Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 29 May 2008

Dublin: Done Deal

In our last post, we anticipated a long evening of negotiations Wednesday to reach agreement on the text, proposed by the President of the conference, of a new Convention prohibiting cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. In fact, it was all over by 8pm following a remarkable and moving show of support and accommodation by States participating in these negotiations.

The President of the Conference, Ambassador Daithi O'Ceallaigh of Ireland, introduced his text Wednesday morning and then immediately adjourned the meeting in order to give delegations a chance to study it and to give himself a chance to consolidate support for his text with regional groups and individual States. The meeting was scheduled to resume at 3pm, plenty of time to scan and detect subtle changes to the now familiar text and to debate theories of how the President would handle the crucial afternoon session.

Three o'clock came and went and anticipation mounted. Bilateral and group consultations dragged on until 4:30 at which time the Committee of the Whole re-convened. Ambassador O'Ceallaigh opened the session by reiterating points he had made in the morning - the text on the table struck a balance between the interests of all States participating in the negotiations and was, as such, a 'package deal'; it would prohibit all cluster munitions that have ever been used in war; and it met the objectives of the February 2007 Oslo Declaration that had launched the negotiation process.

And then, the clincher, he said that the Presidency text "was not open to amendment as such."

With that, he opened the floor to delegations. The first to raise their flag was Zambia, speaking on behalf of the African Group, which has played a pivotal role in the Oslo Process. Zambia's intervention was measured and masterly and set the tone for all that followed - African States were unhappy with some parts of the President's text but, in the spirit of compromise, they could endorse it, as is, as a package deal. If, however, Zambia warned, any delegation tried to re-open any part of the text, African States reserved the right to do the same.

The tone thus set and the message clearly sent, there followed interventions by about two-thirds of the States present, not one of which proposed amending the President's text. The tone of individual interventions varied from those expressing unequivocal willingness to adopt the text as it stood, to those that simply said they would forward the text to their Capital for consideration. That work will be done on Thursday and delegations will be expected to formally adopt the new Convention on Friday morning. Most, if not all states that spoke, mentioned that the President's text was not ideal but that the outcome represented a delicate balance and a compromise they could live with. Some pointed to the possibility of amending the text in the future and expressed their hope that, in time, the Convention could be further strengthened.

It was an uplifting experience to sit in the conference room as a wave of support for the President's text broke over it. A number of States were also clearly moved by the experience and made inspiring interventions, pointing in particular to the scope of the Convention's prohibitions, the absence of a transition period and of the possibility to make reservations, and to its groundbreaking provisions on victim assistance, which set a new standard in international humanitarian law.

Switzerland pointed out that, "from now on, cluster munitions are stigmatised." Austria equated the Convention to a child, "not perfect in every way, not beautiful perhaps, but we are proud of it." Norway described it as a "breakthrough." Italy said that the negotiations had been "fair and honest." The UK stated that the Convention would "make a real change to the conduct of war and to the lives of civilians" and informed the conference that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had issued instructions for the UK's two cluster munition systems to be withdrawn from service.

Jamaica said that the negotiated package was "steeped in good faith." Belgium said that the Convention "clearly combines prevention with cure" and that it was a "fair yet ambitious compromise." Germany said that it was "not happy" with the Presidency text but that it was "the best possible compromise" and "an important milestone for international humanitarian law." Iceland, in a statement much appreciated by lawyers in the room, made reference to the rules of international law - including international humanitarian law, treaty law and the law of State responsibility - that will guide the implementation of the Convention. Lao PDR said that the Convention would help to "heal open wounds" caused by past use of cluster munitions.

An intervention by the ICRC pointed out that explosive bomblets released from dispensers on aircraft, while prohibited under article 1, are not explicitly covered by some other articles of the convention and called on States, when adopting the Convention, to include in their Statements their understanding that explosive bomblets were, indeed, fully covered by the Convention.

The CMC underlined the achievement that this convention represents, but also invited States to make clear that non-State parties would not be allowed to stockpile cluster munitions on State parties' territory in perpetuity and that they would not allow intentional assistance with prohibited activities. Article 21 on interoperability it described as a "stain in the fine fabric of the text."

Today (Thursday), a much more informal atmosphere reigns in the Croke Park conference centre. Most delegates would seem to be out enjoying what is a nice spring day in Dublin while the translators and lawyers whip the final texts, in all official UN languages, into shape. In the CMC wing of the conference centre, demontage is already well underway. Only the final set-piece is left to play - formal adoption on Friday morning.

Patrick Mc Carthy & Maya Brehm

Photo by Patrick Mc Carthy.