‘Virtually no public scrutiny’: The need for stronger weapons reviews globally
By Elizabeth Minor
On 18 September 2015 Sci Dev Net interviewed Thomas Nash about Article 36’s work to promote public scrutiny over the development and use of weapons – including addressing the patchy and inadequate processes that currently exist amongst states to review weapons technologies globally. Nash pointed out that in comparison to standards in other fields, such as the development and release of new pharmaceuticals or most consumer goods, “there’s virtually no public scrutiny of the process of developing and fielding new weapons”.
The lack of strong, transparent reviews which give attention to humanitarian considerations and the protection of civilians in the development and use of weapons means that technologies devastating to civilians can come into widespread use: Nash used the example of anti-personnel landmines (prohibited by the mine ban convention in the late 1990s) and cluster munitions (prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions) as categories of weapon that may never have come on to the market if such reviews had been conducted by states that take humanitarian considerations seriously.
Nash also discussed tensions within the UK’s position as global leader on the protection of civilians in armed conflict at the UN Security Council, given the country’s frequent reluctance to participate in progressive disarmament initiatives, and arms sales to countries involved in conflicts that are causing devastation to civilians and creating refugees.
Nash highlighted the greatest area of concern to Article 36 as the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Given that bombing and bombardment in towns and cities is what is killing civilians most in today’s conflicts, the need for a politically binding commitment to prevent the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas is urgent, given this predictable harm caused to civilians.
New Zealand and progressive action on disarmament
In August Thomas Nash spoke with Radio New Zealand National about the progressive role that New Zealand in particular could play in the main issue areas of Article 36’s work. Nash highlighted New Zealand’s reputation for pragmatic and progressive foreign policy lines on disarmament, civilian protection and humanitarian affairs, including its role in processes to ban anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. New Zealand is well placed to take a strong role in curbing the use of explosive weapons in populated areas globally, in abolishing nuclear weapons, and in preventing the development of lethal autonomous weapons systems.
On explosive weapons, Nash observed that New Zealand has a strong reputation on the protection of civilians, and should push for an international commitment on stopping the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. When used in populated areas, 90% of casualties from explosive weapons are civilians, according to data from Action on Armed Violence. The humanitarian harm caused by explosive weapons is gathering increasing recognition, including from more than 40 states, the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nash also blogged for Incline on this subject.
Nash noted the significant recent rejuvenation of global work on nuclear disarmament, with the reframing in international debate of nuclear weapons as a humanitarian issue, and with a majority of states now having signed the Humanitarian Pledge. Horror at the impact of nuclear weapons on people and cities were the origin of opposition to nuclear weapons. It is vital that the increased attention to this issue, including from humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, is translated into an international political response, with a treaty banning nuclear weapons. This should move forward with or without the nuclear-armed states, who are currently blocking progress on nuclear disarmament – and New Zealand should join the Pledge to take action on this issue.
The next international meeting to address the issue of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) will take place in November at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Nash urged a move from informal discussions to negotiations on an instrument to prohibit LAWS – weapons systems that would operate without meaningful human control. The immediate concern is less of sophisticated, advanced artificial intelligence weapons, and more related to next generation drone technology for example, with systems sent out to select targets and fire weapons without a human being involved. New Zealand has taken part in discussions on LAWS so far, and is urged to adopt a strong position in November – which would fit with New Zealand’s previous actions and reputation in disarmament.
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