Disarmament Insight


Friday, 18 January 2008

CCW ends first week of negotiations on cluster munitions

The Group of Governmental Experts of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) today completed the first of 7 weeks of work scheduled this year to "negotiate a proposal" on cluster munitions that would balance military with humanitarian concerns.

One of the problems faced by the expert group is that nobody is quite sure what it actually means to negotiate a proposal. Negotiate a protocol, fine; or even an instrument. But a proposal? A proposal to do what? To negotiate a protocol, instrument or some other form of agreement?

The novel formulation of negotiating a proposal was born out of a compromise at the CCW Meeting of States Parties in November last year. Under pressure from the parallel Oslo Process on cluster munitions, which was building momentum between its Lima and Vienna meetings, many States perceived the need to begin serious work on cluster munitions in the CCW in order to keep pace. The European Union, the United States and others insisted that negotiations start immediately. Russia and others resisted and would not commit to an additional legally-binding protocol to the convention dealing with cluster munitions. The result? The CCW would "negotiate a proposal" on cluster munitions. The EU and the US got the word "negotiate." Russia and others kept out any reference to an additional protocol to the Convention. It's what's known in the diplomatic trade as "constructive ambiguity."

It was certainly constructive insofar as it got the CCW working seriously on cluster munitions. Its ambiguity, however, is causing some problems. The fact that a number of the scheduled negotiating sessions this week ended prematurely due to lack of inputs from delegations could be attributed at least partly to the fact that many delegations do not seem to have received specific enough instructions from their Capitals as to how they should proceed. It is difficult to formulate negotiating goals when it is unclear what one is negotiating.

A few delegations sought to overcome this in the closing session today by clearly setting out their interpretations of the task that lies ahead. Both the United States and the European Union indicated that their goal was to complete a new, legally-binding protocol on cluster munitions by November of this year. To help achieve this, the United States called on the Chair of the expert group to produce a Chair's draft protocol by the beginning of the group's 3-week negotiating session in July.

[Aside: The July negotiating session was originally scheduled to last 4 weeks (7-31). The expert group agreed today, however, to move the last of those weeks to April (7-11) instead. This was clearly in response to dissatisfaction among some States that the group had back-loaded most of its negotiations into the second half of this year (6 of the 7 weeks), something that did not fit well with the expert group's mandate "urgently" to address the problem of cluster munitions.]

No delegation questioned the maximalist interpretation of the expert group's mandate set forth by the EU and US in today's closing session. Even Russia, which at the end of last year offered a restrictive interpretation of the expert group's mandate - including that the outcome of negotiations should not incur financial costs - let it pass without comment in its own closing statement. That is not to say, however, that all are in agreement that a new protocol by November is now the goal. During the course of the week, Russia made it clear on a number of occasions that its original interpretation of the mandate has not changed.

The mood in the conference room today, however, was buoyed by the fact that a working group designated to come up with a draft working definition of cluster munitions managed to do so; albeit one so laden with square brackets and alternative text that it is difficult at this point to say much of substance about it, apart from the fact that it would seem to exempt weapons with 10 or fewer sub-munitions. This draft definition will be reflected in the procedural report of this week's meeting. Support for it would seem to be less than universal, however. India, for example, thought that it was too specific and favoured a more generic approach. Ireland introduced an alternative definition on its own initiative just this morning.

There were also some references to the Oslo Process, which runs parallel to the CCW but which has the clearer goal of prohibiting, by the end of this year, cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The United Kingdom - which, like many other States, participates in both the CCW and the Oslo Process - stressed the need "to ensure continued complementarity" between the two. Even China, which does not participate in the Oslo Process, conceded that it could play "a supplementary role."

Today's session ended in applause by States Parties, something I do not recall happening in the expert group since it completed negotiations on a protocol on explosive remnants of war (Protocol V) in 2003. There was a palpable sense of relief in the conference room that CCW negotiations on cluster munitions had finally begun and that that some progress had been made during the first week.

As Mexico pointed out in its closing statement, however, discussion during the week focused more on the military utility of cluster munitions than on their humanitarian impact. Whether the GGE manages to redress this imbalance during its forthcoming meetings remains to be seen. Striking this balance will be crucial in determining the humanitarian value of its final product.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo by nivek29 retreived from Flickr.