Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Cluster munitions: Arguments for and against

Last week's meeting of states party to the Mine Ban Treaty (8MSP) in Jordan provided an opportunity for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) to offer a lunchtime briefing to states on the Oslo Process to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions. Austrian Ambassador Wolfgang Petritsch shared information about next week's Vienna Conference, and CMC Coordinator Thomas Nash talked about campaigning against cluster munitions in general.

The briefing was timely: with 8MSP about to wrap up successfully, diplomats were beginning to turn their minds to the recently released "Vienna text" and reflect upon the tactical implications of the CCW's mandate to work on cluster munitions in 2008 agreed on 13 November in Geneva. 8MSP offered a good opportunity for Oslo process outreach with a number of countries party to the Mine Ban Treaty (which has 156 members) who either aren't members of the CCW (which has 103 members) or who are but don't often attend its meetings.

One question that came up in question-and-answer time was the following:

States hostile to banning or restricting cluster munitions are likely to be briefing their delegations around the world with bullet-point style arguments as to why their cluster munitions are necessary. What are likely to be the 3 main planks of their position, and what are responses to these?
To me, actually there seem to be 4 characteristic generic arguments heard about cluster munitions. (There may be more, or maybe they could classified differently, but these rolled off the top of my head.) By request, I’ve set them out below. Sorry for the long blog post…

1. Cluster munitions are legitimate under international humanitarian law (IHL): unlike anti-personnel mines, cluster munitions aren’t inherently indiscriminate and were, besides, designed for a specific purpose - to destroy massed formations of infantry, armour and soft-skinned vehicles. If used “responsibly”, these weapons are consistent with IHL, it’s argued.

Human Rights Watch and others, however, have documented evidence that cluster munitions have almost never been used in a manner consistent with existing IHL (i.e. in Cold War-era battles in zones devoid of civilians). Instead, their use has usually been in proximity to civilian populations.

Moreover, cluster munitions do appear highly prone to indiscriminate use. This underlines the point that the effects of a weapon are context-dependent, not solely contingent on technical characteristics: self-destruct mechanisms in many explosive submunitions, for example, were shown in Southern Lebanon to have been ineffective, despite previous manufacturer and user claims about them rendering unexploded submunitions safe.

It should also be noted that – unless it’s banned – a weapon could be considered legitimate while still subject to specific legal restriction.

2. If we didn’t use cluster munitions, we’d have to use something worse: But IHL rules apply to the use of weapons generally - including any weapons of attack used as alternatives to cluster munitions. Principally, those rules are of (1) distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives, (2) the rule against indiscriminate attacks, (3) the proportionality rule and (4) the obligation on belligerents to take feasible precautions to minimize incidental loss of civilian lives, injuries to them or damage to civilian objects.

An ICRC expert has observed that cluster munitions raise important and persistent legal concerns under all of these rules (this is ultimately why there are international efforts underway to deal with them explicitly!). Nevertheless, the non-use of cluster munitions isn’t a “free pass” for the use of other weapons without the application of these general IHL rules.

3. Cluster munitions are what we have in stock: while often dressed up in different forms, this point is implicit in many arguments for continued use of cluster munitions based on “military utility”. Many states possess large stocks of explosive submunitions: the US for instance, appears to have 700-800 million in inventory, predominantly of older, more problematic types. For fiscal and logistical reasons, many militaries also deploy munitions from their arsenals on a “first-in, first to deploy” basis - using older lots first, a problem that compounds the humanitarian consequences of the use of the weapon because older submunitions tend to be less reliable.

To my way of thinking, using cluster munitions is in fact a political and moral question, not a strictly military issue. It’s about how societies choose to allocate resources.

Anecdotal evidence is that soldiers are not wedded to cluster munitions, and would prefer to use alternatives with lesser humanitarian risk and which pose less hazard to their own troops advancing through areas in which unexploded submunitions are scattered, for example. But they continue to use what they’ve have been provided for in military budgets, sometimes as legacies of purchasing decisions made decades ago to suit the exigencies of Cold War fighting in Europe. Ultimately, along with commitment to addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions, there needs to be recognition from governments that they must match it with financial commitment to providing alternative means for militaries to carry out their missions in ways consistent with IHL.

4. We don’t like being told what to do: this fourth argument actually has little to do with cluster munitions per se, but is really to do with concerns about “another Ottawa” emerging.

It’s self-evident that, by exploiting procedural tactics, an obstructive few are able - and sometimes do - prevent the emergence of multilateral cooperation through formal channels that could yield security benefit to all. The treatment of “mines other than anti-personnel mines” in the CCW process in recent years, in which a handful of states have obstructed general agreement on a new agreement, is a case in point.

The problem is this: if there’s evident need to negotiate a new norm (like on cluster munitions on humanitarian grounds), it’s probably emerged from the consequences of self-interested behaviour of users of the weapon. Logically, these users, who perceive that they derive benefit from that behaviour (i.e. use of cluster munitions), will then object to agreement of a robust norm restricting or banning that weapon by blocking consensus.

