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Advancing Humanitarian Disarmament

The Way Forward

Published in: Public Service Europe

In October 1996, an Afghan teenager stepped on a landmine while taking a shortcut to school in his village north of Kabul. It took hours for the boy to get basic first aid and when he finally reached a hospital, both his legs had to be amputated. Firoz Alizada joined the ranks of Afghanistan's thousands of landmine survivors but despite discrimination and physical accessibility challenges, he was able to complete his education and today works for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines- recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

At a recent event to mark the 20th anniversary of the ICBL, Firoz described himself as "one of the lucky ones because I have the privilege of working for this campaign". He works daily in support of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which comprehensively bans antipersonnel landmines and requires mine clearance and victim assistance. His story and the treaty banning landmines represent the new humanitarian approach to disarmament that has emerged over the past two decades. Humanitarian disarmament seeks to strengthen international humanitarian law and protect civilians from the suffering caused by armed conflict. This humanitarian focus contrasts with traditional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation initiatives, which have been driven by countries seeking to advance narrower national security interests.

The Mine Ban Treaty and its sister treaty, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, embody the humanitarian disarmament approach by creating distinctive and uncompromising legal regimes aimed at protecting civilians and ending human suffering. Antipersonnel landmines and cluster munitions violate international humanitarian law because their effects cannot be confined to military targets and they are disproportionate, causing suffering and long-term harm to civilians that far exceed their military value. These treaties enshrine humanitarian provisions such as remedial measures requiring countries to clear affected land and provide assistance to individuals and communities victimised by these weapons. Their provisions requiring assistance for victims in the form of care and rehabilitation as well as social and economic reintegration demonstrate that international law can work to protect and ensure the rights of victims when humanitarian considerations are the priority.

The fast-track diplomatic processes that led to the creation of the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions characterise advances in humanitarian disarmament. Neither was the product of consensus decision–making; rather they were created through the will of a like-minded majority of participating countries that united in their common objective of placing the protection of civilians above other considerations. Both treaties achieve the clearest and highest legal standards possible through absolute prohibitions of the weapons rather than regulating them. The prohibitions mean that landmines and cluster munitions carry a stigma, a necessary measure given that these weapons were widely used before these treaties came into being.

Another characteristic of these humanitarian disarmament treaties is the genuine cooperation and substantial partnerships between governments, international organisations and civil society. This collaboration was evident both in the processes leading to the creation of the treaties as well as the way they have been carried out. By providing first-hand expertise on the harmful, long-term impact of these weapons, civil society representatives including survivors and clearance experts spurred governments to urgent action. Non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watchdocument the egregious harm caused by the use of these weapons and monitor the countries' compliance with their obligations under the treaties.

Countries all over the world are making substantial progress, but continued vigilance is needed to ensure that everyone respects the prohibitions on antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions. The recent use of landmines and cluster munitions in Syria and Libya show the challenges involved in deterring resort to these weapons. There is any number of other emerging and longstanding humanitarian disarmament challenges that should be tackled as soon as possible to prevent civilian harm. Weak international rules on incendiary weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus need to be strengthened. The development of 'killer robots'- fully autonomous weapons that could select and engage targets without human intervention - needs to be addressed to avoid future harm.

More than 90 representatives from non-governmental organisations and global coalitions working to advance humanitarian disarmament came together last week in New York to consider these and other challenges. They issued a communiqué urging countries to address humanitarian disarmament challenges and to give civil society seeking to support such initiatives a substantial role. The success of the mine ban and cluster munitions treaties show that civil society support is essential to any effort aimed at tackling disarmament challenges from a humanitarian perspective. Firoz Alizada has responded to his almost unimaginable loss by joining this effort. The goal is to keep children on their way to school, farmers in their fields and any civilian living in a conflict zone out of harm's way.

Mary Wareham is advocacy director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch

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