Conventional arms control by states usually falls within one of two broad approaches: limiting or prohibiting weapons considered to be inhumane or indiscriminate; or regulating and managing the procurement, production, transfer and trade of weapons, with a view to preventing their destabilizing accumulation, diversion or misuse. The first category includes the 1981 Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) Convention, the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine (APM) Convention and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). The second category includes the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty.
Some types of weapon may not be covered by a specific treaty. In such a case, states may consider a new treaty or—as with lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS)—extension of the coverage of an existing regime. In cases where this approach has failed, states may consider alternative, less formal approaches—as in the case of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA). In more complex cases, such as the regulation of cyberspace or activity in space, the most appropriate approach may be the subject of intense debate.
As a complement to controlling arms, international security can be improved by states acting to build mutual confidence. This can be through relatively simple multilateral mechanisms for sharing information on arms procurement or military expenditure. However, the existing instruments are in urgent need of revitalization as participation is low and the data provided is limited in utility.
Anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions
While new uses of APMs by states are now extremely rare, use by non-state armed groups in conflicts, and especially of victim-activated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), is a growing problem. APMs were used by such groups in at least six states between mid 2019 and October 2020: Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan. Since the APM Convention entered into force, 31 states parties have completed clearance of all APMs from their territory, with Chile and the United Kingdom doing so in 2020.
The most recent use of cluster munitions occurred in October 2020 during the armed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan (both non-parties to the CCM). There was also continued use of cluster munitions in Syria in 2019–20.
Explosive weapons in populated areas
International concern is growing over the use of EWIPA. Little progress has been made on this issue within the framework of the CCW Convention in recent years due to the lack of consensus and a handful of states obstructing advances in the convention’s agenda in this area. In 2020 the difficulties in these negotiations were aggravated by the inability to meet face-to-face because of the Covid-19 pandemic—which had an impact in all the conventional arms control discussions during the year. The lack of progress on EWIPA within the CCW regime has led some states to explore a separate process. Led by Ireland, this process aims to develop a political declaration to address the humanitarian harm arising from the use of EWIPA. Discussion was slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but further consultations are expected to result in the adoption of a declaration in 2021.
Lethal autonomous weapon systems
Efforts to regulate LAWS within the framework of the CCW Convention started in 2014, and have since 2017 been led by an open-ended group of governmental experts (GGE). In 2020 these discussions largely centred on identifying key areas of convergence in order to inform the sixth review conference of the CCW Convention, scheduled to take place in 2021. However, as well as being affected by pandemic-related restrictions, discussions were hampered by persistent fundamental disagreements over the outcome and mandate of the GGE, notably between Western delegations, the Non-Aligned Movement and Russia. This raised serious questions as to what the GGE will be capable of achieving beyond the 11 guiding principles adopted in 2019.
Governance of cyberspace
In the context of ongoing geopolitical tensions around the security of information and communications technology (ICT), dialogue on the governance of ICT and cyber norms has taken place at multiple levels. The main state-driven efforts continued in 2020 within two parallel United Nations processes: an Open-ended Working Group and a GGE. However, despite changes to the digital landscape caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that have increased the need for action, the differing interests of states and normative preferences have hindered these international efforts to control the malicious use of ICT. In the absence of consensus, a legally binding agreement seems unlikely in the near future.
Developments in space security
Despite the growing risk of a conflict in outer space, international discussions on both security and safety aspects of space activities remain blocked. Destabilizing issues that arose in 2020 included controversial rendezvous and proximity operations and alleged anti-satellite tests by Russia, as well as the adoption of unilateral space policies by the United States. However, in December 2020 the UN General Assembly adopted a promising new initiative proposed by the UK on norms for responsible behaviour in space. It is hoped that this will lead to a return to multilateral regulatory approaches for space security.