27th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Weapons: the humanitarian perspective

Two aspects of the weapons issue are of particular concern from a humanitarian point of view. First, are they indiscriminate and therefore more likely to cause civilian death and injury? And second, do they inflict more suffering than required for a given military purpose? The first is an argument for limitation, the second for prohibition. These norms were the basis on which a large part of the international community has banned landmines.

In addition, there is strong evidence to suggest that the widespread availability of military-style weapons is having a detrimental impact on respect for humanitarian rules, on the people whom those rules seek to protect and on the safe conduct of relief operations.

former fighter, Lebanon

Landmines: maintaining the momentum

The campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines reached its peak in Ottawa in December 1997 with the signing of the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction (more commonly known as the "Ottawa treaty"), which entered into force on 1 March 1999. The overwhelming public response to the campaign, in which the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement played a decisive part, and the fact that to date 133 States have signed the treaty itself unthinkable three years ago is a lasting testament to the power of humanity.

The first step to end the carnage caused by landmines has been taken, but the road is yet long. Governments that are hesitant or unwilling to sign the new treaty must be persuaded to do so. Those that have signed, need to translate their commitment into national legislation and enforcement measures. Moreover, each State has certain obligations to fulfil under the treaty, including mine clearance, stockpile destruction, support for mine victims and mine-awareness programmes.

The ICRC and the Movement as a whole can play a key role in the implementation process alongside their more traditional activities to address the devastating consequences of anti-personnel mines. It is expected that a long-term Movement strategy on landmines will be adopted by the Council of Delegates shortly before the Conference.

SIrUS Project: drawing the line

Even in military circles, certain types of warfare are considered abhorrent and inhuman. Designing weapons with specific intent to burn, blind, poison or cause infectious disease or inevitable death is one of them, and various steps have been taken over the years to ban the use of such weapons on the battlefield. Yet ever more sophisticated technologies are constantly under development, and each time a particularly nasty weapon comes along the whole process of finding new arguments to prohibit it has to begin once again.

The SIrUS Project was the fruit of a symposium held in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1996 on "The medical profession and the effects of weapons". Its purpose was to develop a baseline for determining which weapons, by their design, cause "Superfluous Injury or Unnecessary Suffering" (hence SIrUS). The Project does not aim to impede the achievement of legitimate military objectives. Rather, it is a tool for reinforcing a part of international law that is specifically designed to protect the soldier on the battlefield.

Drawing on data from the records of army medical services and the ICRC's surgical database, which documents the cases of 28,000 war-wounded patients in its hospitals, a group of medical, legal and weapons experts looked at ways of measuring the foreseeable effects of new weapons against the known effects of weapons commonly used in conflicts over the last 50 years.

The SIrUS Project's approach to arms, based on their effect on health, has been endorsed by a large part of the medical profession. It is hoped that States attending the Conference will agree to use the baseline as a reference framework for evaluating both existing weapons and future designs.

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A formidable challenge

Putting ideas into practice

A conference with a difference

Even wars have limits

No good or bad victims

Weapons: the humanitarian perspective

Disasters have no limits

Fine tuning the response

The worldwide health crisis

A role to develop

Shared principles