The independent resource on global security

9. Conventional arms control and military confidence building



  • Overview
  • I. Humanitarian arms control initiatives
  • II. The governance of autonomous weapons (sample PDF)
  • III. Confidence-building measures for information and communication technologies
  • IV. European debates and discussions on conventional arms control


Arms control has been continuously adapted in response to changes in the security environment, including the need to regulate and restrain the behaviour of non-state actors, and the emergence of new technologies. The scope of application of legal restraint measures now reaches far beyond the items that would traditionally be defined as arms. The various frameworks of restraint that have been created, or that are being discussed, are not limited to treaties and conventions. Politically binding confidence-building measures (CBMs), intended to promote the responsible use of information and communications technologies, and a shared ethical code to guide thinking about the potential misuse of new and emerging technologies in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, are new innovations.

In September 2013 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2117, its first ever text dedicated exclusively to the issue of small arms and light weapons. Introducing the resolution, the UN Secretary–General, Ban Ki-moon, emphasized the humanitarian impact of small arms—a theme that was echoed in the interventions by many of the states and international organizations who participated in the debate.

Humanitarian arms control

How to regulate different kinds of weapons in order to ensure compliance with international humanitarian law has become an important theme in arms control. In the first instance, participation in existing treaties that can be considered humanitarian arms control agreements is far from universal. Furthermore, the states that are parties to such agreements still have a lot of work to do in order to implement them.

Several states that are parties to the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (APM or Mine Ban Convention) remain in non-compliance. Others have requested extensions to their deadlines for compliance.

In 2013, participation in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) Weapons continued to expand as five countries joined the convention and seven others made a commitment to join once national implementation measures are in place.

Reducing the threat posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is a formidable challenge, and one to which traditional arms control approaches are difficult to apply. However, the indiscriminate use of IEDs has serious humanitarian consequences. States continued to discuss how non-state actors can be denied access to key materials and elements needed to construct an IED.

The governance of autonomous weapons

States have begun to discuss how to regulate new and emerging technologies to ensure that they do not become an unacceptable risk to the principles of humanitarian law or human rights law.

The issue of whether or not to regulate fully autonomous weapons and, if so, how to do that, was discussed in the framework of the 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW Convention) and the UN General Assembly Human Rights Council. At the end of 2013 the CCW participating states agreed that a more focused discussion of issues related to fully autonomous weapons will become a formal part of their work programme from 2014.

Confidence-building measures for information and communication technologies

In December 2013 the participating states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to develop a set of confidence-building measures to reduce the risk that a suspicious activity in cyber space could be misinterpreted as a hostile act. The OSCE agreement to apply CBMs to information and communications technologies is the first such agreement in the world. The ultimate objective of the OSCE participating states is to contribute to an international understanding and agreement on principles for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, and to strengthen the rule of international law. At the same time and in parallel, many OSCE participating states continue to develop their national capabilities to conduct operations in cyberspace.

European debates and discussions on conventional arms control

In Europe, concern was expressed over whether the conventional arms control agreements reached in the 1990s, along with politically binding confidence- and security-building measures, were any longer playing their main role of ensuring predictability in military behaviour and promoting confidence that armed forces exist only for legitimate defensive purposes.

During 2013, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as Russia and other European states identified a risk that military exercises carried out in close proximity to the shared boundaries between NATO allies, Russia and Belarus might raise additional questions about the implications of current tendencies in military planning. The emerging pattern of military exercises may no longer be consistent with the shared objective of making Europe more secure and more peaceful.