This underlines the conundrum for the CCW in agreeing on a new norm in the future. Its mandate for 2008 is about commencing work – not agreeing on any outcome – and both roadblocks and dilution of ambition are tactics will be encountered…

…which also highlights the importance of the Oslo process, both in its own right in addressing cluster munitions and in adjusting the perceptions of those who might otherwise resist consensus in the CCW on a final agreement there. Already, concerns about the Oslo process seem to have led states such as the US, China and Russia to change their policies in order to allow 2008 work in the CCW to proceed on cluster munitions - a new development without prospect before the Oslo Conference in February 2007. They are sure to have recognized that (unlike in the CCW) the consensus practice isn’t explicit in the Oslo process, nor is it customary in other IHL processes.

In the big picture, disagreement about the merits of "which process" just isn’t as important as achieving the goal of protecting civilians from weapons. Unfortunately, traditional multilateral structures and practices can obscure this at times. So multilateral decision-makers need to be creative and goal focused. It should be noted in this respect that the Mine Ban Treaty a decade ago actually reinvigorated the CCW for a time, and the Oslo process appears to be doing the same. So the issue here isn’t about CCW (the establishment) versus Oslo (the upstart) as some might have us believe. Meanwhile, the UN Secretary-General has been on record since February 2007 as supporting both processes, because what’s important is addressing the impact of cluster munitions on civilians.

Hear, hear.

John Borrie


John Borrie & Rosy Cave, “The humanitarian effects of cluster munitions: Why should we worry?”, Disarmament Forum, (Issue 4) 2006, pp. 5-13.

Human Rights Watch, Myths and Realities about Cluster Munitions.

Louis Maresca, “Cluster munitions: Moving toward specific regulation”, Disarmament Forum, (Issue 4) 2006, pp. 27-34.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Landmines: Dead Sea Goals

The eighth meeting of states parties (8MSP) of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty met last week on the shores of the Dead Sea in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan - a beautiful, bleak place.

A decade ago, when the Mine Ban Treaty was agreed in Oslo, Jody Williams (then coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and 1997 Nobel Prize Laureate with the ICBL) wrote that the agreement was an example of the "the new diplomacy" - one founded upon common humanitarian concerns, rather than traditional national security pre-occupations.

Others were sceptical. But the Mine Ban Treaty has been extremely successful. Today it has 156 states parties (Palau announced its accession during 8MSP) and has retained a remarkable and vigorous focus on implementation.

Testament to its success is that, although remaining outside the treaty, countries like China, India and Pakistan send observers, and China even speaks now and then. The United States (which didn't attend) fumes from time to time that the Mine Ban Treaty is "absolutist" (presumably because it completely prohibits anti-personnel mines). But the US also insists that it shares the Convention's humanitarian aims, and remains a major donor to many of the same mine action activities. Most importantly, while lacking accession from countries such as these, the Mine Ban Treaty regime has, in just a decade, been remarkably successful in creating and powerfully reinforcing international stigma against a weapon that previously was the bane of civilians in many parts of the world.

Mine Ban Treaty state parties and NGOs like to portray the Mine Ban Treaty as a good news story. And it is. The Mine Ban Treaty regime is not without its problems though, and there are significant challenges ahead.

One spring threatening to pop out of the Mine Ban Treaty sofa at 8MSP were Turkey's concerns about interactions between NGOs like the Geneva Call with armed non-state groups to persuade them to stop using mines: basically Turkey fears this legitimizes these violent actors. This matter was, at least for now, managed in the Dead Sea Progress report, but the issue will probably rear its head again next year.

The European Commission and some others promoted the need for "mainstreaming" of mine action funding - that is, the mixing of dedicated national and regional organization budgets for mine action into general humanitarian or developmental budgets, as the EC has done. This was criticized in particular by South Africa, which argued that there is potential for such approaches to violate Article 6.2 of the Treaty. South Africa said it doesn't buy into the thinking that mainstreaming is necessarily better: the point is to ensure mined land is cleared, and people are helped. Mainstreaming could lead to a reduction of resources for mine action.

The ICBL and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) continued their very active roles in helping states to implement the treaty, including by drawing necessary attention to practical challenges. For example, there are growing concerns that several states will miss treaty deadlines, like for clearance and stockpile destruction. And the ICBL suggested the Mine Ban Treaty consider moving toward some agreement on "mines other than anti-personnel mines" (MOTAPM) - the CCW had attempted to tackle MOTAPM again this year but agreement was (again) thwarted by Russia and others.

Significantly, the ICBL also observed that there is a tendency of states to be conflict averse in confronting these types of issues. It pointed out - rightly, in my view - that this doesn't serve the longer-term interests of the Mine Ban Treaty well. This is where the Treaty as unambiguous good news story can sometimes be a bit unhelpful: in view of so many difficulties in multilateral disarmament and arms control, state representatives often seem hesitant to rock the boat when it's needed (South Africa is a laudable exception).

