Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Civil Society Schizophrenia

Reading John Borrie's daily postings from last week's Wellington conference on cluster munitions (see below), I was reminded of something that I have been mulling over in my mind for some time now but have not yet had the chance to examine properly. I am referring to a highly specific professional disorder that seems only to afflict disarmament diplomats. It's called 'civil society schizophrenia.'

Last week in Wellington, 122 States slogged it out with each other and with the now formidable Cluster Munitions Coalition of NGOs to agree a draft text that will serve as the basis for negotiations on a new Cluster Munitions Convention. NGOs were present in Wellington's Town Hall for the entire duration of the conference. They intervened at will in the discussions and openly criticized certain States for attempting to weaken the Wellington text. NGOs provided valuable inputs to the debates based on sound research, interpretation of evidence and testimony of victims. In short, civil society was an integral, dynamic and vital element of the Wellington conference that influenced the outcome of the meeting.

Compare this with what happens in the Conference on Disarmament, another negotiating forum that features regularly on this blog. One NGO - the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom - has one opportunity each year to address the Conference; on March 8, International Women's Day. But they may not do so themselves. They must pass their statement, drafted by a separate conference of women's NGOs from around the world, to an official of the Conference, invariably a man, to read out while they observe in frustration from the public gallery. This dismal situation has at least created some comic relief in the past, such as the occasion a few years ago when the (male) Deputy Secretary-General of the Conference began reading the statement with the ringing words, "We, the women of the world..."

The thing that really puzzles me, however, is that the diplomats who engaged, argued and strategised with NGOs at last week's Wellington Conference on cluster munitions and those who routinely acquiesce to the Conference on Disarmament's almost reflexive exclusion of civil society are, for the most part, the same people. How can this be? Is there some special module in training courses for disarmament diplomats that help them to deal with the cognitive dissonance that this must create? Or, does it actually help a disarmament diplomat's career to be a just a little bit schizophrenic?

The two examples I cite - the Oslo Process on cluster munitions and the Conference on Disarmament - lie at opposite ends of a spectrum that measures the extent of formal civil society integration into multilateral disarmament processes. In between are a number of other processes that complicate even further any desire that a disarmament diplomat might have for consistency with regard to engagement with civil society. Moving from the most restrictive to the most open to formal NGO inputs, I would suggest the following ranking:

(1) The Conference on Disarmament, (2) the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, (3) the Biological Weapons Convention, (4) the UN Programme of Action on the Illict Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, (5) the Convention on Certain Convention Weapons, (6), the Oslo Process on cluster munitions and (7) the gold standard of civil society integration; the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Convention).

I feel unqualified to place the Chemical Weapons Convention in this ranking since, as an exclusively Hague-based process, I have no direct experience of it (perhaps readers can enlighten me?). It also remains to be seen where negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty, when they begin, might fit into this scheme (although, based purely on the impressive role civil society, in the form of the Control Arms campaign, has played to date, it should score quite high).

Any such ranking cannot be set in stone, however. As an illustration of this, recent experiments with enhanced NGO and industry integration into the Biological Weapons Convention process could, if they are continued, eventually lead the BWC to overtake the UN small arms process, which seems unable to move beyond a rudimentary openness to NGOs despite the vast amounts of research, field work and policy advice being churned out by civil society on this issue.

Also, to their credit, a number of States in the Conference on Disarmament do regularly complain about the exclusion of NGOs from their work. As a direct result of this, the CD decided recently to devote one half-day session per year to NGOs; but only after the Conference has been able to reach agreement on a programme of work, something that has eluded it now for more than ten years. This concession, hard-fought though it was, hardly moves the CD out of its pole position in my ranking.

It is a mystery to me how the Conference on Disarmament and the Oslo Process on cluster munitions can exist in the same universe. It baffles me even more that they can be populated by the same diplomats. Remaining unfazed in the face of such inconsistency regarding civil society integration takes special skill. Or a split personality.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: 'Schizophrenia_01' by dogsivu on Flickr.


Piers said...

Although Patrick points out here that the disarmament diplomats remain largely the same across the different processes, does the same hold true for the NGOs? Are they more controversial or confrontational in certain forums than in others? Would this help to explain these apparent inequities?

In the BWC, which is where most of my experience lies, I know that for several years the NGO contributions have almost exclusively been seen as constructive. There has been very little said to put States on a defensive. Could this explain why this treaty seems to be becoming more open to their involvement?

But is this a good thing? Shouldn't one of the roles that civil society contributes to these processes be holding States accountable for the bad as well as the good? Are these organisations not best placed to push States as far as they can be pushed? I know several NGOs that do not consider that they are doing their job if they are not making States uncomfortable. This, surely, is not a recipe to get invited to participate in more numerous and more influential ways.

Daniel Feakes said...

Hi Patrick,

Nice post. This is something I've ben thinking about too, particularly as regards the CWC and BWC. On your ranking of civil society access I would definitely have the CWC as more restrictive than the BWC. I don't know much about the NPT, but I would either put the CWC between the CD and NPT, or between the NPT and BWC.

It is odd that there are differences between the BWC and CWC because often the same diplomats are involved in both, but I have put it down to "cultural" differences between Geneva and The Hague. In Geneva, dspite the restrictiveness of the CD, diplomats are fairly used to interacting with NGOs and with NGOs being around in the Palais. In The Hague, most diplomats are bilateralists rather than multilateralists and seem to be less used to having NGOs around. There is also a much smaller NGO community in The Hague and less supportive infrastructure. Perhaps things will chance with the ICC now in The Hague.

The OPCW itself is not especially NGO-friendly and you have the odd situation of the same delegations in The Hague opposing NGO access, that get along with it just fine in Geneva.

On Piers' point about different NGOs; in the BWC and CWC it is largely the same NGOs involved, doing the same kind of work in both areas. So I don't think that explains why the CWC is more restrictive than the BWC.

Let's see what happens at the 2nd CWC Review Conference which starts on 7 April. Perhaps some of the advances we've seen on NGO input into the BWC over the past few years might rub off then?

Anonymous said...

It might not just be so much civil society schizophrenia as nuclear schizophrenia.

Whenever there is nuclear weapons discussions going on, the doors are closed. Decisions about nuclear weapons has often been made in secrecy with little involvement from the public.

Civil society is often pushed aside once national security issues are discussed, and is left with issues such as cluster munitions and small arms.

The CD has been left alone for far too long. RCW's CD reports and a couple of posts on this blog is simply not enough. Civil society should focus less on the stalemate in the CD and more on the actually issues. Maybe when the issues get more attention, some states will "do a Norway" and launch freestanding negotiations.