The UK is the only permanent member of the Security Council that doesn’t support an international law to protect civilians from explosive remnants of war

By Richard Moyes

It is nearly a full 17 years since the international community adopted a legal instrument that works to protect conflict-affected communities from the threat of unexploded and abandoned bombs and ordnance.  Protocol V of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) provides international rules to ensure that states take some responsibility for these deadly remnants – including recording the weapons that they have used and working to clear them up afterwards.  Yet despite engagement in numerous conflicts since 2003, the use of thousands of explosive weapons, and repeated claims to be a champion of the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the UK has still not joined this instrument of humanitarian law.

Explosive remnants of war (ERW) are produced when explosive weapons fail to detonate as intended or are left abandoned in the battle space.  Much like landmines, these deadly remnants may be left littering houses, schools, hospitals and farmland.  They can kill or injure those that interact with them – too often children. They can prevent reconstruction, or the return of displaced people, and in some contexts they have provided a deadly resource for the construction of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Protocol V of the CCW was adopted in November 2003. It is not perfect, but it establishes a basic set of responsibilities and makes it clear that states cannot simply walk away from the legacies of conflicts they participate in. It establishes important issues of principle, not least that the long-term environment created by conflict is a matter of humanitarian concern. Amongst the states that have consented to be bound by its terms we find the USA, Russian Federation, China and France (i.e. all the other permanent members of the UN Security Council) as well as more than 80 other states.

The UK is already a leader in supporting humanitarian demining operations, and the government is vocal in claiming to be a leader on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and a champion of international humanitarian law. Yet questions about Protocol V in the parliamentary record bring out a sense bureaucratic lethargy.

Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, in March 2017 said the UK was “assessing the implications for Government Departments which would result from ratification…”. Three years later, the conclusions of these assessments remain unknown. And this dithering has deep roots.  Back in September 2006, Kim Howells, as Minister of State under a Labour Government, said the “UK aims to complete ratification… by November [2006]”. The issue has been stuck within the Whitehall machinery for over a decade and a half – seemingly lost between Ministers and parliamentarians not quite caring enough, and bureaucrats scared to accept that obligations flow from leaving unexploded bombs in other people’s soil.

Ratification of Protocol V presents an opportunity for the UK to act in support of humanitarian protection and stronger international law. Why now – after 17 years? Well now is as good a time as any. The UK has had long enough to think about it. And if the UK is looking to demonstrate a continued commitment to civilian protection, this instrument on the long term threat posed by the use of explosive weapons would be a place they can start right now.

Image: Residents of Al Mishlab, east of Raqqa returning back home to check their houses and belongings, amidst unexploded ordnance, explosive devices and booby traps. © Diala Ghassan/MSF

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