In other words, a bit of confrontation can be a good thing. This is something that those participating in the so-called Oslo process on cluster munitions will need to bear in mind in coming months too, as tough issues like definitions have to be tackled, which are sure to divide views.

The litmus test for any form of disarmament as humanitarian action is whether it makes a positive difference for people on the ground. Treaty universalization and mine clearance are worthy and perhaps even slightly sexy topics. But more resources need to be dedicated to assisting victims of mines and other forms of explosive remnants of war. According to Landmine Monitor, as little as one per cent of total mine action funding can be traced to victim assistance (although the actual figure is no doubt higher, as it's often not possible to separate such funding from general health and other budgets). These victims - people - will need help throughout their lives. In Jordan some were present: let's ensure states and donor organizations continue to hear their voices.

John Borrie


The Dead Sea Progress report should be online in the next day or two at one or more of the following links:



UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, Geneva branch.

Photo by author.

Friday, 23 November 2007

The Power of the President

What makes for a successful multilateral arms control negotiation? Sufficient political will? Maturity of the issue being negotiated? Pressure from civil society? A critical mass of seasoned diplomats? The list is long and there is no single silver bullet that will ensure success every time.

But what about the role played by the President of such negotiations; the Ambassador chosen by the negotiating parties (usually on the basis of regional rotation) and entrusted with the delicate task of guiding negotiations to a successful conclusion? All other things being equal, does the President have the power to tip the balance and conjure success where none seemed possible?

Observing Pakistan's Ambassador Masood Khan (picture) in action at the 6th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) at the end of 2006 would lead one to answer this question in the affirmative. The 6th Review Conference was up against formidable challenges. Years-long efforts to negotiate a verification protocol to the Convention had collapsed in 2001 after the United States withdrew its support. As a result, the 5th Review Conference had to be suspended for a whole year to allow tempers to cool. States were heading into the 6th Review Conference having completed some constructive intersessional work but resentments were still raw. Hopes were not high that the meeting could put the BTWC process back on track.

Against the odds, Ambassador Khan guided the conference to a successful conclusion; i.e. a strong final document and a demanding intersessional work programme in the run-up to the 7th Review Conference in 2011. He has gone a long way towards explaining how he did so in an article he published in Disarmament Diplomacy earlier this year, although I have the impression that we may have to wait for his memoirs to get the full story. The article offers a fascinating and rare insight into the internal workings of a multilateral disarmament machine; worn cogs, snapped springs and all. My favourite characterisation, however, of how Ambassador Khan pulled it off was provided by my Disarmament Insight colleague, John Borrie, who described as "diplomatic jujitsu" the way Ambassador Khan kept delegations off balance by shuffling the agenda and tabling proposals.

Masood Khan is not one to rest on his laurels and is already looking for new challenges. He plans to introduce an innovative new way of interacting with NGOs and the biotech industry at next month's BTWC Meeting of States Parties. After that, he will turn his attention to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) - also known as the 'Inhumane Weapons Convention' - where he will preside over the Meeting of States Parties in November 2008.*

That meeting is due to hear a progress report on negotiations by a CCW Group of Governmental Experts on a proposal to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions. Given the inability of the CCW over last number of years to address adequately the harm caused to civilians by cluster munitions, and the emergence outside of the CCW of the ambitious Oslo Process on cluster munitions, the challenge facing the CCW on this issue is significant.

Ambassador Khan is undoubtedly a skillful diplomat who domonstrates that diplomacy is an art; abstract and sometimes even martial. The 6th Review Conference of the BTWC was his masterpiece. Helping to get the CCW to agree on an adequate response to the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions would be no less of an achievement.

Patrick Mc Carthy

* An earlier version of this entry stated in error that that Ambassador Khan had been nominated to preside over seven weeks of CCW negotiations in 2008 on the issue of cluster munitions.


Masood Khan, "The 2006 BWC Review Conference: The President's Reflections." Disarmament Diplomacy, issue no. 84, spring 2007.

John Borrie, "The Limits of Modest Progress: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Efforts to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention." Arms Control Today, October 2006.

Photo Credit: Photo of H.E. Mr. Masood Khan - Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations and other Specialised Agencies in Geneva - retrieved from the website of the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations Geneva.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Randy Forsberg: A tribute to an inspiration

Dr Randall Forsberg

I first met Randy Forsberg in Brookline Massachusetts in 1987. Famous for having been the leading light behind the Nuclear Freeze initiative in the 1980s, she was a major name with a major reputation to my impressionable 30 year-old self. Visiting the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies with my colleagues from the newly-formed VERTIC, I was more than a little in awe of this Grand Dame of Disarmament. There was no need of course. Randy was not only down to earth and practical, she was respectful of all and, most importantly, she cared about what you had to bring to the debate. So if you were engaged, she was engaged with you. That did not mean agreement however. In fact, the greatest compliment Randy could pay you was to disagree with you. That meant that you had got her attention; that meant that she thought you were worth listening to and disagreeing with.

