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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.


Why lasers?

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 surgical techniques.

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” hands.

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 law.

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.

Qualified success

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 contemplate.

(1) Robin Coupland, “Effects of weapons on health”, The Lancet, February 17, 1996, p. 450.

Christina Grisewood
Christina Grisewood is an editor in the ICRC’s Publications Division.


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