Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Cluster munitions: From Russia with love

It's been a curious week so far for international efforts on cluster munitions. A Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) approved at last November's meeting of states party to the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) has gathered in Geneva for its first week of formal talks.

As noted in previous posts, there are currently not one but two international processes underway to address the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions. There is the free-standing Oslo Process begun last February. And there is the CCW's more recent and not completely unconnected consensus decision - after years of prevaricating - to "negotiate a proposal" for some sort of agreement on some as-yet unspecified measures in this regard.

As the first official week of seven allocated to the CCW's work this year, there is already concern this won't be enough, and that - with six of the seven weeks scheduled for the second half of 2008 - the CCW will lose momentum between this meeting's deliberations and subsequent rounds of work. Consensus seems to be emerging that a week in April is also required, although it's unclear yet whether this will be deducted from four weeks scheduled for July, or whether it will be an informal week; that is, without language interpretation and certain other conference services.

It's also, of course, with an eye to the Oslo Process. In Vienna in December a large number of countries - including many participating in the CCW - forged ahead in their talks on the content of a new humanitarian treaty to be completed by the end of this year. The Oslo Process meets next in Wellington, New Zealand, for a week in February, and for its main negotiation in Dublin, Ireland, for a fortnight in the second half of May. It is expected to substantively complete its work there.

The fear among some in CCW is that any work it has produced may only be in rudimentary form by then. Although the mantra is that the CCW's efforts and the Oslo Process are complementary and mutually reinforcing (hark, 'tis the UN's position), there is nevertheless some uncertainty about how the two processes will play into each other. Indeed, some of the states who are major users and producers of cluster munitions still trot out the by-now tired line that only the CCW has all of the big users and producers on board; that is, it the only credible process. That's frankly hard to believe that when 138 countries were present in Vienna, including a majority of cluster munition stockpilers and users, and sounds just a bit too defensive.

This week has already seen two lengthy presentations by the United States on why it believes cluster munitions have military utility, as well as on the "joint-targeting process" it uses. These talks were valuable for understanding more about the US position - but were views many had been hoping the U.S. would share well before now, at last April's meeting of experts in Montreux, a gathering facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The United Kingdom and Germany were also active in putting forward proposals or reiterating previous ones. But it is a curious atmosphere. There have been several lengthy silences as interventions have run out. After some metaphorical throat-clearing, one of China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK or US has usually raised the name plate and kept talks going.

Consequently, there has been much repetition. However, military expert discussions on definitions yesterday led to the establishment of an informal drafting group on definitions, which met today and will report back on its consultations tomorrow afternoon. In an insouciant masterstroke yesterday afternoon, the Danish chair proposed that Russia - one of the most reluctant countries present about agreeing any specific restrictions on cluster munitions - preside over those consultations, since it had suggested them. Russia agreed. And, by various accounts, these discussions made some progress this morning.

Nevertheless, the difference of emphasis between the Oslo Process and the CCW was underlined today in GGE discussions scheduled on "humanitarian aspects". There were interventions from a number of countries along the lines of "Protocol V will do fine, thank you very much" and the session finished early (after 90 minutes), in contrast with very detailed Oslo Process discussions in Vienna in December. So far, in other words, the military-humanitarian balance in the CCW appears to be in favour of military aspects, at least time-wise that is, this week.

John Borrie

Photo of installation in the Esplanade des Nations by author.


Anonymous said...

The bias in favor of the Oslo Process and against CCW reflected in this blog is counterproductive. The Oslo Process might suit the needs of many nations, however, a number of nations might find their national security interests better served by the CCW process. Proponents of one process should not criticize the other. Both processes are attempting to address important issues. Neither humanitarian concerns nor military needs should be ignored or minimized. We are likely end up with two cluster munitions treaties, which is not an undesirable outcome -- one solution might not meet everyone's needs. Let's hope that together the two treaties result in a reasonable compromise and an effective solution.