Randy was one of our Greats. She married academia with activism. She saw the connections between nuclear disarmament and conventional weapons and did more than write about the issues; she acted upon what she knew. One of the many inspired things she did was to set up the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS) that produces the Arms Control Reporter – a regular updating of everything that happens pertaining to arms control. Most of us have relied on it and could not have achieved what we have without that fantastic resource.

Her recent work has been to focus on the prevention of war by co-founding Global Action to Prevent War. She had just been honoured as the newly designated Ann and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York. Randy’s knowledge and experience would have been invaluable in the move towards an Arms Trade Treaty. IDDS published professional manuals on global armed forces, and produced the annual IDDS Database of World Arms Holdings, Production and Trade. Only a few weeks ago, I was recommending UNIDIR’s Arms Trade Treaty research team to contact her and get a reading list – it would have been different to everybody else’s.

Randy died of endometrial cancer in New York, at the young age of 64. She was a mother, a writer, a leader, an inspiration to all of us. Ad victoriam, Randy, ad perpetuam memoriam.

There has been a fund established in her name. To support the Randall Forsberg Scholarship for Peace Research please go to: http://www.idds.org/.

There will be a gathering in memory of Dr. Randall Forsberg on Saturday December 1st, at 1:00 p.m., location: Great Hall in Shepard Hall, The City College of New York, 138th Street & Convent Avenue, New York.

A memorial service for Dr. Randall Forsberg will be held in Boston on December 15th, at 2:00 p.m, Location: MIT's Wong Auditorium at the Tang Center Corner of Wadsworth & Amherst Streets, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

For more information on the life of Randy Forsberg, see the articles in The LA Times, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and on the website of Global Action to Prevent War.

This is a guest posting by Dr. Patricia Lewis, Director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Hub, a “YouTube for human rights”

The international human rights organization Witness, founded in 1992 by musician and activist Peter Gabriel and the Reebok Human Rights Foundation, recently launched a project called The Hub.

Witness is a non-profit organization that provides video cameras, technical and strategic training to people in the field so that they can capture evidence of human rights violations.

The collected footage is used in different ways: as education and mobilization tools, as evidence in justice courts or to catalyze policy change. For example:

  1. The arrest for war crimes in March 2006 in Democratic Republic of Congo of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo by the International Criminal Court resulted from an advocacy campaign by Witness’ partner AJEDI-Ka/PES, which included video distribution and screenings to key officials of the International Criminal Court.

  2. Following the preview of a video by a Witness’ partner organization on the atrocities caused by landmines, the Senegalese Minister of Women’s and Family Affairs “pledged unprecedented funding for women landmine victims, and a regional hospital is providing prostheses free-of-charge.”

Witness said its goal is to provide resources to people so that they can “transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change.” In that context, the Hub initiative is a further step towards the promotion of human rights.

As Peter Gabriel described it at the launch of the new website in early November, the Hub is “the first online global platform that offers you the tools you need to use media for advocacy — enabling you and millions of others worldwide to use camcorders, cell phones and cameras to upload, share, and discuss your human rights-related footage, as well as organize campaigns to create change.”

The Hub is currently in a “beta” stage as kinks are ironed out. But you can participate in various ways, in particular by uploading human rights related videos, images and audio files.

These kinds of innovations are worth spreading and might inspire those in the disarmament and arms control community, especially those working in the field who have been witness to the practical consequences of human rights violations and related problems of human insecurity. Share what you see! As a Witness slogan puts it:

“See it. Film it. Change it.”

Aurélia Merçay


The Hub website: http://hub.witness.org/.

Witness website: http://www.witness.org/.

Prism Webcast News, “Peter Gabriel launches the Hub—a ‘YouTube for human rights’”, http://prismwebcastnews.com/pwn/?p=1584.

Video of Peter Gabriel at 2006 TED Conference, “Fighting injustice with a videocamera”, available online at http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/23.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Reflecting on First Committee: What was achieved?

Since Tuesday, the commotion surrounding the CCW and cluster munitions has died down, leaving in its wake a deep sense of puzzlement over what actually was agreed (see our last three postings for more details). But more on that later. The December Vienna Conference on Cluster Munitions, which forms part of the Oslo Process, will give us a chance to reflect on the outcome with a bit more distance, both geographical and temporal.

In the meantime, I would like to return to a theme I took up in a previous posting on the First Committee of the UN General Assembly, the one that deals with disarmament and international security. This annual month-long maelstrom of debate, lobbying, arm twisting and resolution drafting ended on November 2. What, then, does the First Committee have to show for its considerable exertion?

