On 17 November 2022, UNODA Geneva hosted a webinar on the genesis, history and relevance of Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons of the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). The webinar was organized on the margins of the Meeting of High Contracting Parties to the CCW, as part of the EU Council decision (CFSP) 2021/1694 in support of the universalization, implementation and strengthening of the CCW.
Growing humanitarian concern over the development of blinding laser weapons reached the international arena in the late 1980s. This led to the negotiation and adoption of Protocol IV of the CCW in 1995, which prohibits the use and transfer of laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.
Nearly twenty years after its adoption, the webinar brought together expert speakers to discuss the historical negotiation processes, the Protocol’s relevance to international humanitarian law, and the lessons learned that could inform and guide ongoing and future discussions of relevance to the CCW. The first speaker, Ms. Louise Doswald-Beck, former Head of the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), provided an overview of the unique historical process that led to the adoption of Protocol IV. She highlighted the fundamental role that Sweden played in bringing the issue of blinding laser weapons to the attention of the international community and the in-depth research and expert meetings that the ICRC conducted on this topic. She noted that, once the defence industry grew closer to possessing the technology and the means to mass produce these weapons, the topic became rapidly relevant for the international community and momentum gathered towards establishing a prohibition. The challenge was then to devise a formula that would prohibit the use of laser as a blinding weapon without hindering the development of laser technology for civilian and other military applications.
Mr. Michael Matheson, former U.S. Head of Delegation to the UN negotiations on conventional weapons, explained that the Protocol’s scope of application, limited to weapons causing irreversible (permanent) and serious blindness to unenhanced vision, helped convince some initially reluctant States to accept their prohibition.
Mr. Peter Herby, head of Petersburg Partnerships, a consultancy on humanitarian disarmament issues, noted States’ initial apathy towards the topic of blinding laser weapons, especially regarding the psychological impact of blinding and the capacity of States to provide medical or lifetime psychosocial care to a large number of blinded persons. Initially, States also showed little attention to the implications of the use of blinding lasers against their own forces or civilians. Mr. Herby urged States in the present day to invest more in acquiring in-depth expertise on arms and international humanitarian law within ministries of defence and other relevant government bodies and called on States to work towards ensuring that technologies are not used to the detriment of humanity and that procedural issues do not prevent the adoption of urgently needed new norms.
The final speaker, Ms. Mary Wareham, Advocacy Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch,drew a parallel between Protocol IV and lethal autonomous weapon systems, with regards to the threat to the principles of humanity and dictates of public conscience, and the risk of widespread proliferation of such weapon systems to actors with little regard for international law. She further stated that, as with the negotiations leading up to the adoption of Protocol IV, States could agree on international regulations on the use of lethal autonomous weapon systems to clarify and strengthen existing law without limiting the development of artificial intelligence and technology for peaceful uses. Ms. Wareham acknowledged that the work conducted under the CCW thus far has provided a wealth of information and concrete proposals for regulating and/or prohibiting certain types of weapons. However, she expressed concern about the decision-making challenges to the CCW’s progress towards the regulation of certain weapon systems that may produce superfluous injury, unnecessary suffering, or indiscriminate effects, such as lethal autonomous weapons.
During the question-and-answer session, moderated by Ms. Ann Peters, former Human Rights Watch consultant and OSI Landmines Project program director, Ms. Doswald-Beck underscored the importance of establishing close contact with key stakeholders in advancing negotiations on weapons prohibition and restriction, including parliamentarians and other national officials and experts.
The speakers also made observations about the Protocol’s current status and future. Ms. Wareham suggested that the fear of re-opening negotiations had made it difficult for the CCW to discuss the general status and operation of Protocol IV in depth. Mr. Herby was of the view that the use of lasers for purposes other than causing permanent blindness, such as “dazzling,” could be addressed during a CCW Review Conference without necessarily re-opening Protocol IV to new negotiations. Along the same lines, Ms. Doswald-Beck encouraged centring future discussions on Protocol IV around implementation. Lastly, Mr. Matheson noted that, as was the case for Protocol IV, small States may continue to face the challenge of limited resources and technical expertise on specific issues in disarmament negotiations and underscored the critical role that experts play in negotiations by determining the technical feasibility of proposals.
Mr. Herby noted that the consensus-based decision-making of the CCW is similar to that of Cold War era negotiations on strategic weapons. He added that, due to developments in international humanitarian law, especially regarding the protection of civilians, the CCW may now need a different decision-making model, a view shared by Ms. Wareham.
For further information on the webinar, the CCW or the EU Council decision (CFSP) 2021/1694 in support of the universalization, implementation and strengthening of the CCW, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text prepared by Jessica Louise Henn.