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The roles of civil society in the development of standards around new weapons and other technologies of warfare

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 April 2013


This article considers the role of civil society in the development of new standards around weapons. The broad but informal roles that civil society has undertaken are contrasted with the relatively narrow review mechanisms adopted by states in fulfilment of their legal obligations. Such review mechanisms are also considered in the context of wider thinking about processes by which society considers new technologies that may be adopted into the public sphere. The article concludes that formalized review mechanisms, such as those undertaken in terms of Article 36 of Additional Protocol I (1977) of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, should be a focus of civil society attention in their own right as part of efforts to strengthen standard-setting in relation to emerging military technologies.

Ethics, Civil Society and New Technologies
Copyright © International Committee of the Red Cross 2013 

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11 Convention on Cluster Munitions, 30 May 2008.

12 During the process to develop the treaty banning cluster munitions, the Cluster Munition Coalition, for example, was made up of around 400 member organizations in some 100 countries. For a discussion on the role of civil society in this process, see Bolton, Matthew and Nash, Thomas, ‘The role of middle power-NGO coalitions in global policy: the case of the cluster munitions ban’, in Global Policy, Vol. 1, Issue 2, May 2010CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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19 For example, a 2008 report on the Global Burden of Armed Violence noted that indirect conflict deaths, such as from elevated levels of malnutrition, dysentery, or other easily preventable diseases, was substantially greater than conflict deaths directly attributable to violence. See Geneva Declaration Secretariat, Global Burden of Armed Violence, 2008, Geneva, executive summary, available at: (last visited 1 May 2012).

20 Rappert, Brian, How to Look Good in a War, Pluto Press, London, 2012Google Scholar, Chapter 5.

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24 See, Landmine Monitor and Cluster Munition Monitor, available at: (last visited 9 May 2012). For a discussion on the role of the Landmine Monitor in reinforcing the international standard against landmines, see Wareham, Mary, ‘Evidence-based advocacy: civil society monitoring of the Mine Ban Treaty’, in Williams, Jody, Goose, Stephen D. and Wareham, Mary (eds), Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham M.D., 2008Google Scholar.

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38 Such an approach is currently gaining greater prominence in discussions on nuclear weapons. In May 2012, sixteen states led by Switzerland delivered a statement on the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament during a meeting of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. See Rebecca Johnson, ‘Non-Proliferation Treaty: the ground is shifting’, Open Democracy, 4 May 2012, available at: (last visited 10 May 2012).

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44 Small Arms Survey, SmallArms Survey 2008, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008Google Scholar, Chapter 7.

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47 For a discussion on global civil society coalitions, see Moyes, Richard and Nash, Thomas, Global Coalitions: An Introduction to Working in International Civil Society Partnerships, Action on Armed Violence, London, 2011Google Scholar, available at: (last visited 20 May 2012).

48 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977.

49 ICRC, A Guide to the Legal Review of New Weapons, Means and Methods of Warfare: Measures to Implement Article 36 of Additional Protocol I of 1977, Geneva, 2006, p. 4Google Scholar.

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51 ICRC, Guide, above note 49, p. 4; Daoust, Isabelle, Coupland, Robin and Ishoey, RikkeNew wars, new weapons? The obligation of states to assess the legality of means and methods of warfare’, in International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 84, No. 846, June 2002, p. 348Google Scholar; Stewart, Darren, ‘New technology and the law of armed conflict’, in Pedrozo, Raul A. ‘Pete’ and Wollschlaeger, Daria P. (eds), International Law and the Changing Character of War, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, 2011, p. 283Google Scholar.

52 UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, UN Doc. CCW/CONF.IV/4/Add.1, p. 4.

53 See 28th International Conference of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Geneva, Switzerland, 2–6 December 2003, final goal 2.5. Resolution 1: Adoption of the Declaration and Agenda for Humanitarian Action. Review of new weapons was also urged in the Final Document of the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, November 2011, CCW/CONF.IV/4/Add.1, para. 16.

54 ICRC, Guide, above note 49.

55 Collingridge, David, The Social Control of Technology, St. Martin's, New York, 1980Google Scholar.

56 Cassese, Antonio, ‘Means of warfare: the traditional and the new law’, in Cassese, A. (ed.), The New Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflict (Vol. 1), Editoriale scientifica, Naples, 1979, p. 179Google Scholar.

57 Seven states appear to have formal review processes, the details of which are publicly available: Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. A further three states, Denmark, France, and Germany, are thought to have formal review processes, but information about these processes does not appear to be publicly available. There are another thirteen states that have indicated that they may have informal or formal review processes, but have not made sufficient information available to determine whether this is the case (formal: Canada, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Russian Federation, Switzerland; informal: Austria, Brazil, Croatia, Finland, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, and South Africa). See, ICRC, Reaffirming and Implementing International Humanitarian Law (Follow-up to Resolution 3 of the 30th International Conference), October 2011Google Scholar : ‘Despite pledges made by some States at the 2007 International Conference, the ICRC is not aware of the establishment of any procedures to review the legality of new weapons in a State that did not already have such a mechanism.’

58 ICRC, Follow-up to the 28th International Conference: Report prepared for the 30th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, ICRC, Geneva, 2007, p. 25Google Scholar.

59 The Commentary to Article 36 endorses a conservative approach regarding which uses of weapon should be considered, confining the analysis to ‘normal or expected use’. Fry takes the view that the Commentary (and, by extension, the Guide, which endorses this aspect of the Commentary) takes an unnecessarily narrow view on this point. Fry, James D., ‘Contextualized legal reviews for the methods and means of warfare: cave combat and international humanitarian law’, in Columbia Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 44, 2006, p. 453Google Scholar: ‘The phrase “in some or all circumstances” [in Article 36] does not unreasonably oblige states to foresee absolutely all uses of a weapon or method of warfare. However, it does indicate that the commentators are far too passive in interpreting Article 36. Indeed, “in some or all circumstances” suggests that these legal reviews must consider anticipated uses of weapons beyond those that are considered “normal.” … Moreover, … significant changes in anticipated use or use itself calls for repeated review of legality to ensure continued compliance with international law, even after initial deployment of a weapon or method’.

60 ICRC, Follow-up to the 28th International Conference, above note 58, p. 25.

61 UK Government, The Geneva Conventional Act (First Protocol) Order 1998, Schedule (a), available at: (last visited 20 May 2012).

62 The US Air Force, however, explicitly includes cyber capabilities within the scope of review: Legal Reviews of Weapons and Cyber Capabilities, Air Force Instruction 51-402, 27 July 2011.

63 Nasu, Hitoshi and Faunce, Thomas A., ‘Nanotechnology and the international law of weaponry: towards international regulation of nano-weapons’, in Journal of Law, Information and Technology, Vol. 20, 2010, p. 53Google Scholar.

64 Ibid., p. 47.

65 Ibid., p. 48.

66 See Jacobsson, Marie, ‘Modern weaponry and warfare: the application of Article 36 of Additional Protocol I by governments’, in Helm, Anthony M. (ed.), The Law of War in the 21st Century, Weaponry and the Use of Force, Naval War College, Newport R.I., 2006, p. 184Google Scholar.

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