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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 24, March 1998

"Wicked Weapons" Beyond Landmines
By Jim Wurst Introduction

Even before the ink was dry on the first signature to the convention banning anti-personnel mines (APMs), governmental and non-governmental representatives in Ottawa were discussing how to follow up the unprecedented success of declaring illegal under international law a weapon that has been used in nearly every military arsenal in the world. While the first priorities naturally enough are implementing the treaty, clearing mines and assisting mine victims, ideas were already being floated on how to apply the lessons of the landmine campaign to other "wicked weapons."

"Wicked weapon" is an evocative - though informal - phrase for conventional systems which cause harm disproportionate to their military utility, and which inflict that harm significantly on civilians. The key arms control treaty for outlawing or controlling such systems is the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW - full title, the "Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May be Deemed to Be Excessively Injurious or to Have Indiscriminate Effects").

A review conference for the CCW was held in May 1996 (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 5, May 1996) where States Parties amended Protocol II placing new restrictions on the use of APMs (the failure of this conference to ban mines ultimately led to the negotiations over the Ottawa Treaty). A review conference in September-October 1995 negotiated a new Protocol IV banning blinding laser weapons; a protocol which entered into force on 30 January 1998 (see the last issue of Disarmament Diplomacy). The CCW will hold its next review conference in 2001, with the preparatory meetings probably beginning in 1999. The adoption of further protocols is a major priority of researchers and campaigners seeking to progressively limit the world's militaries' "rights" in waging war. So far, the only formal proposal is from Switzerland for a new protocol on small-caliber weapon systems.

Eric Prokosch, the author of The Technology of Killing, a 1995 study on the history and use of antipersonnel weapons, and E.J. Hogendoorn, a researcher for the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, have written a report, not yet published, on antipersonnel weapons listing a variety of antipersonnel weapons that could be classified as indiscriminate. They wrote, "International humanitarian law...offers two grounds for banning or restricting the use of specific weapons. These are the prohibition of the use of weapons of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering to combatants... and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks...[which are] attacks of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction."

On covering other weapons under CCW, Hogendoorn said, "The issues need to be raised, and people can tell from the preparatory committees if there is any interest from government. Because of the landmine ban, people may be open to considering other weapons."

Options and Priorities

Of the multitude of weapons that can be considered indiscriminate, one way to narrow the range is to focus on weapons that are related to landmines in characteristics and effects (small yield explosives, easily deployable over wide areas), designed for anti-personnel use and would address the concerns of those who worry about militaries exploiting loopholes in the Ottawa Treaty. Cluster weapons and other sub-munitions (small explosives contained in and discharged from a larger container, including canister round for artillery), and anti-tank mines are three systems best fitting these criteria.

While these weapons are not by design indiscriminate or inhumane, their use routinely is. Case studies of the use of clusters bombs, for example, show an depressingly consistent pattern of scattering the explosives in the millions over vast areas of civilian-populated lands leaving behind thousands, in some cases millions, of unexploded "bombies" which often end up exploding in the hands of a child or from the strike of a hoe.

The Mennonites, who have been involved in clearing unexploded cluster bombs in Laos (where they estimate there could still be four million bombies), have been lobbying against this weapon for years. A 1997 eport by the Mennonite Central Committee on the use of cluster weapons said, "The similarity of cluster weapons to landmines is... apparent in their violation of international humanitarian law. Cluster weapons are, by the very nature, indiscriminate." The report cites failure rate of bombies to be between 5 and 30%. The report argues that building a system with a known dud rate is "an acknowledgment that de facto mine fields will be created."

Titus Peachey, a co-author of the Mennonite report, Drop Today, Kill Tomorrow, sees this pattern of indiscriminate use built into the system. "How do you not use them indiscriminately since each bomb or container holds so many [bombs]... Even if targeting is precise, by the time 900 of them land, some will land on non-military targets." However, he is unsure of the chances of banning cluster weapons. He said the landmines ban "gives me some hope but it will be more difficult to ban [cluster weapons] because they are more integral to military strategies."

Cluster weapons are the most famous type of sub-munitions, but there are other systems. Canister and cartridge rounds for artillery and tanks are cited by Prokosch and Hogendoorn as "larger, more sophisticated versions of the shotgun cartridge. Thousands of small metal balls, slugs, or flechettes are packed inside a shell which open after leaving the gun barrel, dispersing the contents in a cone-shaped spray. The antipersonnel effect of such a large number of projectiles is enormous."

If militaries are unwilling to part with cluster weapons, anti-tank mines (ATMs) are even more untouchable. In lobbying for the landmines ban, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) made the tactical decision to leave ATMs out of the text since it was clear many of the countries which have backed the AP mine ban would not accept an anti-tank ban as well. Hogendoorn said, "One could conceivably devise a protocol on how ATMs are to be used, but most people recognize it would be extremely difficult, probably impossible, to get a ban on them."

The Mines Advisory Group (MAG) of the UK, one of the more politically active demining specialists organizations, was taking on ATMs even before the Ottawa Treaty was finished. In a position paper, MAG said, "The Ottawa Treaty should define [APMs] by the impact they have on victims, and should remove the exemption clause for anti-handling devices." By permitting anti-handling devices (which are often APMs) on anti-tank mines "the treaty risks accepting by default the potentially devastating consequences of quietly legitimating anti-personnel/anti-tank mines and anti-personnel/anti-handling devices. The effect may well be entirely contrary to the spirit of the treaty and risks creating a new variety of mines."

What MAG calls a loophole is the definition of an APM as "a mine designed to be exploded by the presence, proximity or contact of a person and that will incapacitate, injure or kill one or more persons. Mines designed to be detonated by the presence, proximity or contact of a vehicle as opposed to a person, that are equipped with anti-handling devices, are not considered anti-personnel mines as a result of being so equipped." Yet this is precisely the wording US Department of Defense officials cited as one of the reasons Washington could not support Ottawa. The Clinton administration wanted the word "primarily" inserted into the definition, as in "a mine designed primarily to be..." Otherwise, the DoD argued, as many as 35 other US weapon systems could be banned under the Ottawa Treaty. In other words, one side considers the loophole too big, another side calls it too small.


Any attempt to ban further weapons systems will be vigorously opposed by the military establishments of more nations than the United States alone. Yet devising new protocols along these lines could form a two-part strategy of closing loopholes in the Ottawa Treaty and adding new weapons to the small but growing list of stigmatized weapons. This would appear to be an unwinnable fight, however, four years ago a ban on anti-personnel landmines was also inconceivable.

Jim Wurst is a UN-based journalist and a consultant on light weapons disarmament for the Council on Economic Priorities in New York.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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