Yesterday, the Vienna international conference on cluster munitions formally commenced. On Tuesday it had been preceded by a civil society forum (see our previous post for Patrick Mc Carthy's impressions of that gathering). The Vienna Conference is the latest step in the so-called Oslo process to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions on civilians.
Readers may recall from earlier posts on this blog that, less than a month ago, members of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed a mandate to work on addressing cluster munitions in 2008 - a mandate that most involved seemed prepared to concede had come about largely because of the existence of the Oslo process. Nevertheless, there was uncertainty in some quarters about what the impact of the CCW mandate might be for participation in Vienna. Would it undercut support for the Oslo process? Hopes among campaigners on cluster munitions were that the goal of 100 states would nevertheless be achieved.
In fact, 133 states have registered, according to the Austrian Foreign Minister, Ursula Plassnik, who launched Wednesday's proceedings. This is astounding progress for an international humanitarian initiative launched only in February of this year: it means that more than two-thirds of the international community want to see a treaty to address the impacts of cluster munitions on civilians by the end of 2008.
And that number doesn't count a large civil society contingent (mainly within the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC)) along with international and regional organizations including United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the European Commission and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Later, in welcoming the broad turn-out, the CMC noted that a majority of past users and producers of cluster munitions are now participating in the Oslo process, as well as almost all affected states.
Certain user and producer states were not at the meeting though, such as China, India, Pakistan, Russia and the U.S. The need to try to engage with all users and producers clearly concerns some states, and was a theme throughout the agenda item on "a treaty on cluster munitions" co-chaired by Austria and New Zealand. This agenda item ran grossly beyond time, however, as the co-chairs' request for delegations to keep general statements to a bare minimum went largely ignored. After a brief introduction of the Vienna text by New Zealand, Australia, Portugal (on behalf of the EU), Egypt, Hungary, Montenegro, the CMC, Thailand, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Morocco, Mali, Japan, Argentina, Finland, France, United Kingdom, Guatemala, Chile, Canada, Croatia, Sudan, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Algeria, Lithuania, Sweden, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Netherlands, Senegal, Bangladesh, Turkey, Mozambique, Uganda, Honduras, Zambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Albania spoke.
I'm not going to try to summarize what they said. And yesterday there was also some productive discussion of cluster munition clearance issues and victim assistance (the latter talks continue this morning) under subsequent agenda items. But a recurrent theme - beside wide support for the Vienna text as a basis for discussions and the need for a legally binding international instrument (a treaty, in other words) - was of the need to define unacceptable cluster munitions.
Definitions are pivotal because, following the terms of February's Oslo Declaration, unacceptable cluster munitions will be banned. For their part, the members of the CMC would like to ban all cluster munitions, and this seems to be the avowed view of at least several states too.
But a total ban on cluster munitions is not what all states signed up for - and some, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands - said as much yesterday. So the definitions agenda item today will be a key testing ground for various proposals for how cluster munitions, submunitions and associated concepts should be defined, and deriving from that, a better idea of what is likely to be outlawed in the agreement to be negotiated next year. At present, the core group's suggested Article 2 in the Vienna text is drafted as a pretty comprehensive prohibition on cluster munitions. But it makes provision for possible exceptions - the burden of proof being on states to justify why such exceptions are necessary.
It's going to be an interesting discussion. Watch this space.