Disarmament Insight


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.