Summary of UK Government legal and policy positions
This page provides a brief summary of UK policy on a range of specific weapons issues. It will be updated periodically as policy positions develop. More information on UK and international policies on weapons issues is available at www.article36.org.
Legal reviews of new weapons
UK legal reviews of new weapons, means and methods of warfare are guided by the document DIN04-217 of 2009 on “Legal Review of Newly Acquired or Developed Weapons and Associated Equipment.” Reviews are carried out on behalf of the Ministry of Defence by three specialist IHL lawyers, one each from the army, navy and air force, working out of the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre, MoD Shrivenham. All weapons and associated equipment which the UK obtains, plans to acquire or develops must be reviewed in the context of international armed conflict, as well as significant modifications to existing weapons. In addition, the ways in which weapons are used and novel uses of existing capabilities require review.
The UK is a State Party to Geneva Conventions I, II, III and IV of 1949 (since 23/09/1957), Additional Protocols I and II of 1977 (since 28/01/1998) and Additional Protocol III of 2005 (since 23/10/2009). The primary instruments of national legislation enforcing these treaties are the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 for the original Conventions, and the Geneva Conventions (Amendments) Act 1995 for Additional Protocols I and II. The latter was brought into force by the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1995 (Commencement) Order 1998.
The UK’s reservations to Additional Protocol I were documented domestically in the schedule of The Geneva Conventions Act (First Protocol) Order 1998.
Explosive weapons in populated areas
In UN debates on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, the UK has not yet acknowledged the humanitarian impact from use of explosive weapons in populated areas. However, with respect to Syria, former UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt noted the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in Homs as a problematic component of the violence there in early 2012. In in reply to a letter from Article 36 in 2015 on the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, the FCO stated “our view is that international humanitarian law (IHL) adequately regulates this area”.
Autonomous weapons systems
In 2013 the UK Government stated that the “operation of weapons systems will always remain under human control”. However, a full elaboration of the UK’s position on increasing autonomy in weapons and what control is deemed acceptable has not yet been given. The government has also expressed the opinion that no new international law is needed to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons systems. The UK MoD stated in a 2011 Joint Doctrine Note that it “currently has no intention to develop systems that operate without human intervention in the weapon command and control chain, but it is looking to increase levels of automation where this will make systems more effective.” In March 2015 a briefing paper was distributed at a meeting of the APPG with more information.
The UK is a nuclear-armed State Party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, under article VI of which there is an obligation to pursue ‘effective measures’ towards nuclear disarmament. The UK attended the latest meeting of the humanitarian initiative on nuclear weapons – the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, in December 2014 – and the initiative has recently been raised in parliament.
Biological and toxin weapons
The UK is a State Party to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (since 26/03/1975). This convention prohibits development, production, stockpiling and acquisition of biological agents or toxins of a type or quantity that is not justified for protective or other peaceful purposes, and prohibits systems for delivering such materials as weapons. This treaty is enforced in the UK through the Biological Weapons Act 1974.
The UK is a State Party to the 1980 Chemical Weapons Convention (since 13/02/1995). This instrument prohibits development, production, stockpiling, acquisition and use of chemical weapons, and prohibits assisting others in these prohibited acts. The convention is enforced in the UK through the Chemical Weapons Act 1996.
The UK is a State Party (since 31/07/1998) to the 1997 antipersonnel Mine Ban Treaty, which prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel mines, and prohibits assisting others in these prohibited acts. This treaty is enforced in UK law through the 1998 Landmines Act. Details on UK policy regarding antipersonnel mines, including the UK’s outstanding legal obligation to clear landmines from the Falkland Islands can be found in the UK section of the Landmine Monitor.
The UK is a State Party (since 04/05/2010) to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions, and prohibits assisting others in these prohibited acts. This treaty is enforced in UK law through the 2010 Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act. Details on UK policy regarding cluster munitions can be found in the UK section of the Cluster Munition Monitor.
The UK is Party (since 13/02/1995) to Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol I on Non-Detectable Fragments (1980).
The UK is a Party (since 11/02/1999) to the 1996 Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The UK endorsed the 2006 CCW political Declaration on Anti-Vehicle Mines but with a transition period of 15 years (to 2021).
The UK is Party (since 13/02/1995) to Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (1980). This Protocol restricts the use of incendiary weapons in certain circumstance but does not prohibit them or their use as weapons. The Protocol contains a relatively narrow definition of incendiary weapons, such that it does not apply to weapons or systems that will have incendiary effects but are not primarily designed for such a use.
Blinding laser weapons
The UK is a State Party (since 11/02/1999) to the Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol IV on Blinding Laser Weapons (1995).
Explosive remnants of war
The UK is not a party to the Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol V on Explosive Remnants of War (2003). Although the previous Labour Government asserted that it supported this instrument and intended to ratify it, this has not happened.
Documentation of casualties from armed violence
The UK has not yet directly acknowledged its obligation to record, identify and acknowledge all victims of armed violence. The UK refused to join the Oslo Commitments on Armed Violence which contained commitments to measure and monitor the impact of armed violence. The UK government has generally cited “the immense difficulty and risks that would be involved in collecting robust data” as their reason for not recording casualties in military operations abroad. With regard to current operations against so-called Islamic State in Iraq, discussions with “coalition partners with a view to agreeing a mechanism for tracking, reporting, investigating and responding to allegations of civilian casualties” were noted by the Minister of State.