This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty, the common name for the convention that prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. Since the treaty was concluded it has garnered the support of 162 state parties and some 47 million anti-personnel landmines have been removed from arsenals and destroyed. While there are a number of factors that have contributed to this success, the treaty’s strong ban on use and the resulting international pressure were undoubtedly instrumental to this considerable reduction.
The success of this treaty however is threatening to be overshadowed by the failure of governments to both respect and enforce similar obligations set out in international law, and to insist on further restrictions where certain weapons are having a disproportionate and lasting impact on the lives of civilians. The UK’s admission that UK-made cluster munitions are being used by Saudi Arabia in the conflict in Yemen, the continued and relentless deployment of explosive weapons in the populated cities of Syria and the failure of the UN to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan all demonstrate the very real and brutal impact that failures to stop weapons proliferation and use can have on civilians caught up in conflict.
The UK secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, confirmed just before Christmas what had been suspected for some time, that UK-made cluster munitions sold in the 1980s to Saudi Arabia had been used against Houthi rebels in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia is not a party to the Cluster Munitions Convention, the UK is, and as such the UK is prohibited from assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to use, develop, produce, acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer cluster munitions.
The Cluster Munitions Convention is unambiguous and absolute in its prohibition of all use of cluster munitions and does not make any exemptions. The wide-area effect of cluster munitions means that explosive submunitions are purposely scattered over large expanses making them indiscriminate by design and posing a particular threat to civilians.The UK must therefore do all in its power to avoid being in breach of the convention, by continuing to censure use of cluster munitions and putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to stop. Failure to do so may set a precedent for other states to follow.
Already in Syria there has been reported sustained use of cluster munitions by Syrian-Russian joint forces with significant civilian casualties. While neither are parties to the Cluster Munitions Convention, the use of cluster munitions and other wide-area impact explosive weapons in cities such as Aleppo raises more general questions about the need to ensure that international humanitarian law (IHL) is complied with and civilians are protected.
Just as failing to act in accordance with obligations set out in the Cluster Munitions Convention weakens its efficacy, so too does failure to comply and reinforce IHL obligations risk undermining the effectiveness of IHL. Additional measures that complement, refine and fortify IHL can serve both to bolster its provisions and improve protection of civilians. For instance, a political process being driven by a number of states, including Austria, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico and Mozambique, seeks to mitigate the significant humanitarian impact of explosive weapons in populated areas –. In 2015 it was reportedthat civilians represented 76% of all deaths and injuries caused by explosive weapons and a study by UNIDIR on the reverberating effects of explosive weaponsoutlined some of the longer term impacts their use can have on a society, including damage to the education system, the economy and housing.
The control of arms, or lack thereof, has very direct implications for the societies in which they are used. The UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, expressed his concern after a visit to South Sudan in November 2016 that there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide. One of a number of measures recommended by Dieng to the Security Council was the imposition of an arms embargo, citing the proliferation of arms as ‘devastating’. In December 2016 however the Security Council rejected a US-drafted resolution that proposed this measure, along with further sanctions. In doing so they have failed the people of South Sudan, people who have no other means of political leverage or influence on the world stage, who therefore rely on the international framework to protect their interests as best they can.
Indeed the failure to respect and enforce conventional arms controls measures is serving to underscore their significance and impact, albeit in the most ruthless of ways, as civilians continue to bear the brunt of their use in conflicts around the world. The same is true of unconventional weapons – with chemical weapons prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Conventionhaving been reportedly used by both Syrian forces and ISIS in the past two years. States should not hesitate therefore to present a robust defence of weapons control and a reinforcement of the belief that arms control measures can work, have worked and are necessary and important to protect civilians.
Hannah Bryce joined the International Security Department (ISD) at Chatham House in September 2013.
This article was originally published by Newsweek.