Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Dublin: the bunfight begins

As Patrick Mc Carthy observed in the preceding post on this blog, the Dublin Conference on cluster munitions commenced yesterday. I'm here in Dublin at the Conference throughout its duration, and a lot is going on - hence this post at midnight, and it's only the second day.

Conference proceedings got off to a smooth start on Monday morning. Consistent with Ireland's emphasis on getting down to work as soon as possible on negotiating a treaty to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, the opening high-level segment was mercifully short. The Irish Foreign Minister, Micheál Martin, spoke. There was a video message from the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Also addressing the Conference was Ad Melkert, Associate Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), who emphasized the devastating impact of cluster munitions on development and humanitarian action. And President Jakob Kellenberger gave a hard-hitting statement on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as did cluster munition survivor and Cluster Munition Coalition representative Branislav Kapetanovic.

Irish Disarmament Ambassador Dáithí O'Ceallaigh was elected as president, as expected, and the agenda was adopted. So far so good. There had been uncertainty in the lead up to the Conference about whether its rules of procedure would be agreed without challenge - it's understood that a few (mainly European) countries had been apprehensive about the level of civil society participation in Conference talks, and they had of course probed hard in Wellington in the hope that their national proposals would be put on a par with the draft Convention text. Nevertheless, these rules were agreed without comment.

President O'Ceallaigh lost no time in setting out how he intended to proceed in leading the throng of 700 or so delegates - including from 109 or so participating states and around 19 observer states, as well as many civil society representatives - to culmination of a treaty text by 28 May. (In principle, at least, there will then be a couple of days for the treaty text to be prepared before final agreement on 30 May.)

General statements, which the President discouraged, could take place in the plenary, which would run until the speakers' list exhausted, O'Ceallaigh said. Few would be there to listen however, because from lunchtime on the first day the Committee of the Whole would begin meeting one floor below at the cavernous Croke Park facility.

O'Ceallaigh duly began taking those present in the CoW through the draft treaty text from Article 1 from 3 o'clock on Monday, spinning off trickier issues to Friends of the President as he did so. Meanwhile, most unusually (and most welcome) for a diplomatic conference of this size, the plenary wound up its speakers' list by the middle of Monday afternoon.

The two biggest challenges for these negotiations are defining what cluster munitions (which will be banned) are for the purposes of the treaty, and satisfying concerns about interoperability for states involved in the future in joint military operations. There are a host of other issues, of course, but these are the biggies. O'Ceallaigh was very clear in his opening remarks on Monday that he would make every effort to bring the Conference to a consensus on a treaty, and avoid voting. At the same time, he was very firm: there would be a treaty come Friday 30 May, he said.

With the plenary having adjourned its meeting, today the Committee of the Whole ran in parallel with informal consultations on interoperability (facilitated by Switzerland) and then definitions (New Zealand) from early this morning.

There was (to me at least) what seemed to be a significant breakthrough in these informals on the interoperability issue, which a number of (mainly Western) states have maintained over at least the last six months is a potential deal-breaker for them. There is general agreement that Article 1(c) of the draft Convention text, which is based on the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, is not enough. Even New Zealand and Norway - two Oslo core-group countries - said so today. Moreover, there was widespread support for a separate article, to clarify and reconcile potentially conflicting obligations in Article 1 (general obligations and scope of application) and 9 (national implementation measures) of the cluster munition treaty.

The Oslo Process, and the Swiss in particular, are certainly not out of the woods and onto the meadow yet. But the interoperability challenge has now been re-framed from a question of whether there needs to be specific provision to have a common understanding on interoperability in the treaty, to how it will be drafted. The Swiss are continuing their work on this text in private consultations for the time being.

If the Swiss are expecting a tough time in developing a textual formula on interoperability in the next couple of days, Ambassador Don Mackay of New Zealand made it clear that he intends to spread the pain around in his informal consultations on definitions. These talks began at 10h30, and the Friend of the President informed delegations that informals would continue all day and every evening if necessary - starting today - until something emerged he could take back to the President. He was true to his word: today's proceedings finished at 20h30.

Time is a big constraint here: there is still considerable work to do to consensus-build around a workable formula for what will be exempted from the definition of a cluster munition. There are more than a dozen textual proposals for amendment of Article 2 on the table, some dating from Wellington, and many of them are competing approaches. And discussions on definitions over the course of the Oslo Process have become sprawling, and have tended to go around in circles.

Today was no exception, as useful returns diminished from late afternoon. Ambassador Mackay may sense that some of the more self-assured delegations need to wear each other down attritionally, and he and his team seem resigned to facilitating this - armed also with some probing questions for those delegations becoming repetitive or implausible. He and his team are probably right. At, indeed, at the end of the day many delegations across the political spectrum left feeling tired and irritable after working through Mackay's elements paper. However, some hard yards have been gained.

It's an important point to bear in mind that although there are tough negotiations ahead, it is only the end of day 2 of the Dublin Conference. The President and his Friends have already made surprising progress. Just as importantly, the psychological heat is already being turned up.

John Borrie


The Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon gave a televised address to the opening plenary of the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions in which he called on governments to create a "visionary" global treaty prohibiting cluster munitions, which he called "inherently inaccurate, particularly indiscriminate and unreliable." (19 May 08). Photo courtesy of Mary Wareham (Aotearoa NZ Cluster Munition Coalition Flickr photostream).

The Cluster Munition Coalition launched a new, improved website yesterday. Embedded in it is the UNSG's video address as a YouTube clip.

To find out more about what cluster munition survivors think about the Dublin negotiations, visit the Ban Advocates blog.

Plenary statements, official and national working papers from the Dublin Conference are available on its website.