Disarmament Insight


Friday, 11 April 2008

Cautious steps around cluster bombs

Today the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)'s group of governmental experts wrapped up its second session of work for 2008. Scheduled as the only major multilateral meeting on cluster munitions between the Wellington Conference and culminating negotiations of the Oslo Process on a cluster munition treaty in Dublin in May, this week's CCW shindig was, in effect, also an informal on-the-margins Dublin preparatory meeting. So it's worth briefly taking stock of where things are on international efforts to address the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions.

Readers may be aware that last November the CCW managed to agree on a mandate to "negotiate a proposal" on cluster munitions with several weeks of work in 2008 to elaborate exactly what this would entail. It's fair to say that the CCW achieved its mandate because of the momentum the Oslo Process was generating outside it (see previous posts to see how this unfolded). The irony of this is not lost on those involved in both processes - Oslo emerged from frustration about lack of momentum in the CCW. Now the two are working in parallel, but to see them as being in competition would be to fail to capture their rather complicated relationship (more about that another time).

In January, the CCW expert group began efforts on a 'draft working definition' of cluster munitions under its chair, Ambassador Bent Wigotski of Denmark, with assistance from Major-General Lars Fynbo. The 'draft working definition' ended up as a heavily square-bracketed annex in the January meeting's procedural report. Despite the 40 square-brackets indicating considerable divergence of views, and even though no one was sure what the definition would be for, this was hailed in the CCW as promising progress.

At the CCW's second expert meeting this week, these differences were still apparent. The positions of major users and producers of cluster munitions, as we've noted previously on this blog, have become more nuanced over the last year - but they don't seem to have changed. Russia is resistant to any agreement that would do more than clarify existing international humanitarian law (IHL) rules of relevance to cluster munitions. China's interventions are sparse and, while softer in tone, indicate a similar approach. The U.S., which is currently reviewing its cluster munition policy internally, is reluctant to engage on many issues until the July CCW session, although it said today it was pleased with discussions on IHL and assistance and cooperation this week. Brazil, India, Israel, Japan, Pakistan and South Korea are all very cautious.

Consequently, the Chair scheduled little time to develop the draft working definition at this meeting, and when definitions did come up it was mainly for various delegations to say the subject should be put off for later. And although there were talks about various potential elements of a "negotiating proposal" such as transfer restrictions, relevant IHL provisions, victim assistance (under Oslo Process core-group country Austria's direction) and types of cluster munitions that cause humanitarian harm, many sessions finished early as those states present literally ran out of things to say. Nevertheless, Japan's consultations as friend of the chair on IHL elements and its written products led to expressions of concern from the ICRC and some states such as New Zealand and Switzerland that these might undermine existing IHL rules.

But that's not to say the week was without value. For one thing, it helped to prepare minds for the July session. I'm not hopeful CCW states will be able to agree on much then, but there is a glimmer of hope. And, with so many of those who will be participating in Dublin present at the CCW's session this week it also helped those preparations, as I mentioned above.

Moreover, this week was also an opportunity for various states, as well as the Cluster Munition Coalition (the civil society consortium helping to drive efforts for a ban on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm), to smooth over various ruffled feathers from what were sometimes bruising contacts at the Wellington Conference. And, from what they said in their interventions, most countries in the Oslo Process, including many among the so-called like-mindeds such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK, have a good deal in common in their approaches - even if final negotiations at Dublin still face real challenges.

There is of course also quite a bit of pre-Dublin positioning and posturing going on. But I also sense a willingness to engage, even on the two most contentious issues; how cluster munitions will finally be defined (and therefore which weapons are banned), closely followed by finding an acceptable solution for text on military interoperability. The latter is a particular headache: while a likely formula seems to be shaping up in the context of definitions, a proposal that looks like a winner on meeting all concerns about interoperability has been more elusive so far.

John Borrie

Photo of Tajik AO2.5 and ShOAB submunitions taken in August 2007, courtesy of Andy Smith.