On the face of it, it was very productive indeed. Three hundred and fifteen official statements were delivered and 52 draft resolutions adopted on issues ranging from the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons to preventing an arms race in outer space. Add to this the numerous lunchtime seminars, informal consultations, power breakfasts and receptions that took place, and there can be little doubt that this year's First Committee kept representatives of governments, NGOs and international organisations very busy indeed.

Scratch the surface, however, and the picture changes. As Ray Acheson, editor of the excellent First Committee Monitor, puts it:

"If productivity can be measured by volume of paper circulated, then First Committee was extremely successful. If, however, we turn to [the] question of whether or not First Committee 'advanced the cause of disarmament and international security,' the 2007 session could best be characterized as underwhelming."
Why is this? Well, first of all, many of the draft resolutions that were adopted are repeats that re-appear every year or two, sometimes without any textual updating at all. These keep issues on the UN's agenda but do not contribute any new ideas to the debate.

Also, this year's First Committee underlined the continued isolation of the United States on many important issues. The US cast the sole 'no' vote on no less than 11 draft resolutions, pitting itself, unsupported, against an average of 161 other States who votes 'yes' on these resolutions. More than half of the time, the United States' sole negative vote went against 'yes' votes from all other permanent members of the Security Council - China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom. The issues on which the US took a defiant stance include preventing an arms race in outer space; nuclear weapons-related matters (including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), negative security assurances, and a nuclear weapon-free zone in Southeast Asia); the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons; and the relationship between disarmament and development, among others.

It was not all re-runs of old resolutions and defiant stances by the US however. This year's First Committee did break some new ground. New Zealand led the charge on a new draft resolution on "Decreasing the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems," which was opposed only by France, the UK and the US. The Non-Aligned Movement succeed in passing a draft resolution on the "Effects of the use of armaments and ammunitions containing depleted uranium" that split the vote of the NATO bloc. Some new UN studies were also initiated, including a Group of Governmental Experts to review the operation and further development of the Standardized Instrument for Reporting Military Expenditures, which China recently rejoined.

These seem like isolated innovations, however; more like flashes in the pan than indications that First Committee might be trying to reach beyond its traditional approach of 'more of the same.' This brings into question the function that First Committee serves in the overall disarmament machinery, as well as the continued relevance of the machinery itself.

One of the issues that the United States opposed on its own was the convening of a fourth special session on disarmament (SSOD IV) of the UN General Assembly that would re-think, and possibly re-make, a disarmament machinery suitable for the 21st century. As Patricia Lewis, Director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), asked delegates during one panel discussion, if SSOD IV is not the appropriate venue to review the disarmament machinery with a view to overhauling it, then what is? It's a good question.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: C.M. on flickr

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Cluster munitions: a CCW mandate

The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed a mandate on cluster munitions today after a difficult week of talks in Geneva, as foreshadowed in our preceding posts.

The text agreed by consensus is as follows:

"The Meeting of the High Contracting Parties to the CCW decided that the GGE [Group of Governmental Experts] will negotiate a proposal to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations.

"The GGE should make every effort to negotiate this proposal as rapidly as possible and report on the progress made to the next meeting of the High Contracting Parties in November 2008.

"The work of the GGE will be supported by military and technical experts. The GGE will meet in 2008 not less than three times for a total of up to seven weeks, as follows:

- 14-18 January
- 7-31 July
- 1-5 September
- 3-7 November. "
When set alongside the Oslo Declaration, this text is weaker. It lacks a firm commitment to complete its work by the end of 2008, which the Oslo Declaration contains. While the Oslo Declaration focuses on addressing the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions, the CCW text balances this against military considerations. And while it is explicit in saying the GGE's work will be supported by military and technical experts, it doesn't mention humanitarian perspectives like those from the field.

Moreover, while there is a call for urgency, it doesn't seem to be borne out in the caveated language of the rest of the decision (the CCW will only meet to work for a single week in the first half of the year). Nor is it explicit that the CCW is working to achieve a legally-binding international treaty, saying instead that it "will negotiate a proposal".

Overall, the CCW mandate poses as many questions as it answers. Several countries with preferences for more - such as Canada - much more (Norway) as well as less (Russia) pointed this out in their own ways. Canada warned that the CCW could end up "wasting a great deal of time" reaching agreement on how to interpret the mandate, which would belie addressing cluster munitions "urgently". Norway, in a measured statement, said it would continue to work in the CCW even as it helps to lead the Oslo Process. Ireland, another Oslo core group country, expressed its disappointment that more couldn't have been achieved in the mandate.

Russia said it still harbours doubts, noting "considerable" (read: yawning) differences of approach expressed in the CCW over ways and means of addressing the impacts of cluster munitions on civilians, as well as uncertainties (read: major disagreements) about basic provisions like definitions. In a carefully scripted statement, it set out specific parameters of what it wanted to talk about in 2008.

