Faster, higher, stronger

Sonal Marwah Conventional Weapons, Featured

Civil society organizations gather to strengthen campaigns to protect civilians from armed violence

On October 15-16 Project Ploughshares, along with more than 100 members of other civil society organizations (CSOs), participated in Humanitarian Disarmament Forum 2016, the fifth annual forum in New York.

This year’s objective was to review and strengthen instruments, such as campaigns, to protect civilians from the harmful effects of armed violence. Campaigns are driven by humanitarian imperatives to prevent civilian casualties, avoid socioeconomic devastation, and protect and ensure the rights of victims. Key concerns include cluster munitions, landmines, explosive weapons, incendiary weapons, nuclear weapons, the weaponization of outer space, armed drones, and killer robots. This year’s forum also included protecting environments ravaged by armed conflict because the health, lives, and livelihoods of civilians are inextricably linked to the quality of their environment and functioning ecosystems.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 4 Winter 2016 by Sonal Marwah

Faster, higher, stronger

Adopting the Olympic motto “higher, faster, stronger,” this forum aimed to capture the idea that CSO efforts are more crucial than ever in a world riddled with different theatres of war, in which civilians pay the heaviest price, even long after war has ended. For example, landmines laid in Cambodia in 1979 during civil unrest continue to kill and maim, with more than 64,000 casualties and more than 25,000 amputees recorded to date (Halo Trust 2016). Learning from past tragedies some CSOs, including Ploughshares, are lobbying for a pre-emptive ban of lethal autonomous weapons systems or killer robots, which represent a dangerous new era in warfare. Thus, the forum covered campaigning strategies for global disarmament of older and new weapons and arms control.

Among significant milestones that were discussed was Textron’s August announcement that it would discontinue production by March 2017 of the last cluster munitions manufactured in the United States. Research from Human Rights Watch (2016) and Stop Explosive Investments (2016) showed that Textron’s sensor-fused weapons were used in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. The U.S. government has since blocked the transfer of these weapons to Saudi Arabia out of concern that the munitions were being used in or near civilian areas. Citing “reduced orders,” Textron also claimed that its actions were motivated by the “current political environment” (Censor 2016) and a growing global norm against the use of cluster bombs. With no company manufacturing cluster munitions on its soil, the United States will be closer to adhering to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster bombs.

Lessons learned

Valuable recommendations came out of this forum. Following are three that are relevant across a variety of disarmament campaigns.

#1: Build robust evidence bases

Campaign positions on a weapon’s impact on civilians must be grounded in fact. Solid data can be gained through rigorous research and regular monitoring, by encouraging governments to provide transparent data, by sharing information with other campaigns, and by seeking out legal opinions. An accurate understanding of the impact of certain weapons is vital for both states that advocate for their production and critics who seek to challenge their use.

The visibility of victims and their stories helps campaigns to mobilize public support and press governments for change. For example, in an effort to ban the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, Handicap International published an advocacy report (2016) that includes interviews with refugees in Jordan who fled because of the use of explosive weapons in their villages, towns, and cities.

Sharing true stories of victims and providing images of the effects of weapon use help to humanize an issue (Ho 2011).

#2: Remember the core objective: Promote affected communities and see that their needs are met, their rights respected.

Campaigns must work harder to create space for marginalized voices. At the forum were disability advocates from the International Campaign to Ban Landmines: Jésus Martinez, President of the National Council for integral attention for persons with disabilities of El Salvador and Margaret Arach Orech, Director of the Uganda Landmine Survivors’ Association. In sharing their journeys of survival they described how they had been empowered to become advocates. They recommended that victim assistance efforts be part of multilateral development frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 and that these efforts should always be in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We must remember that “contamination free does not mean victim free.” The negative effects of weapon use extend far beyond the battlefield and long after the war is over. Victim assistance must be part of mainstream disarmament frameworks and broader development initiatives that prioritize funding for survivors and people with disabilities.

As Martinez and Orech pointed out, all survivor interventions must employ people of concern who guide program design and implementation for effective programing. Such programs should not conform to the common medical and charity model, but should adopt a social approach based on human rights. A framework of dependence, in which recipients are seen as “objects of charity” (Handicap International 2014), must be transformed into one of independence, which acknowledges the rights of all people with disabilities.

#3: Diversity of perspective required

Voices outside the disarmament sector can bring new insights and innovative approaches to campaigning. For example, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) offers opportunities to tackle the “violent nexus of wildlife poaching and illicit arms trafficking” (Bolton 2016, p. 2). The universal adoption of the ATT can mitigate the risk of arms transfers and the diversion of small arms and light weapons to poaching networks and transnational criminal organizations. On this issue wildlife advocates and disarmament advocates share common ground and can forge valuable collaborations to strengthen lobbying efforts. Another example is the increasing linkage of nuclear disarmament efforts with environmental concerns, given the predictable effects on the environment of the detonation of a nuclear weapon.

A role for all

A core strength of civil society is its outreach machinery—its ability to get the word out to the public. Ploughshares has worked tirelessly for disarmament on several fronts, including advocating for a universal legal instrument to ban nuclear weapons (Jaramillo 2016), critically analyzing Canada’s pursuit of military exports to countries with poor human rights records, and joining a recent campaign to pre-emptively ban killer robots. In all such endeavours, it has been crucial to engage with multiple stakeholders: the Canadian government, the United Nations, likeminded organizations, and citizens.

International campaigns on human disarmament require the support of national campaigns. Such support can be gained by continuing the policy dialogues begun in New York and Geneva with national CSOs. Then local CSOs must inform their own constituencies and drum up support.

Project Ploughshares pledges to do its part and is determined to make existing humanitarian disarmament treaties work and prevent harm to civilians—now and in the future.



Bolton, Matthew. 2016. How to Use the Arms Trade Treaty to Address Wildlife Crime. Control Arms and Pace University, September.

Censor, Marjorie. 2016. Textron to discontinue production of sensor-fuzed weapon, August 30.

Handicap International. 2016. Qasef: Escaping the Bombing, September.

—–. 2014. The Way Forward on Victim Assistance, August.

Ho, Joyce. 2011. Not just for bedtime: The importance of storytelling. Open Society Foundations, November 3.

Human Rights Watch. 2016. US: Stop providing cluster munitions, June 2.

Jaramillo, Cesar. 2016. We need to ban nuclear weapons (in spite of Canada). Huffington Post Canada, September 22.

Stop Explosive Investments. 2016. Textron to end the production of cluster munitions, September 1.

The Halo Trust. 2016. Cambodia.

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