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Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead

A Syrian Refugee in Homs, Syria walks down a street destroyed by explosive weapons in June 2014. A Syrian Refugee in Homs, Syria walks down a street destroyed by explosive weapons in June 2014. © Xinhua/Pan Chaoyue

5 March 2019

This is a presentation of “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead” released by Harvard Law School in March 2018.

In early March, 2018, Harvard Law School hosted a conference called “Humanitarian Disarmament: The Way Ahead” with experts from around the world. Originating in 1997 with the Mine Ban Treaty, humanitarian disarmament is understood as the process of preventing and remediating human suffering resulting from weapon use. The conference was organized by the Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative, a group within Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic also known as the ACCPI, in conjunction with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. In hosting this event, the groups involved sought to examine possible approaches for humanitarian disarmament on a global, unified scale through inviting experts from civil society and academia to collaborate. The conference included public events and experts workshop, and this report summarizes salient discussions and the strategies for how to move forward in humanitarian disarmament.

A large part of this conference was the inclusion of two public events with the focus of spreading awareness of and educating the public about humanitarian disarmament. The first event was a joint talk given by Steve Goose and Beatrice Fihn which focused on defining humanitarian disarmament and exploring its evolution and impact. Steve Goose co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and Beatrice Fihn directs the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The second event focused on the objectives of current humanitarian disarmament campaigns. Its panel consisted of Laura Boillot, Anna Macdonald, Mary Wareham, and Dough Weird who direct the International Network on Explosive Weapons, Control Arms, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and the Toxic Remnants of War Network respectively.

During these public events several key takeaways were discussed. Notably, humanitarian disarmament centers on civilian protection, as opposed to national security, and is a process driven by civil society. Additionally, efforts by humanitarian disarmament typically seek to prohibit specific weaponry, require the elimination of weapon stockpiles, and clear contaminated land, and the success of these efforts rest on global coalition building and effective information-gathering. Both Fihn and Goose emphasized the importance of the voices of civilians and survivors carrying this movement, with Fihn stating “Change will only come from people… from ordinary people demanding change.” Additionally, during the second panel, the directors of humanitarian campaigns noted that humanitarian disarmament no longer only seeks to ban weaponry, it has evolved to focus on other impacts of armed conflict as well such as combating environmental consequences and controlling arms trade.

While the public events focused more on education advocacy, the experts workshop, which consisted of 25 experts in the field of humanitarian disarmament coming together for a discussion, focused more on creating strategic plans for how to mitigate challenges of humanitarian disarmament and how to achieve its goals. The experts included heads of global campaigns, representatives from nongovernmental organizations, and academics. They agreed that civil society drives humanitarian disarmament and that, in general, its goal is to create international and national norms which encompass regulations and bans on specific weaponry. Significant challenges include a lack of diversity in the community, the overuse of certain tactics, funding shortages, and difficult policy choices. The following possible solutions were discussed: increasing collaboration throughout humanitarian disarmament campaigns, using consistent messaging, engaging with more national organizations, and looking for ways to maximize limited funding. One major discussion point was the need for increased collaboration within the community of humanitarian disarmament. Some ways in which this collaboration could be increased is through having cross-campaign staff members, sharing information across campaigns, hosting regular discussions among leaders in the field, and creating cross-campaign grants program and pooled scholarship funding. The workshop also discussed global outreach, government advocacy, and marshalling of information throughout campaigns.

Ultimately, this conference created an environment for leaders and academics to come together and have meaningful discussions on the current state of humanitarian disarmament and where to go from here. Going forward, participants in the conference decided that the humanitarian disarmament community should develop a shared messaging platform for humanitarian disarmament, educate various actors on issues related to the field, collaborate more across campaigns, increase public involvement in the community and support, and maximize limited resources.


Original report available here:

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