Not an air of celebration then. The International Committee of the Red Cross noted its regret the mandate doesn't contain a strong commitment to a legally-binding instrument. The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) was the most outspoken, regarding "this as a wholly inadequate outcome. We cannot view this as a credible mandate". Later, in a press conference, HRW Arms Unit Director Steve Goose paraphrased the mandate outcome as "go slow and aim low".

Ouch. NGO views came as no surprise, however. A question on the minds of many diplomats and others here is: what does the CCW mandate mean for the Oslo Process?

In the short term, the likely answer is: probably not much. Next week, states parties to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention meet in Jordan (I too will be there): that Conference's margins will be buzzing with competing prognostications. A yet-to-emerge "Vienna text" will be another topic of interest. Regardless of events this week in Geneva, the Vienna Conference on cluster munitions in early December - the next major event in the Oslo Process calendar - will meet and may attract a hundred participating states. It's chair will be working to focus minds there on the substance of a possible treaty.

The CCW mandate calls for almost seven weeks of work in Geneva in 2008. Quite what delegations will do throughout the CCW's 2008 work schedule is unclear in view of substantial differences of scope and ambition there, but almost seven weeks is a quite a burden on even large governments. In contrast, all of the entire projected Oslo Process from Oslo in February 2007 until the end of May 2008 (in Dublin) adds up to around 23 days, not including regional meetings.

But will those states inside the Oslo Process who've maintained in public statements their preference for CCW work (particularly some of the Europeans) bail out now that it has a mandate?

Probably not. The CCW's agreed mandate falls well short of the European Union's own mandate proposal, as its current President (Portugal) noted this morning, which contains an end-of-2008 deadline and is much more robust - drawing in part on Oslo Declaration language. Given domestic pressures in many countries such as the UK and Germany, it would be difficult for them to walk away from Oslo without severe criticism. And if they do leave the Oslo Process, it will be much harder for them to influence the negotiation's direction and the end-result's content.

The reality is that the continuation of the Oslo Process is useful to efforts in the CCW. After all, there would be no mandate without the Oslo Process's emergence.

The big question in all of this nobody should forget - especially not diplomats and national decision-makers - is one of human security: what will be the positive impact on people living with the hazards posed by cluster munitions? There it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the Oslo Process seems to win hands down.

The CCW might yet amaze us all. But to my mind, when seen alongside the Oslo Declaration, the mandate agreed today simply underlines the difficulties ahead for the CCW in achieving a credible result.

John Borrie

Photo of the cluster munition exhibition by Handicap International Switzerland and the Broken Chair sculpture outside the Geneva Palais des Nations by John Borrie.

Monday, 12 November 2007

CCW: More scenes from a play

On Friday, Patrick Mc Carthy reported on the state of efforts of the member countries of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to achieve a mandate to negotiate on cluster munitions. Ambassador Janis Karklins of Latvia presented the Meeting of States Parties with his shot at a draft mandate, then waved adieu.

As Patrick suggested, the draft mandate Ambassador Karklins offered may have been too strong. Today, the Meeting of States Parties only gathered briefly - most of it spent instead by the Chair (Greece) in informal side consultations with 'key' players (that is, the stickiest). The rest (exhorted by the Chair not to leave the building) sat around and waited, drinking vast amounts of coffee in the process and looking wistfully out the window at a beautiful autumn day they could not experience.

Word is that a least one large cluster munition user state (Russia) doesn't want to see "negotiate" in the mandate, and would prefer a weaker formulation "to elaborate proposals", among other changes proposed.

It is obviously of concern to the European Union, which has met in hermetically sealed emergency group convocation at least twice today. The great majority of the EU's members are also ostensible supporters of the Oslo Process, and it has had a long-standing mandate proposal in the CCW to:

"establish a Group of Governmental Experts with a schedule of no less than three meetings to negotiate a legally-binding instrument that addresses the humanitarian concerns of cluster munitions in all their aspects by the end of 2008."
They (like others) realise it would be difficult to argue that a CCW mandate for up to seven weeks of diplomatic work in 2008 is credible if it failed even to mention a negotiation, not least in view of the Oslo Process.

Tempers are fraying, but consultations grind on (perhaps inhumanely).

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Palais this morning, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, with help from UNIDIR, launched the ninth Landmine Monitor report, attended by a good turn-out of media. As a means of civil society verification of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, Landmine Monitor plays a special role in disarmament and arms control. Far from being treated with skepticism by governments , Landmine Monitor is more or less seen as the bible for information about the state of Mine Ban Convention implementation.

On the whole, the news is fairly positive. Funding for mine action in 2006 was the highest recorded, led by contributions from the U.S., the European Commission, Norway and Canada. And the treaty now has 155 States Parties. The number of new mine casualties is down. And only two countries seem to have used anti-personnel mines in 2006.

