The Vienna Conference on Cluster Munitions, the latest step in the Oslo Process, kicked off today with a parliamentary forum in the morning and an NGO forum in the afternoon; both of which sought to set the bar high for the intergovernmental discussions that will take place over the remainder of the week.
Over 130 States have registered for the conference, almost double the number that participated in the last global meeting of the Oslo Process in Lima in May. The momentum that this process has gained in quite a short period of time is truly remarkable and lends credence to the claim made earlier today that the Oslo Process is now "unstoppable;" that it is no longer a question of whether it will succeed in negotiating a new treaty on cluster munitions, but rather how strong that treaty will be.
It is clear from today's discussions that NGOs want a very strong treaty indeed. The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) is no longer talking about banning cluster munitions "that cause unacceptable harm to civilians," the formulation that lies at the centre of the Oslo Declaration. The talk now among NGOs is just about banning cluster munitions, pure and simple, since, the CMC argues, all cluster munitions cause unacceptable harm. Any government wishing to argue otherwise will by asked (perhaps too polite a word) by NGOs to back up their arguments with credible evidence.
The cause of a comprehensive ban was boosted this afternoon by an announcement by the Austrian Federal Minister for European and International Affairs, Ursula Plassnik, that the Austrian parliament will promulgate a new law on Thursday this week banning all cluster munitions.
NGOs fear that most governments will not wish to follow Austria's example and will instead insist on excluding certain types of cluster munitions from the scope of the treaty being negotiated. The Vienna discussion text certainly leaves open this possibility. Article 2, which defines what a cluster munition is, contains three as yet blank place-holders that seem designed to contain descriptions of cluster munitions that would not be banned by the treaty.
It is likely that some States will push to exclude from the scope of the treaty cluster munitions that (manufacturers claim to) have low failure-rates, that are equipped with self-destruct mechanisms, that engage targets through the use of sensors, or that contain small numbers of sub-munitions. Today, NGOs made it quite clear that they find such exceptions to be unacceptable and, for good measure, added that they would also not accept a transition period to allow cluster munitions to be phased out nor allowances for joint operations with States that continued to use cluster munitions.
Fighting words aside, this afternoon's meeting did a fine job of bringing the voices of victims of cluster munitions to the forefront of the debate. Whether it was the impassioned plea of young Soraj Ghulam Habib from Afghanistan, who lost a cousin and both of his legs to a cluster bomb, or Branislav Kapetanovic's barely disguised rage not so much at his own injuries but at the indescribable carnage he saw cluster munitions wreak in Serbia, everyone who participated in today's meeting was reminded again and again that the goal of the Oslo Process is to protect civilians and assist victims.
It was not all harmony and meetings of minds however. A panel on "cluster munitions and the military" made up of serving and former military officers posed some pointed questions on the military utility of cluster munitions and on military alternatives to them. In the process, it highlighted some contentious issues that will no doubt continue to be discussed over the coming days.
The discussions that will take place over the next three days among the more than 130 registered governments will undoubtedly attempt to lower the bar set today by NGOs in the Cluster Munition Coalition. The biggest immediate challenge, however, would seem to be finding a room large enough to fit all participants in the Oslo Process. As of tomorrow morning, about 500 representatives of governments, NGOs and international organisations will begin to engage with one another in earnest.
Things are just getting interesting so stay tuned and feel free to add your voice to the debate by using the comment function below.
Patrick Mc Carthy
Photo: Wanda Munoz, Head of Victim Assistance, Handicap International (photo by the author)