Disarmament Insight


Friday, 22 June 2007

Cluster Munitions: "A change of heart, or of tactic?"

That was the title of an article on the website of 'The Economist' yesterday about manoeuvring by countries over emerging responses to the humanitarian problems cluster munitions pose. Its particular focus was on an announcement by the United States early this week, something we'd already reported on in the Disarmament Insight blog (see previous posts).

At lunchtime today, the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) wound up its work, having agreed on a Procedural Report to send to the Convention's Meeting of States Parties in November.

On cluster munitions, the GGE's recommendation was as follows:

"Recognising the serious humanitarian concerns associated with the use of cluster munitions and having engaged in a substantive discussions on the application and implementation of existing humanitarian law to specific munitions that may cause explosive remnants of war, with particular focus on cluster munitions, including the factors affecting their reliability and their technical and design characteristics, the GGE, without prejudice to the outcome, recommends to the 2007 Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the CCW to decide how best to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions as a matter of urgency, including the possibility of a new instrument. Striking the right balance between military and humanitarian considerations should be part of the decision.

The 2007 Meeting should take into account all documents put forward at the 2007 session of the GGE, as well as any other relevant documents and proposals."

Not exactly a paragon of conciseness and clarity. What does it mean in plainer language?

Essentially what it means is that all of the countries represented at the GGE meeting can agree on recommending to the Meeting of States Parties that the latter make some sort of decision about whether and how the CCW is to address humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions. But it doesn't give a clear pointer on what that decision should be. In effect, it's a shrug and a good luck handshake for further work in a process in which states remain divided over whether there should even be a negotiation, let alone its scope.

Via the media, the U.S. nuanced its position this week: it said it has removed its objection to negotiating a global treaty on cluster munitions in the CCW, although it didn't say whether it would go beyond merely the technical measures to improve cluster munition accuracy and reliability it's already beginning to implement nationally. (Some others don't think those measures are sufficient to address the hazards these weapons pose to civilians.)

But four traditional opponents of agreement to any negotiation - Russia, China, Pakistan and Cuba - gave no indications of any changes of heart.

Instead, as a hotch-potch of safety clauses and language balancing (the result of delicate consultations by the CCW Chair (Latvia) with various parties at the meeting) the GGE's recommendation is more significant for not containing a clear recommendation for a negotiation to commence.

Nevertheless, a number of CCW members publicly congratulated themselves today on the recommendation being achieved. And, with a nervous eye to the emerging 'Oslo Process' to negotiate a global treaty on cluster munitions including a ban on those causing "unacceptable harm to civilians", they held it up as proof that the CCW should be the forum for addressing concerns about the weapon.

This view seems somewhat premature to me. I'm a strong supporter of the CCW, and recognise the practical value the Convention and its existing protocols offer. But for years, until its Review Conference last November, the CCW barely discussed cluster munitions at all unless in the context of explosive remnants of war. The reality is that humanitarian concerns about cluster munitions, especially resulting from use in Lebanon last summer, contributed to the emergence of the Oslo Process. Together they have contributed in large part to this new context in the CCW.

Without fear of a parallel international process ("complementary and mutually reinforcing" to the CCW in the view of the UN) and outside activities like the International Committee of the Red Cross Expert Meeting in Montreux in April, I wonder if even today's modest call for a decision to be made in November would have come about. So whether they acknowledge it or not, supporters of a negotiation in the CCW - as preferable to one outside it - already owe the Oslo Process a debt.

And if, as seems on balance likely, the CCW can't achieve a robust negotiation mandate in November, those who at present say they prefer a CCW negotiation may have an additional reason to be grateful for the Oslo Process. The next meeting of the Oslo Process in Vienna in early December will enable them to make good on the commitments they've made at the national level - and, for many, in the Oslo Declaration - to tackle the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions. In other words, it's the best insurance against uncertainty about whether adjustments of national posture are really "of heart or of tactic" in the CCW .

John Borrie


The Economist, "A change of heart, or of tactic?", 21 June 2007, available here.

Official documents and proposals in the CCW are accessible here.

Photo courtesy of author.