Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Dublin: A spirit of compromise

Having observed the Dublin Diplomatic Conference on cluster munitions from a distance during its first week, I finally arrived in Dublin over the weekend and observed its sixth full day of negotiations on Monday (a new convention prohibiting cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians is due to be adopted this Friday).

As John Borrie’s posts below illustrate, during last week, negotiators made remarkable progress on some complex but less controversial issues on the table – including, notably, the issue of assisting victims of cluster sub-munition explosions, the draft article which is being hailed here as setting a new international standard in this area. Delegations also used last week, however, to stake out quite divergent positions on some of the more contentious issues that remain to be resolved here this week. These include (1) the definition of a cluster munition (that which is to be prohibited), (2) joint military operations and other forms of cooperation with States not party to the new Convention (the so-called “interoperability” issue), and (3) a transition-period after entry into force of the Convention during which States would still be allowed to stockpile and use cluster munitions.

Whereas States used last week to stake out their initial negotiating positions on these issues in fairly unequivocal terms, the tone of the debate on Monday was quite different, with many delegations indicating a willingness to compromise on issues on which, up to now, they had taken a relatively hard line. Complaints are still being voiced in private that not enough compromises are forthcoming from the ‘other side,’ but Monday’s debate in the Committee of the Whole gave a strong indication that States participating in the Dublin conference want a Convention by Friday and that they are willing to enter into the deals and compromises that will make this possible.

This will be no easy task given the deadlines faced by the conference. Although the new Convention must be ready for adoption by lunchtime Friday, in order to have enough time to translate and prepare the convention text, the final English version must be completed on Wednesday. Let’s take a brief look then, at how things are shaping up on the three issues mentioned above.

Joint military operations / Interoperability:
The textual proposal on interoperability prepared by Switzerland (as Friend of the President) foresees a new article and would leave article 1, which contains the convention’s prohibitions, unchanged. The new article would allow States party to the Convention to “host” States not party to it, meaning that the former would be allowed maintain bases, possibly containing cluster munitions, on the latter’s territory. It would also allow a State party to the Convention to engage in joint military operations with States not party to the Convention that uses cluster munitions “so long as a potential use [of cluster munitions] in a specific operation… is out of the effective control of the State party.”

Reactions to the proposal Monday divided into two camps; those delegations that saw no place in the Convention for such a provision and those that thought more work was needed on the proposal. Switzerland convened a further side-meeting on interoperability late Monday afternoon to work further on this.

Definition of a cluster munition:
New Zealand is taking the lead as Friend of the President on definitions. The proposed article 2 contains a straightforward enough definition of what a cluster muntion is, followed by a number of exclusions specifying what they are not. The first two sets of exclusions had so far been relatively uncontroversial since they cover such things as munitions that disperse flares, smoke, etc. or that produce electrical or electronic effects. The recent inclusion in the text, at the request of the UK, of an explicit exclusion for “air defence systems,” however, caused some confusion among other delegations Monday, despite assurances from the UK that such systems would be covered by the cumulative criteria contained in article 2 (c). A number of delegations pointed out that, if air defence systems were indeed covered by another part of article 2, then there was no need to mention them specifically.

“2 (c) or not 2 (c), that is the question” was how Sweden aptly characterised the crux of the debate on definitions. Article 2 (c) currently contains a set of 4 criteria, all of which would have to be met for a weapon to escape being defined as a cluster munition and, therefore, prohibited. These are (a) that the munition contain fewer than 10 sub-munitions, (b) that it can locate and engage a point target (i.e. sensor-fuzed sub-munitions), (c) that sub-munitions have an electronic self-destruct mechanism and (d) that sub-munitions have an electronic self-deactivating feature.

There is a formal proposal on the table to delete article 2 (c) from the draft Convention text but even among those States that have proposed this there is now a new spirit of flexibility that could envisage 2 (c) remaining as long as the so-called cumulative criteria are as tight as possible. Lebanon, one of the States that proposed deleting 2 (c), on Monday showed flexibility and a possible path to a compromise solution by proposing that a requirement to review, report on an evaluate the sufficiency of article 2 (c) be built into the Convention, an idea explicitly supported by Canada and Austria.

There were renewed expressions of support for including the weight of sub-munitions among the cumulative criteria. This proposal was introduced by Norway last week but did not make it into the current proposal by the Friend of the President. The proposal is to categorically prohibit all sub-munitions that weigh under 5 kg and to prohibit all sub-munitions that weigh between 5 and 20 kg if they are not sensor-fuzed and contain self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms. Sub-munitions that weigh over 20 kg would be allowed. Norway circulated an explanatory note on Monday that pointed out that this weight criteria would prohibit up to 99 percent of cluster munitions currently stockpiled and 100 percent of existing cluster munitions that have ever been used in war.

Transition Period:
Germany reported back on Monday on consultations it had been holding, at the request of the President, on the question of a transition period during which it would be possible for States party to the Convention to continue using cluster munitions. There is still a great deal of opposition to this idea and Germany did not have any breakthroughs to report from its discussions with other delegations. The conference President announced that he would now hold consultations on this issue.

This is just a taste of some of the main issues discussed on Monday during what was an intense set of discussions in the Committee of the Whole. Other important developments included the forwarding of two more articles to the plenary session that will take place later in the week – article 3 on storage and stockpile destruction and article 8 on facilitation and clarification of compliance - and side negotiations, led by Australia, to finalise the preamble.

Work is proceeding well and the atmosphere in the conference seems very constructive. Delegates are acutely aware, however, of the time pressures that they are now under, made even more pressing by the frequent reminders of the conference President, Ambassador Daithi O’Ceallaigh, that “there will be a Convention by Friday.”

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo: US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), left, speaking to a CMC briefing for delegates and media Monday on "The US and Cluster Munitions." The United States is not participating in the Dublin negotiations on cluster munitions. On the right is Lord Alfred Dubs of the UK. Photo by the author.