of humanitarian disarmament.  

The Mexican delegate told the Review Conference: “[I]t’s incredible that in spite of the fact … the conference is aware of the horrendous humanitarian effects of these kinds of weapons that we are not at all ready to consider it as an item for discussion at our meetings.”

Like other proponents of informal consultations, Mexico also criticized the move to block the Irish proposal, saying it was “stripping the convention of its substance and relevance.” Ireland said that consensus has been used to hand “the power of veto to a small number of states, which is deeply concerning.” 

The countries that held firm to humanitarian principles did a service to incendiary weapons survivors, who endure a lifetime of suffering.  These governments should stay strong and renew their calls for consultations at the CCW’s annual meeting next year. Healthcare professionalsburn survivorsthe International Committee of the Red Cross, and civil society organizations stand behind them.

A similar tension was evident during discussions of the main item on the Review Conference’s agenda: autonomous weapons systems, also known as “killer robots.”

A majority of countries called for negotiating a legally binding instrument on autonomous weapons systems that would ensure meaningful human control over the use of force. Yet due to the objections of a small number of major military powers, many of whom are developing these types of weapons, the conference settled for a weak mandate to “consider proposals and elaborate, by consensus, possible measures.” 

After eight years of discussions, the CCW failed to take concrete steps to deal with the concerns raised by autonomous weapons systems. During both the Review Conference and the Group of Governmental Experts meeting the previous week, however, most countries expressed a humanitarian commitment to creating a new treaty that would address the legal, ethical, accountability, and security problems of these emerging systems. 

Humanitarian disarmament treaties emerge when states share the objective of reducing the unacceptable human harm caused by a particular weapon system. The calls for prohibitions and regulations on autonomous weapons systems are reminiscent of those for bans on antipersonnel landmines, cluster munitions, and nuclear weapons.

Having embraced the purpose of humanitarian disarmament, proponents of an autonomous weapons systems treaty should now look to its processes. The successful negotiations of the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons show that either a stand-alone process or a UN General Assembly-mandated one could be a promising alternative to the CCW. 

Free of consensus requirements, such a forum would allow countries to live up to their humanitarian rhetoric and adopt new law on killer robots in an efficient, effective, and inclusive manner. 

The CCW’s Review Conference showed how consensus diplomacy can impede efforts to address the threats posed by key disarmament issues. But the conference also highlighted the flaws of the consensus-based forum and reaffirmed many countries’ dedication to humanitarian disarmament. In so doing, it gives governments and civil society motivation and hope for the coming year.   

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