Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 28 February 2008

Explaining Civil Society Schizophrenia

Tuesday's post on 'civil society schizophrenia' seems to have struck a chord. Apart from some insightful comments, which you can read, I've also received a number of emails from NGOs telling me that they are as puzzled as I am at the different levels of formal integration of civil society into multilateral processes of disarmament and arms control; from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.

Some have suggested interesting explanations for this phenomenon. For example, Piers suggests that, although the diplomats dealing with all of these issues may generally be the same people, perhaps the NGOs are not. In other words, might not different levels of acceptability (to governments) of issue-specific NGOs explain the different levels of formal civil society integration across these issue-areas? Daniel Feakes points out, however, that the same NGOs that deal with biological weapons issues also tend to deal with chemical weapons issues but that the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is decidedly more restrictive than the Biological Weapons Convention when it comes to granting formal roles to civil society.

An anonymous commentator on Tuesday's post suggested that NGOs are largely excluded from the NPT process because States with nuclear weapons consider them indispensable to their national security. While I would agree with this point as it relates to the NPT, this line of reasoning does not explain why civil society is largely excluded from the CWC process. States Parties to the CWC have renounced chemical weapons and yet NGOs still find it hard to gain access. Daniel Feakes did me the great service of suggesting where the CWC should appear in my Spectrum of Civil Society Integration, on which I now bestow the official acronym 'SCSI' (pronounced 'skuzzy'). The SCSI now looks like this (you should imagine these items stretched out on a single-line scale from left to right. As one moves along the scale from left to right, the level of formal integration of civil society increases):

Conference on Disarmament (CD) -- Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) -- Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) -- UN Programme of Action on the Illict Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) -- Convention on Certain Convention Weapons (CCW) -- Oslo Process on cluster munitions -- Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (Ottawa Convention)

Now that we have diagnosed civil society schizophrenia as a pandemic afflicting multilateral disarmament diplomats, how can we explain it? I do not think that one simple explanation will do justice to this phenomenon. Instead, I would propose the following set of four tentative explanations that, taken together, might give us a better understanding of what we are dealing with:

WMD vs. Conventional Weapons: A first-cut explanation derives from the blatantly obvious observation that weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are located at the left of the scale while conventional weapons are on the right. The Conference on Disarmament deals with non-WMD issues as well, of course, but three of its four current priorities are WMD-related - banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, assuring non-nuclear weapon States that they will not be threatened or attacked with nuclear weapons, and nuclear disarmament. It is surely not a coincidence that the CD, NPT, CWC and BWC all appear next to one other on the left of the scale. Could it be that States 'trust' or see a role for civil society when it comes to conventional weapons issues, but not when it comes to WMD?

Potential vs. Actual Humanitarian Impact: The scale separates out, on the left, WMD with catastrophic potential humanitarian impacts from, on the right, conventional weapons with huge actual (and demonstrable) humanitarian impacts. We should of course never forget that nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have all been used in the past with devastating consequences. Chemical and biological weapons are banned, however, and nuclear weapons have not been used against humans since 1945. Guns, cluster munitions and mines, on the other hand, claim hundreds of thousands of human lives every year. They also maim, impoverish and condemn whole communities and regions to perpetual underdevelopment. Could it be that the more immediate and visible is the humanitarian impact of a weapons system, the easier it is for NGOs to integrate themselves into formal multilateral processes?

Old vs. New: It is interesting to note that, generally speaking, as one moves along the scale from left to right, the issues (or institutions) tend to become newer. The Conference on Disarmament can trace its origins back to the Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament of the late 1950s. On the opposite end of the scale, negotiations on the Ottawa Convention were completed in 1997. The time scale does not hold for all issues - e.g. the CWC post-dates the BWC by two decades and the CCW is older than the PoA - but a general trend is recognisable. Could it be that the more recently a multilateral process on disarmament and arms control is institutionalised, the more likely it is for civil society to be well integrated?

Geneva vs. the Hague (vs. New York): In his comment on Tuesday's post, Daniel Feakes attributed the difference between civil society integration in the BWC and the CWC to "cultural" differences between Geneva and the Hague. He pointed out that, "in Geneva, despite the restrictiveness of the CD, diplomats are fairly used to interacting with NGOs and with NGOs being around in the Palais [UN building]. In The Hague, most diplomats are bilateralists rather than multilateralists and seem to be less used to having NGOs around." This, in my view, is a very important point. There are also cultural differences between Geneva and New York when it comes to the way in which multilateral disarmament processes are conducted (see our earlier posting on "Is there a Geneva / New York Divide?). Could it be that the place in which a multilateral disarmament process is created and maintained can influence the degree of integration of civil society?

This is just a first attempt to explain why we observe different levels of formal civil society integration across different issue-areas of multilateral disarmament and arms control. None of the above tentative explanations is satisfactory on its own but, taken together, they begin to make sense (at least to me).

Please do let me know, by using the comments function at the bottom of this post, if you can discern any other patterns from the SCSI tealeaves. With your help, we'll crack this one yet.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: 'Schizophrenia' by LILLAjija on Flickr.


Richard said...

This is a very interesting discussion and I think it is worth further examination.

The variation in NGO activity between the "WMD" regimes is the subject of a paper I presented at an NGO Event held at the OPCW last November (the paper can be found at http://www.cbw-events.org.uk/2007-1119_CBWE_NGO_Paper.pdf).

My feeling is that the main reason the CWC is more restrictive in relation to NGO activities is very much accountable by geography. There is no civil society "infrastructure" in The Hague on the CWC issue. This makes it harder for NGO folk who visit the OPCW occasionally to keep track of what is going on.

However, the picture is not all gloomy. The OPCW Academic Forum and Industry & Protection Forum (both held in 2007) had very high attendance by NGOs/academics. Most of the rapporteurs for the events were NGOs/academics (including Daniel Feakes and myself). I delivered a lecture to OPCW delegates in January as the first in a series of NGO lunchtime lectures that are to be given every few months. Whenever I have been in The Hague for other reasons I have never found it difficult to get appointments with people in the OPCW -- whether officials or Hague-based delegates -- to have discussions. So, from where I stand, month by month access for NGOs is relatively good.

The access issue that troubles me most relates to deliberative processes. It is one thing to have full access and interaction with delegates and officials in the Academic Forum, for example, where ideas can be floated but nothing is decided; but it is another to have limited access to the gatherings where decisions are actually taken. In this regard, the NGO access is fairly similar between the CWC and BWC -- most sessions of the meetings are held behind closed doors. The ability of the NGOs at the BWC to address the meetings in a session earmarked for the purpose is useful, but, in my view, is not as productive as the ability to hold lunchtime events for the delegates. Lunchtime events are much harder to do in The Hague and this April there is no chance to address the Review Conference itself, although there will be an NGO forum on the Wednesday afternoon of the first week, which is currently under negotiation for the final arrangements.

Kathryn McLaughlin said...

I similarly find this is a very interesting discussion, and have been pondering this very question having read John Borrie's recent blogs on the cluster munitions conferences. Whilst having no explanation beyond those already suggested, I feel it important to note that in the BW field, there is a real danger of decreased NGO participation due to the lack of funding. The self-professed "Big Hairy NGO" Sunshine Project shut up shop last month having failed to secure funding, and other NGOs such as BASIC have had to close their BW research programmes. So - despite the fact that the BWC process can be deemed to be fairly NGO-friendly and improving, we are in fact seeing a downturn in NGO activity.