Broken Chair depicting a giant chair with a broken leg. It stands across the street from the Palace of Nations, in Geneva and symbolizes opposition to land mines and cluster bombs (Photo: Vladimir Sazonov /
A proven model for human-centered international security exists. Let’s use it.

The so-called “humanitarian disarmament” agenda is popular among the U.S. public but the Trump administration has failed to embrace it.

Moments of global challenge, from world wars to pandemics, lay bare the need for course correction, especially as relates to responsible international problem-solving. The humanitarian disarmament approach is a proven model that — by concentrating on human security, rather than state security — has led to successful multilateral security agreements and practices that assist and empower vulnerable communities. Campaigns and organizations across the world issued a joint letter today explaining how the approach can help set a new normal during and after the global pandemic.

Tragically, the United States has been eschewing this approach and the Trump administration has been taking the country even further from it.

Instead, the U.S. should find ways to shift investments from unneeded and odious weapons to more humanitarian purposes, including healthcare and social spending. It would bring itself into much closer alignment with its global allies and, by changing course, open up greater support for approaches better suited to tackle today’s challenges. These include a focus on prevention and remediation, inclusivity, and commitments to transparency and cooperation that underlie humanitarian disarmament.

Short history of humanitarian disarmament

Concerns about human suffering have been at the heart of more than a century of international agreements about peace and security. A renewed emphasis in recent decades on what’s now termed “humanitarian disarmament,” exemplified by the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, has achieved remarkable success by employing a cooperative process between civil society, willing governments, and international organizations.

Driven by the testimony and leadership of survivors of antipersonnel landmines, the treaty recognized that mines are unable to distinguish soldier from civilian. Their use had disproportionately harmed civilians, at times decades after fighting stopped, and via countries that agreed never to use them.

They also committed to remediation measures, such as clearance of contaminated land and assistance to victims, many of which were new to multilateral disarmament agreements. Novel cooperation and transparency measures, today tracked by the civil society-led Landmine Monitor, have made possible great progress toward ridding the world of the scourge of these weapons. In recognition of the approach’s importance, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Today, 164 countries are members of the treaty, including all of the U.S.’s NATO allies.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions, concluded in 2008, continued the humanitarian disarmament approach. Cluster submunitions, which in simplified terms are the small bombs dropped by big bombs (cluster munitions), act much like landmines in that they can be set off after deployment by the presence of a person, and have resulted in many more civilian casualties than military ones. Today, the treaty banning these weapons has 108 states parties, including 23 of NATO’s 30 members.

The Arms Trade Treaty, concluded in 2013, was similarly driven by civil society advocates based on human security concerns — the harm conventional weapons cause to people. While not a ban treaty, it provided for the first time a definition of what is a responsible arms transfer for a wide range of weapons, adding novel requirements to arms trade decisions such as the likelihood of contributing to gender-based violence. Today there are 106 states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, with 28 of NATO’s 30 members in that group.

Most recently, supporters of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, concluded in 2017, flipped state security arguments to instead make the human security case that any nuclear weapon use would indiscriminately destroy social infrastructure, overwhelming the possibility for a humanitarian response.

Like other ban treaties in the humanitarian disarmament umbrella, the TPNW includes provisions for victim assistance and environmental remediation. Recognizing this important advance, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. Today, the treaty is nearing entry into force, with 38 of 50 needed states parties, and 81 signatories that are working on ratification. 

A number of other campaigns are also underway using the humanitarian disarmament approach. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, as its name suggests, is seeking an agreement to ban the development and use of lethal fully autonomous weapons — those where humans do not have meaningful control and machines are able to select, target, and autonomously make the decision to kill.

The International Network on Explosive Weapons seeks to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and is partnering with a growing number of states that aim to create a political declaration to do so.  

The Conflict and Environment Observatory works to reduce the harm to people and ecosystems from armed conflicts and military activities, and today supports an array of international approaches.

These three campaigns, and those behind the aforementioned treaties, are the initial endorsees of today’s unprecedented open letter from civil society signed by more than 150 organizations.  The letter concludes:

As the world transitions to a post-pandemic reality, we call on states, international organizations, and civil society to follow humanitarian disarmament’s lead. The international community should prioritize human security, reallocate military spending to humanitarian causes, work to eliminate inequalities, ensure multilateral fora incorporate diverse voices, and bring a cooperative mindset to problems of practice and policy. Together we can reshape the security landscape for the future and help create a new—and improved—“normal.”

Support in the United States

Despite official government policies, the American public is generally already on board with much of the humanitarian disarmament agenda. Americans see cooperation with other countries as important on global threats, according to recent Pew Research center findings. Seven in ten say selling weapons makes us less safe, according to a 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs study. A separate poll last year showed a majority of Americans opposed to killer robots. Another showed half the country support working cooperatively to ban nuclear weapons.

Significantly, the U.S. has not used antipersonnel mines since 1991 (aside from one incident in 2002), exported them since 1992, or produced them since 1997. The last significant U.S. use of cluster munitions was in 2003 (aside from a single attack in 2009). For nuclear weapons, non-use in warfare goes back to 1945.

Yet, President Trump refuses to join our allies in banning landmines and cluster munitions. In January, his administration announced a new landmine policy that allows for global use of the weapons, reversing moves by the previous administration to bring the country closer to the treaty. In 2017, the Trump administration also rejected limits that were set to come into place that prohibited using certain cluster munitions.

Perhaps most notably, at a National Rifle Association convention last year, Trump announced that the U.S. would no longer support the Arms Trade Treaty, which was the only humanitarian disarmament agreement the United States had signed. In rejecting the treaty, he echoed false NRA claims of infringement on the Second Amendment, which U.S. negotiators had protected in the treaty’s creation.

This president also dangerously raises the specter of nuclear weapons use by continuing to reject the TPNW and moving backwards on pre-existing arms control efforts through, for example, the consideration of renewed nuclear testing, leaving the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and thus far refusing to commit to an extension of the New START Treaty.

Ignoring the encouragement of many of the country’s top AI and robotics leaders, the U.S. has also not supported efforts to ban killer robots. And while claiming to employ strong practices when it comes to avoiding civilian harm, the destruction of cities in Iraq and Syria in the campaign against ISIS and the refusal to suspend arms shipments to the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, where they have been used against civilian targets, leaves the U.S. on the wrong side of weapons trade and use issues.

Nonetheless, bringing the U.S. on board with humanitarian disarmament approaches should be pursued. It requires us to finally abandon weapons we no longer use and that the world, including our allies, increasingly reject. It necessitates more careful transfer of and use of other weapons in our stockpiles so as to protect civilians. It means a more productive and cooperative engagement with other countries. At a time when there is great questioning of the wisdom of military investments and endless war, and a growing rejection of government actions that dehumanize citizens at home, the moment is ripe for change that focuses on the health and security of individuals. The model for doing so is available and tested. Now is the time to embrace it.

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