13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


13th annual Municipal Finance Conference



10:30 am EDT - 12:00 pm EDT

Past Event

The Future of Weapons, Technology and International Law

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

10:30 am - 12:00 pm EDT

The Brookings Institution
Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC

The 21st Century Defense Initiative was honored to host Dr. Peter Herby for a presentation on the new weapons technologies and their status under international law. The public event was attended by scholars, the media as well as numerous representatives from the military services and their legal divisions.

In his presentation, Dr. Herby stressed the need for comprehensive legal review processes throughout the development of new weapons technologies. He also called for better control over new technologies to prevent their abuse by rogue actors.

One type of new weapons technology in particular stimulated the debate and highlighted the complexities with regard to international law. Non-lethal weapons have recently been the focus of much research. Peter Herby argued that the name ‘non-lethal’ is misleading and much of a weapon’s lethality depends on its intended use. A supposedly non-lethal weapon used at the wrong distance, with the wrong amount of ammunition, and directed at the wrong target can be just as deadly as a regular gun. For example, a teaser gun used on a child with the voltage intended for an adult may cause death. Even if used correctly, a weapon’s impact on the target may not be foreseeable. The use of pepper spray, or other chemical compound, may cause severe allergic reactions and death.

A legal review process should consider the correct use of the weapon, i.e. its intended target, the distance of application, and the amount of ‘ammunition’ to be applied.

Whether the target is an individual or a crowd also matters for legal purposes. The indiscriminate use of weapons is in principle not accepted under international humanitarian law, i.e. in war times. The means that the use of weapons directed at a crowd of civilians is not allowed, except where military advantage is proportionate to the civilian costs. This could be the case, when insurgents hide in civilian crowds.

At the same time, international law does not outlaw the use of ‘non-lethal weapons’ by the police in situations of domestic protests. Many states have set legal parameters for the use of ‘non-lethal’ weapons for crowd control. The distinction between domestic policing activities and conflict involving military force is relevant, especially in conflict situation where the lines between the two get blurred.

In the ensuing discussion, many representatives from the military services voiced support for more clarification and guidelines on the use of such weapons, including better training. They were pointed out, however, that ‘non-lethal’ weapons constituted an important tool in their ability to protect their soldiers and capture and neutralize suspects.