That's the good news. Less great is that while mine action funding is high, a lot of it was emergency funding - for instance, for Lebanon - rather than for stabilising longer-term mine action efforts. Very few of these funds are assigned to victim assistance, which is very much the Cinderella of mine action. A number of non-state armed groups appear to have used anti-personnel mines, and a number of states party to the Convention look likely to miss important deadlines for mine clearance.

That said, without underestimating these challenges, they're practical problems that can be dealt with if the energy and pragmatism that's become a hallmark of the Mine Ban Convention is sustained.

Meanwhile, down the hall, negotiations between diplomats in the CCW are likely to continue into the night.

John Borrie

Photo of CCW conference chamber by John Borrie.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Cluster Munitions Proving Hard Nut to Crack for CCW

States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) - also known as the 'Inhumane Weapons Convention' - have just ended day three of their five-day annual meeting in Geneva with an anticlimax on cluster munitions.

Following days of intensive consultations - and rumours this morning that an agreed CCW negotiating mandate on cluster munitions was imminent - the Coordinator of the Group of Governmental Experts, Ambassador Janis Karklins of Latvia, was only able to transmit to States Parties a note containing his sense of what the meeting might be able to agree before it adjourns next Tuesday. The Coordinator's note, which has no official status, reads as follows:

The High Contracting Parties to the CCW decided that the GGE, without preconditions and prejudice to the outcome, will negotiate an instrument of the Convention to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations.

The GGE should make every effort to prepare this instrument as rapidly as possible and report on the progress made to the next meeting of the High Contracting Parties in November 2008.

The GGE will meet in 2008 not less than three times for a total of up to seven weeks. Its work will be supported by military experts.

Ambassador Karklins admitted that his note was "too little for most States" but "a little too much for some States" and hoped that it might lead the way to an acceptable compromise. The note will have to lead on its own since, due to other commitments, Ambassador Karklins will not be in Geneva next week to see it through. He essentially handed his note over to States Parties and wished them the "best of luck" with it, sparking chuckles, particularly from many of the NGOs in the room.

The Coordinator's note is actually stronger than early indications suggested. It actually uses the word "negotiate" and employs terms such as "urgently" and "as rapidly as possible." However, the note does not make specific that negotiations would lead to a legally-binding instrument, even though it must be said that all other instruments of the CCW - its five Protocols - are legally binding on States that have adhered to them. Nor does the Coordinator's note set a deadline for finalising a new instrument on cluster munitions, leaving open the possibility that negotiations could drag on.

To my mind, the wording of the note, weak as it is in comparison with the Oslo Declaration on cluster munitions, will nevertheless prove too strong for some key States and we will see some watering down of text happening on Monday and Tuesday of next week.

Our posting on Wednesday will provide a final analysis of the outcome. Stay tuned...

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo courtesy of the author

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

A registry for predictions

As part of our research, UNIDIR’s Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project has been exploring why it’s difficult to accurately predict future events in the political field (see John Borrie’s recent post “Putting Predictions to the Test”). On the same topic, I recently saw David Brin, a physics professor, NASA consultant and science fiction novelist, talk about the idea of a “prediction registry”.

Although making predictions about the future is an extremely difficult task—especially in the political field—this is something that humans have always done. (Brin noted that our prefrontal lobes, which appeared perhaps a few hundred thousand years ago and which are specific to the human brain, play a significant role in exploring potential outcomes and making predictions.)

Today, we’ve developed tools and techniques to help us make forecasts. Computer simulations, and agent-based modelling in particular, are used to analyze complex phenomena. Although very sophisticated, these new techniques can only provide a limited amount of information about the future behaviour of a complex system. This is because, as complexity theory shows, complex systems are “inherently” unpredictable.

However, as Brin noticed, this doesn’t prevent us from making predictions, nor does it prevent us from spending a lot of money and time in trying to make accurate guesses. Starting from this insight, and realizing that there is no record of who was right, how often and when, Brin proposed a prediction registry be set up: “anyone who claims any form of special foresight might be judged by the same standards that applies to any other field of endeavour—success or failure.”

In addition, each forecast would receive a “specificity multiplier”, taking a high value if the prediction is very precise (providing dates, names, places, etc.) and a low value it if the forecast is obscure.

This could be valuable. First, predictors and forecast specialists would “be held accountable for all of their predictions, not just those they later choose to remember.” This is important as it would significantly improve transparency. The introduction of an “accuracy score”, in particular, could reveal the most accurate predictors, giving them credibility and recognition, and increasing their role in policy making.

There might be some surprises. As Philip Tetlock showed in his book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know?”, experts aren’t necessarily more competent than the rest of us.
Finding out who is right a lot in prediction and problem solving, while denying legitimacy to those who are consistently wrong, would probably be in society’s best interest.

But most importantly, the analysis of scores, Brin suggested, could also help us understand our own patterns of success, failure and predictions. Tetlock’s work has already underlined the influence of various psychological biases on so-called experts. Yet policy analysts and decision makers aren’t soothsayers. If we’re at all realistic, we need to recognise that predictors can never be always right. But if a prediction registry made more of them rigorous in their thinking and less instinctively cocksure in their predictions, that would be a big step forward for 21st century society.

