In the middle of the increasing proliferation of arms and weapons in most parts of the world, a small window of hope is still provided by the partial success of some campaigns to check the use of some of the most painful weapons.
These efforts were led by a broad-based campaign to ban the use of landmines. Wounds caused by landmines are extremely difficult to heal and often result in long-term or permanent disability. The majority of the victims are civilians who continue to suffer till a long time after a conflict is over. Such factors led to widespread support for the international campaign to ban landmines. These efforts led to an international treaty to ban landmines.
Although most countries are party to this treaty, the fact that some countries have not accepted it yet implies that landmines still continue to be used by countries and many non-state actors, although to a much lesser extent than before.
Cluster bomb is another painful weapon whose use has been curbed to a significant extent by such efforts. Cluster bombs explode in the air just before touching ground. Each cluster bomb contains about 200 ‘bomblets’. John Pilger, a distinguished journalist and author, has written “I have seen the victims of cluster bombs. From many snapshots, here is one. Two children writhe on a dirt floor, their bodies displaying hundreds of small open wounds. They have been showered with tiny plastic objects from an American ‘pellet bomb’, the prototype of the cluster bomb. As the darts move through their vital organs, they die a terrible death the equivalent of swallowing acid.” Many of these bomblets contained in a cluster bomb do not explode immediately. They continue to cause a lot of civilian deaths later.
A campaign to check the use of cluster bombs led to an international treaty to check the use of cluster bombs. Another dangerous weapon whose use could be curbed by a campaign and treaty is the blinding laser (which can burn-out a human retina).
Apart from the campaigns against such specific weapons, another campaign aimed more broadly against the proliferation of small arms has also brought good results.
Although more attention is generally devoted to heavy weapons, in practice frequently even more destruction is caused by “small arms and light weapons”, a technical term (generally shortened to ‘small arms’) which covers revolvers, pistols, rifles, carbines, machine-guns, ammunition, shells, grenades, landmines and explosives.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction.”
Amnesty International and Oxfam said in a report titled ‘Shattered Lives’, “More injuries, deaths, displacements, rapes, kidnappings and acts of torture are inflicted or perpetrated with small arms than with any other type of weapon. …There are approximately 639 million small arms in the world today. Nearly 60% of small arms are in civilian hands. 8 million new weapons are produced every year. At least 16 billion units of military ammunition were produced in a single year – more than 2 military bullets for every man, woman and child on planet.”
An international treaty on small arms called the Arms Trade Treaty has been concluded which can help to curb proliferation of arms in some ways but much more remains to be done.
In the case of the campaign to curb the use of depleted uranium, efforts have not been so successful yet. USA/British forces have admitted to the use of depleted uranium in shells fired at tanks or concrete bunkers – this is supposed to increase the ability of shells to penetrate heavy metals and concrete. Depleted uranium (DU) arsenal was also used by the USA in the Gulf war of 1991. An epidemiological study undertaken in Iraq by Dr. Alim Yacoub showed a direct correlation between the rise in childhood cancer and leukaemia and the high exposure to depleted uranium dust in certain parts of Basra. The rise was estimated at 384% and 300% respectively.
According to Joanne Baker, coordinator of Pandora Depleted Uranium Research Project, many babies in Iraq are now born with serious genetic defects, sometimes without limbs or head and with improperly formed internal organs. Neural tube defects have substantially increased, as have Down’s Syndrome births. Many young children now have cancer or leukemia. The USA soldiers who used DU weapons and other hazardous weapons also suffered from their hazardous impacts over a long time.
However the biggest challenge (apart from nuclear weapons) ahead for disarmament and arms-control campaigns is to check the escalating race for military use of robotics before it is too late. Even if leave out the often discussed nightmare risk possibilities of robot ‘soldiers’ getting out of control of their creators, there is enough scientifically backed evidence to show that military robotics involves an entirely new range of threats and unpredictable factors in future wars – controlled military robots are dangerous enough but out of control military robots are dangerous beyond words.
An international ‘Campaign to stop Killer Robots’ is seeking a ban on robotic weapons even before they come (effectively) into existence. Over 1000 Artificial Intelligence (AI) experts, including the late Stephen Hawking, signed a letter warning against the coming race in robot weapons and supporting a ban on these.
However with increasing recent militarization, the efforts made by such efforts to control the proliferation of arms and to restrict or prevent the development or new dangerous weapons are being increasingly negated. Smuggling and illegal trafficking of weapons have received a big boost following the start of the Ukraine conflict and the heavy influx of western arms, including increasingly more destructive weapons, into Ukraine. During this phase there is increasing talk internationally of the possibility of the actual use of nuclear weapons, even if smaller, tactical ones, and this is happening at a time when the efforts to curb nuclear weapons and avoid their use are at a historical low. Keeping in view the increasing threats, it is clearly time to strengthen and re-energize the various arms control efforts and campaigns.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine.