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UK weapons policies
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UK weapons policy

Summary of UK Government legal and policy positions

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.

Geneva Conventions

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, the UK Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt has noted the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in Homs as a problematic component of the violence there in early 2012.

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.

Chemical weapons

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.

Antipersonnel landmines

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.

Cluster munitions

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.

Non-detectable fragments

The UK is Party (since 13/02/1995) to Convention on Conventional Weapons Protocol I on Non-Detectable Fragments (1980).

Anti-vehicle landmines

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).

Incendiary weapons

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. Where the UK has been engaged in military activities overseas, it generally asserts that it is the responsibility of the country within which UK forces are operating to document any casualties that are occurring.

Arms Trade Treaty

The UK has been an active participant in negotiations towards an international Arms Trade Treaty. The UK has stated that it supports a “robust, legally-binding treaty, covering all conventional weapons” and has undertaken to “press states who sign up to block sales that fuel conflict or fail to meet the treaty’s obligations on human rights.”

Autonomous weapons

The UK government has stated that “the operation of weapons systems will always remain under human control”, but to date a full elaboration of the UK’s position and what control is deemed acceptable has not been forthcoming. The UK government has also given the position that no new law is needed to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons systems. The Ministry of Defence has highlighted the urgency of more vigorous debate on the policy implications of the use of unmanned weapons to “ensure that we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely” (UK Ministry of Defence, The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems, 2011). The UK has unveiled a prototype of its Taranis combat aircraft, a joint Ministry of Defence/BAE systems project. Designers described it as “an autonomous and stealthy unmanned aircraft” that aims to strike “targets with real precision at long range, even in another continent.” Download this March 2015 briefing to read more about the UK’s position.