Aurélia Merçay


David Brin, Accountability for Everyday Prophets: A Call for a Predictions Registry, 2005, available online at http://www.davidbrin.com/predictionsregistry.html.

A list of David Brin’s predictions is available online at http://earthbydavidbrin.pbwiki.com/Predictions.

Video of David Brin, interviewed at the 6th International Conference on Complex Systems (ICCS) in Boston in June 2006: http://complexity.vub.ac.be/~comdig/06iccs/Brin.MOV.

Photo by 'SeraphimC retrieved from Flickr.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Action on cluster bombs

This week looks set to be a busy one for matters related to cluster munitions.

Today, campaigners in 40 countries around the world are calling on their governments to attend an international conference next month in Vienna, Austria, and to support a global treaty banning cluster bombs. To draw attention to their calls, they've declared the 5th of November a "Global Day of Action to Ban Cluster Bombs" with events around the world.

Events have already taken place in places as far a field as Wellington, New Zealand. A couple more will be held later today in Geneva, Switzerland; one by the 'Broken Chair' sculpture outside the United Nations' Palais des Nations, along with a photo exhibition by Stuart Freedman on Lebanon called 'Clearing for Peace'.

Today also marks a rare joint appeal by the United Nations, the NGO Cluster Munition Coalition, and UK-based Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund in support of the ban treaty with an advertising campaign featured in several newspapers worldwide. The UN is calling on all countries to freeze the use and trade of cluster bombs and negotiate an international prohibition on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

And, beginning today in Geneva, states party to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons have a round of meetings in the Palais. Today and tomorrow they will focus on implementation of two existing protocols to the CCW framework treaty - 1996 Amended Protocol II on mines and booby-traps, and 2003 Protocol V on explosive remnants of war.

The main action will be from Wednesday, however, with a several-day Meeting of States Parties to the main CCW treaty, the first of new annual CCW conference based on an agreement at last November's five-yearly review conference.

The biggest point of interest is whether the CCW will agree on a negotiating mandate on cluster munitions. Although concern about the impacts of cluster munitions on civilians has been building for some time, the CCW has - at least until now - been unable to agree to negotiate new rules because of its consensus practice. However, as we've mentioned in previous posts, the emergence of a new free-standing "Oslo Process" to negotiate a humanitarian treaty looks like it's had a galvanising effect on some big cluster munition producers and users in the CCW. Earlier this year the U.S. said it could go along with a negotiation in the CCW (although it said it wouldn't support any ban). It remains to be seen if the positions of others, like Russia, China, India and Pakistan, have changed.

We'll keep you posted.

John Borrie

Photo by author.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Putting Predictions to the Test

As part of it's work, UNIDIR's Disarmament as Humanitarian Action project is currently working on a publication looking at some constraints on multilateral negotiations, and how some of these might be overcome or at least potentially mitigated.

One conundrum for policy makers in general is that it's very difficult to accurately predict outcomes of complex political and economic processes, and this has implications for their work. Multilateral practitioners are no exception.

Meanwhile, it's often very difficult to get a handle on how good "expert" political judgment is. But not impossible. A recent book by Philip E. Tetlock, an American psychologist, has revealed through a careful decade-long study that people who make prediction their business - people who appear as experts on television, for instance, or who are quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses - are, on average, no better than the rest of us.

Tetlock's research team asked various specialists to judge the likelihood of a number of political, economic and military events occurring within a specific timeframe (about five years ahead). Close to 300 specialists offered outcomes representing a total number of around 27,000 predictions. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb observed in his book, The Black Swan:

"His study revealed an expert problem: there was no difference in results whether one had a PhD or undergraduate degree. Well-published professors had no advantage over journalists. The only regularity Tetlock found was the negative effect of reputation on prediction: those who had a big reputation were worse predictors than those who had none."
Ouch. But Tetlock's study didn't end there. His focus wasn't so much to show the real level of competence of experts, but to investigate how they spun their stories. Tetlock discovered various cognitive mechanisms of generating ex post explanation - mostly in the form of belief defence, or self-esteem protection.

Prominent were phenomena that psychologists call motivational biases, something Ashley Thornton has explored in previous posts on this blog. These include the self-serving attributional bias (the human tendency to blame unfavourable outcomes on external causes but take credit for favourable outcomes) and the confirmation bias (we tend to seek out and process information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs).

The New Yorker put it succinctly: "The experts' trouble in Tetlock's study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong."

Food for thought. More about Tetlock's work in future posts.

John Borrie


Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good is it? How Can We Know? (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 2005).

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York, Random House, 2007).

To read a neat introduction to Tetlock's work in a review of his book in the 5 December 2005 edition of The New Yorker click here.

Picture by F33 retrieved from Flickr.