Humanitarian disarmament seeks to prevent and remediate arms-inflicted human suffering and environmental harm through the establishment of norms. This approach to disarmament is people-centered in substance and process.
In contrast to traditional disarmament approaches, humanitarian disarmament prioritizes protecting the security and well-being of people rather than states. In particular, it strives to increase the protection of civilians by reducing the human and environmental impacts of arms. Many of the arms that are the focus of humanitarian disarmament are indiscriminate or inhumane by nature; others are problematic due to the manner of their use, their trade and proliferation, or their lingering effects.
Humanitarian disarmament aims both to prevent and to remediate human suffering and environmental degradation. It uses the term “disarmament” broadly to encompass a range of measures to deal with arms-related issues. Prevention can take the form of prohibitions or restrictions on activities, such as development, production, stockpiling, trade, and use, as well as obligations to destroy existing stockpiles. Remedial measures address the ongoing harm of past and continued use. Clearance of remnants of war and remediation of environmental contamination work to eliminate long-term threats. “Victim assistance” involves providing medical care and rehabilitation, promoting socioeconomic inclusion, ensuring survivors can enjoy their human rights, and adopting laws and policies to achieve these ends.
Humanitarian disarmament standards have often been adopted in international treaties. They can also be promulgated through other means, such as political commitments or domestic legislation. Humanitarian disarmament depends on effective implementation as well as norm-building to achieve its goals.
Civil society, in partnership with states and international organizations, drives the process of humanitarian disarmament. Inclusiveness is a key characteristic of this approach. Civil society organizations, often working in global coalitions focused on single issues, provide field and legal expertise and bring the voices of ordinary people and affected communities to the table. Survivors raise awareness of the harm caused by arms and inform discussions of how to deal with it. States, including users and producers, affected and unaffected states, play a vital role in garnering support for and negotiating new instruments. International organizations, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN agencies, bring additional expertise and authority to the process. Humanitarian disarmament has frequently had an independent character. While the United Nations is a possible forum, new norms can be initiated or established outside its bounds.
While traditional forms of disarmament may contain humanitarian elements, humanitarian disarmament as a concept originated in the mid-1990s. The 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, spearheaded by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, was its first success. That humanitarian disarmament instrument and the process behind it provided a model for subsequent campaigns and ban treaties, notably, the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, which applied a similar approach to the proliferation of arms, exemplifies the broad reach of humanitarian disarmament. Current humanitarian disarmament campaigns are working for a political commitment to end the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, a preemptive ban on fully autonomous weapons, and greater protections for humans and the environment from toxic remnants of war.