By: Shakeeb Asrar
For centuries, following bloody conflicts, military leaders acknowledged that some weapons were simply too awful to be used, but those same militaries generally continued to use them.
The World War I saw the deployment of chemical weapons on a massive scale for the first time. The horror of millions of dead soldiers, in trenches and on battlefields, shocked nations into signing, in 1925, the Geneva Protocol pledging to refrain from the use of chemical and biological weapons in future wars.
Over the past century, the weapons that cause “unjustifiable” suffering in an indiscriminate and “unpredictable” manner have been subject to multilateral treaties that aim to disarm countries that possess them and control or ban the use of these weapons altogether.
While some may feel sceptical that these efforts to disarm the world are effective, and challenges to disarmament remain, the disarmament treaties serve a key role in the regulation and reduction in stockpiles, as well as in the testing and use of certain weapons in conflicts. The use of banned weapons constitutes a war crime.
Disarmament treaties over the past century
Global Nuclear Disarmament
Global nuclear disarmament was the subject of United Nations General Assembly in the first resolution in 1946. However, complete disarmament was included in General Assembly’s agenda in 1959 and since then it has been one of the most crucial and urgent objectives of the UN. In 1978, the General Assembly’s first Special Session on disarmament reaffirmed that effective measures for nuclear disarmament have the highest priority.
Biological weapons have not been used by states during conflict since World War I, after the Geneva Protocol was signed in 1925. The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention further solidified state commitment to their prohibition in war. However, because the treaty does not provide any monitoring or verification mechanisms, many countries continue research and stockpiling activities. Biological toxins used for weapons include bacteria, viruses and fungi. Notorious historical examples of toxins used in times of war include: plague, smallpox, faeces, anthrax and cholera, among others.
After the World War I massacres and the consequent signing of the Geneva Protocol, warring factions became hesitant and did not use chemical weapons on battlefields during the Second World War (WWII). Nazis did, however, use them allegedly to murder millions of Jews in gas chambers. Chemical weapons have been used in many conflicts thereafter. The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention implemented verification mechanisms that have seen through the voluntary destruction of 93 percent of the global stockpiles by signatory states. Furthermore, as using chemical weapons is a war crime, factions that resort to using them, do so in secret and deny having done so.
Nuclear weapons were only used in wartime once, when the US bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. A nuclear arms race followed, during the Cold War period between Western and Eastern bloc countries, mainly the US and USSR, during which there was an exponential growth in testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons. The numerous treaties signed in this period have ended nearly all testing, and stockpiles have been reduced from over 60,000 in 1985 to about 15,000 currently, with a commitment to reduce this number to about 7,000 by 2022 by signatory countries.
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their work to this end.
Landmines that target people have been used throughout history, but most widely during World War II. They cause death and crippling injuries to civilian populations long after conflicts have been settled. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, or Ottawa Treaty, set to eliminate the production and use of landmines. Since the implementation of the treaty, 159 signatory states have declared they have no stockpiles, having destroyed a combined 51 million mines. Post-conflict demining is an ongoing challenge for many of the most heavily mined countries, including Bosnia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Egypt, as is the continued use of mines by non-signatory states.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) was awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize “for their work for the banning and clearing of anti-personnel mines”.
Although stockpiles of traditional landmines have decreased, deaths and injuries have increased in recent years, due to the increased use of improvised explosive devices by non-state groups.
Cluster Munitions (CW)
Cluster munitions, which eject small bomblets over a wide area after being released, were first used bythe Soviet Union during World War II and have been used in nearly every bombardment campaign since. Civilians constitute 98 percent of casualties, falling victim both to the wide swaths of damage in the target area during an attack and to unexploded remnants – bomblets that land, but do not detonate – in the aftermath of the attack. While 108 countries have signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, about half the world, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, have not and continue using them in current wars.
Technological advancements with potential for malicious use pose new challenges for disarmament efforts. The challenge is further complicated by the fact that many innovations are spearheaded by private sector entities, rather than states, which makes regulation and enforcement through a system of state membership-based organisations difficult. New innovations with potential for malicious application include cyberattacks, lethal autonomous weapons systems, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), synthetic biotechnology (genetic engineering), satellite technology and artificial intelligence.
2017 UN Disarmament Week
From October 24-30, the United Nations observes Disarmament Week. During this period, member-states are invited to “highlight the danger of the arms race, propagate the need for its cessation and increase public understanding of the urgent tasks of disarmament”. These efforts include the regulation and banning of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as conventional weapons (CW) such as laser weapons – both incendiary and blinding, landmines and certain types of munitions, among others.
The following five cases demonstrate the role international treaties play and how effectively they regulate the use and production of these weapons.
International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
The International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons is observed on September 26 with an objective to provide an opportunity to the world community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a high priority. It also aims at educating the public and the authorities about the real benefits of eliminating such weapons, and the social and economic costs of perpetuating them.
Nuclear Weapons & the World
There is an uncontrolled race of nuclear weapons in the world and according to the UN statistics, about 15,000 nuclear weapons still exist and more than half the world’s population lives in countries that either have such weapons or are members of nuclear alliances. This grave situation exists largely because of prevailing economic and political conditions. The contemporary international political scenario can be well analyzed by keeping the term hypocrisy in consideration. Basically, the prevailing international politics does not function as an international integrating system; rather it functions as a catalyst to invigorate international disintegration by dividing the world into political giants and political ants. International integration, which should be the first and foremost step, has been deleted from the hard disk of international politics. Nuclear non-proliferation, as propagated by contemporary politics, is a very controversial term – properly designed and masterly disguised. The most interesting fact about non-proliferation treaties is that they are controlled by those who have been responsible for most of nuclear proliferation.
There are few thinkers who believe that the current slogans of peace and tranquility and non-proliferation are new techniques by the imperialists to strengthen their dominance in the international scenario. They believe that today’s imperialism is nothing more than an evolution of the same colonization. It has evolved in terms of both technology and technique. Today’s technology is more modern and techniques are more misleading. Imperialism has clothed its cunning incentives by beautiful slogans. Its behaviour is deceptive and nuclear non-proliferation is one of the examples of its dual nature. The slogan of non-proliferation is raised because imperialists want a solid excuse to shun the Third World nations. The world powers have the capacity to destroy the whole world several times with their weapons. When the world powers carry out some nuclear tests, the world peace organizations and test ban treaties do not seem to have much power to stop them. This is really a lame and cruel justice. There is a power game and the power is always skewed towards the countries that have large economy and are militarily strong. Most of the decisions pertaining to the world order and international law are influenced by them.
There is no controversy about the fact that every nation has got the right of self-defence. The nations that want to guarantee complete security for their people need to acquire weapons; this is a reality that has to be accepted by everyone. If they do not acquire weapons, they will be dominated by their enemies – this is how we have formed the world order and political scenario.