The UN Weapons Convention

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (in full Convention on Prohibition or Restriction on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or Have Indiscriminate Effects) is a legally effective international framework agreement concluded by the United Nations. On the one hand, it is based on the norm—long-established in international humanitarian law—of shunning the use of certain types of weapon in wars and armed conflicts. This is founded in The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and in the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons. On the other hand, the CCW builds, in particular, on the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which for the first time made the protection of civilians in times of war the subject of a binding international agreement. In other words, the CCW essentially outlaws certain conventional weapons systems because they have indiscriminate impacts on both combatants and civilians and cause excessive suffering.

The CCW was adopted on 10 October 1980 in Geneva and initially signed by 50 states. On 2 December 1983, it had gained the necessary twenty ratifications to enter officially into force. The convention was amended on 21 December 2001, widening its scope of application from wars between nations to include domestic and non-international armed conflict. At the time of writing (February 2013), as many as 115 states had ratified the agreement and it had been signed by a further five states. States parties are required to submit annual reports, and conference and meetings of experts are arranged at regular intervals to discuss progress on various aspects of the Convention. The countries that have not yet acceded are mainly located in the Middle East and North Africa (including Algeria, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Iran), Sub-Saharan Africa (including Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya) and South-East Asia (including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand).

The CCW is a framework treaty that first of all sets out only general provisions and injunctions. The details of weapons systems to be outlawed are then defined in what have become five Protocols annexed to the Convention. It is not essential for every state joining the Convention to agree to every protocol; rather, a party must have accepted at least two of them. Thus, of the 115 members, somewhat less than half (54 states, including Germany) have so far adopted all the protocols.

Protocol I prohibits the use of weapons “the primary effect of which is to injure by fragments which are not detectable in human body x-rays”. These include, for instance, the glass mines of the type deployed by the German army in World War II. The fragments from this weapon are tiny and therefore difficult to remove from the human body and present a grave danger of wound infection.

Protocol II is more general and deals with the “Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Mines, Booby-Traps and Other Devices”. The version that entered into force in 1983 requires states parties to keep precise records of the minefields they have laid and to actively assist in removing those mines when hostilities are over. Moreover, restrictions on booby-traps require them not to be attached to certain objects (e.g. children’s toys, corpses, food or drink, and objects clearly of a religious nature). The second protocol was strengthened again on 3 May 1996, and the weapons outlawed in this version, effective since 3 December 1998, include mines designed to detonate when approached by the magnet on a mine detector. Remotely delivered mines must be fitted with an effective self-destruction or self-neutralization mechanism. The amended protocol also provides for restrictions on the use of anti-personnel mines but does not ban them outright. This is why, in a development outside the CCW itself, a large number of states came together in 1997 to sign the Mine Ban Treaty to ban the deployment, production, stockpiling and transfer of such weapons. But since those countries with the world’s largest armies, the United States, China and Russia, have adopted Protocol II but not agreed to the Mine Ban Treaty, the CWW continues to play an important role on this question.

Protocol III deals with the use of “incendiary weapons”, i.e. weapons that achieve their destructive impact through flames or heat (e.g. flamethrowers or napalm bombs). These weapons are not outlawed under the provisions, but their use is subject to certain restrictions. It is forbidden, for example, to attack civilians with them or to carry out aerial attacks with incendiary weapons against military objects located “within a concentration of civilians” (e.g. in a town or village).

The fourth and fifth protocols to the CCW did not form part of the original convention. Protocol IV was not adopted until 13 October 1995 in Vienna and entered into force on 30 July 1998. It takes into account new trends in weapons research and development, banning the use (although not the development and stockpiling) of “blinding laser weapons”. Protocol V “on explosive remnants of war” was adopted on 28 November 2003 in Geneva and has been in force since 12 November 2006. Based on the realization that unexploded ordnance or retrieved explosive ordnance presents a danger to civilians even many years after an armed conflict has ended, the protocol seeks to minimize such risks. However, in key points, it does not go beyond a recommendation to be followed voluntarily by the states parties.

More recently, the states parties discussed the adoption of a sixth protocol aimed at outlawing or at least restricting so-called cluster munitions. However, a consensus could not be found within this group of states, so the advocates finally concluded an anti-cluster bomb agreement outside the CCW framework, and the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force on 1 August 2010.

Sources and further information

BICC 11/2013

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