Disarmament Insight


Monday, 18 February 2008

Cluster munitions: the Wellington Conference begins

Today, the Wellington Conference on addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions commenced - the last milestone on the way to negotiations on a treaty in Dublin in May as the culmination of the so-called Oslo Process we've followed over the last year on this blog.

Many delegates arrived this morning at the Wellington Town Hall jet-lagged but wired awake with coffee, having arrived from all over the world over the weekend. They were eased into their first of five days of work with a traditional Maori welcome called a Powhiri by a group representing the local Te Atiawa tribe. (The Te Atiawa, lacking a Maori word for cluster munition, simply decided to refer to the weapon as "taniwha", their word for monster.)

Wellington represents a crucial stage in the Oslo Process. Over the last year a 'core group' of countries (Austria, the Holy See, Mexico, Ireland New Zealand, Norway and Peru) has managed the process of developing a discussion text, which has become a "Draft Cluster Munitions Convention". That document is the focus of this week's talks, and at the end of the meeting states will be asked to associate themselves with the "Wellington Declaration", which a government must do if it wants to be admitted to formal negotiations in Ireland in the second half of May.

It all sounds straightforward enough. But there are some obstacles to be navigated. How cluster munitions and explosive submunitions that "cause unacceptable harm to civilians" (and which will be banned) are to be defined has yet to be finalized. Sorting out understandings on military interoperability between prospective states parties to a cluster munition treaty and alliance partners not party is a concern for many. And a number of European states, in particular, vented their unhappiness that, while the Oslo Process has moved gratifyingly quickly, they feel it has not been as open and transparent as they would like. It is thinly veiled criticism that they don't feel enough of their proposals have not been taken on-board.

Much of this come out during this afternoon's first substantive session, discussing Article 1 of the draft text on general obligations and scope of application of the eventual treaty's prohibitions. A number of proposals emerged, including to link Article 1 more closely with Article 2 which is where the definition will reside (Switzerland), and various papers including non-papers from Japan (proposing extensive textual modifications) and Australia focusing on the interoperability issue and co-sponsored by Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK. The latter non-paper raises a number of useful issues by offering case studies, although few ideas were put forward on the floor today about how these concerns will be translated into practical solutions.

But it is early days yet. The core-group are following the approach they used in Vienna, which is to allow a full airing of each sequential article. For them, this is a bit like going to the dentist: not much fun to sit through, but necessary all the same. Tomorrow these discussions continue, with attention moving to Article 2 on definitions, which promises similar fireworks.

Foreshadowing this, New Zealand Minister for Disarmament Phil Goff, said in his address to the conference at its opening ceremony:

"We are getting to the hard end of the Oslo Process. The conference this week represents a crucial stepping stone to our final objective. As we get closer to concluding a new convention, we will need to work hard to reach agreement on some key issues. I urge you to work in the spirit of constructive engagement towards the result all of us desire – a strong and effective treaty with wide support.

I would encourage states to remain open-minded on solutions and possible outcomes. We should all endeavour to build on common ground and find ways to bridge the areas of difference."
I'll keep you posted in coming days as discussion continues. Most documents I mentioned have already appeared on the New Zealand Government's Wellington Conference website.

John Borrie

Photo by author.