Limits of lasers
By Christina Grisewood
In September last year, pressure
from concerned individuals and groups resulted in the worldwide
condemnation of a new and repugnant weapon. In a precedent-setting
decision, governments meeting in Vienna banned the transfer
and use of blinding laser weapons and, in so doing, won an important
battle. Still, the “War” is far from over.
In Debt of Honor, novelist Tom Clancy describes
a scenario where CIA agents working undercover in Japan use
a lightweight, battery-operated device that has been made
to look like photographic equipment to blind pilots of a military
transport plane as they are making their final descent. With
men deprived of sight from one moment to the next at its controls,
the plane doesn’t land; it tumbles from the sky and
crashes in a spectacular burst of flames.
The average reader may well think Clancy to be a highly fanciful
writer or, at the least, an avid Star Wars fan. In
fact, he need not be either for, at the time Debt of Honor
was published, the weapon he described was quite real.
Blinding laser weapons were not only on the drawing board
by the beginning of this decade, but had already undergone
field tests and were close to being ready for mass production.
Thanks to a campaign launched by the ICRC and taken up by
National Societies and NGOs, blinding laser weapons will hopefully
never see the light of day. At the Review Conference of the
1980 Weapons Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in
Vienna last year, States Party to the convention adopted a
new legally binding instrument of humanitarian law prohibiting
the use of laser weapons designed to blind soldiers or civilians.
It is only the second time ever that a weapon of military
interest has been prohibited on humanitarian grounds before
its horrors have been proven on the battlefield. The first
concerned exploding bullets, which were outlawed by the St.
Petersburg Declaration in 1868. It is also the first time
that an instrument of humanitarian law has prohibited both
the use and transfer of a weapon.
Since the world’s arsenals are chock full of weapons
capable of inflicting death and injury on an ever-mounting
scale, why single out blinding laser weapons?
One of the humanitarian criteria for outlawing any weapon
has been that they cause superfluous injuries or unnecessary
suffering for little military purpose. Blinding is both permanent
and far more debilitating than most battlefield injuries and
is more than is necessary to take a soldier out of action
— which is considered to be the only legitimate goal
of warfare. Because sight provides some 80 to 90 per cent
of our sensory stimulation, sudden blinding renders a person
virtually unable to work or to function in-dependently without
extensive assist-ance which is often not available. Furthermore,
there is a recovery rate of 60 per cent of battlefield injuries,
while laser blinding is irreversible even with the most sophisticated
There were other strong arguments, too. The ease with which
these weapons could be produced on a large scale and the fact
that they are small, light and require no ammunition would
make them attractive and easily obtainable for insurgency
movements, terrorists and criminals. Even those who were defending
their “legitimate use” could not fail to see the
implications if these weapons were to fall into the “wrong”
Brief lives: Blinding laser weapons
Early 1980s: Laser systems begin to be used
in range finders and target designators. They require large
energy sources and are bulky to transport.
Late 1980s: Advances in battery technology
render it feasible to produce laser rifles which would be
highly portable, easy to use and cheap to produce. In addition
to other uses, they are also being developed for their “anti-personnel”
function, i.e., their ability to blind permanently.
1986: Sweden and Switzerland voice their
concern about blinding weapons at the 25th International Conference
of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva. The ICRC is requested
to look into the problem.
1989-1991: The ICRC hosts four expert meetings
to focus attention on the issue and collect information. At
the end of this process, it recommends that blinding as a
method of warfare should be prohibited under international
1993: The ICRC publishes Blinding Weapons
but the issue remains low profile.
Late 1993: The decision to call a Review Conference of the
1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons is announced.
The ICRC launches a public campaign which is taken up by National
Societies and a large number of NGOs.
Late 1994-1995: Sweden and the ICRC submit
proposals for a new Protocol on blinding laser weapons to
preparatory meetings for the Review Conference. Twenty-five
States express their support.
Spring 1995: Human Rights Watch reports
that some ten specific laser systems capable of anti-personnel
use are in various stages of development in the United States.
A Chinese company exhibits a portable blinding laser system
at two arms bazaars.
1 Sept. 1995: Because of public and press
attention, the Pentagon announces a reversal of the US position
which had previously opposed a new Protocol.
25 Sept. 1995: The Review Conference opens
in Vienna. At its close a Protocol prohibiting the transfer
and use of laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent
blindness is adopted by consensus.
1996: The effort continues in order to encourage
governments to ratify the Protocol and to ensure its extension
to internal armed conflicts.
These and other arguments held sway in Vienna, and the wording
of the Protocol, although not as com-prehensive as the ICRC
would have liked, was negotiated in only two out of the three
weeks of the duration of the conference. The message here
is an encouraging one for those concerned with the potential
for the abuse of some modern technologies.
“An appeal to the public conscience worked in this
case and can work again to ensure that the general norms of
humanitarian law are applied in practice,” says Peter
Herby, an arms control expert at the ICRC. “But we have
to remember that it took nearly ten years from the time blinding
lasers were identified as an issue of public concern until
the time a ban was achieved. With chemical weapons it took
nearly 80 years. It is a slow process.”
Heartening though it may be, the prohibition of blinding
laser weapons should not be a cause for complacency. Although
they have adopted a new international legal norm, most governments
now still have to ratify the Protocol so that it will take
effect. In addition, the agreement bans use and transfer but
not production, so the threat of the weapons, like with chemical
and biological weapons, is nonetheless real — however
illegal their use may be.
Another catch can be found in the subtle but important distinction
of what exactly has been banned. In a recent article, ICRC
surgeon Robin Coupland points out:
The prohibition of dumdum bullets and blinding weapons exposes
a fundamental defect in this part of international law. In
both cases the technology of a weapon has been prohibited
and not the effect it has on human beings.1
In other words, if a new blinding weapon is developed using
another technology, it would in fact be perfect-ly legal to
use and transfer it.
Meanwhile, the Review Conference failed to achieve a ban
on another pernicious weapon, the anti-personnel landmine.
And, at the time of writing, doctors, lawyers, military personnel
and communications experts were gathered in Montreux, Switzerland,
to share knowledge on a possible new focus for medical ethics
and research: the health effects of weapons. For they are
only too aware that the technology exists to develop a whole
new range of weapons, the effects of which — if they
were ever to be used in combat — are too horrific to
Robin Coupland, “Effects of weapons on health”,
The Lancet, February 17, 1996, p. 450.
Christina Grisewood is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications
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