At a pre-briefing meeting in Geneva on 8 May for the Dublin conference on cluster munitions, the President-Designate of the Conference, Ambassador Dáithí O’Ceallaigh of Ireland, said that the Conference would not be a disarmament conference but a humanitarian one with a humanitarian purpose.
Throughout the Dublin negotiations, a number of states echoed this view in their statements. And many States and civil society representatives said that the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was a milestone of humanitarian law (IHL) after the treaty text’s adoption and during the closing ceremony. A few States, such as Indonesia, also mentioned that the Convention contained important disarmament provisions.
What difference does it make, whether an instrument of public international law is described as a humanitarian or disarmament treaty?
Scholarly opinions diverge over how to categorise treaties like the CCM, which contain elements typically associated with both IHL and arms control/disarmament law. These categories can be seen as mere manifestations of functional specialization among diplomats and academic experts. But the significance of this is that special rules of interpretation and practices may have more or less relevance depending on how the problem at issue is described, reflecting the object and purpose of the respective regime (for more details, see the ILC’s Fragmentation of International Law Report: details at the foot of this post). Repeated affirmation that the CCM is an instrument of IHL therefore affects the future interpretation of its provisions.
Under general rules of international law, a treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to its terms in their context and in the light of its object and purpose. The CCM’s preamble clearly supports interpreting the treaty text in conformity with principles of IHL – and even human rights law. Future State practice in the application of the treaty will play an important role. But where practice leaves the meaning of a provision ambiguous or obscure – as may be the case of Article 21 on “interoperability” – recourse may be had to the preparatory work and the circumstances of the treaty’s conclusion (sometimes known as the 'diplomatic' or 'negotiating 'record). State’s emphasis on the CCM’s humanitarian objective will be a factor to take into consideration here.
The characterisation of the CCM as a humanitarian instrument also has a bearing on the consequences of a material breach of the treaty. Normally (and particularly for arms control agreements), such as situation would entitle all or some state parties to suspend or terminate the treaty. However, suspension or termination as a reaction to a violation of the CCM will not be allowed regarding “provisions relating to the protection of the human person contained in treaties of a humanitarian character” (cf. 60 (5) Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties).
Finally, international law recognises certain situations in which the non-performance of a state’s obligations may be justified and so – in legal parlance – not engage its responsibility. However, in IHL states are typically not allowed to invoke such “circumstances precluding wrongfulness”. With regard to the CCM, this is evidenced in the formulation of its Article 1, which obliges state parties “never under any circumstances” to engage in prohibited activities. In keeping with the humanitarian object and purpose of the CCM, states parties may not use cluster munitions either in self-defence or as a means of belligerent reprisal.
Designating treaties as humanitarian or disarmament ones may seem to be an academic exercise, but establishing and reaffirming their object and purpose through State practice does have a real effect on a treaty’s interpretation, and eventually its impact on peoples’ lives. And, stepping back from matters of legal understanding for a moment, it’s clear that - in political terms - the CCM outcome is both humanitarian and disarmament.
Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law, Report of the Study Group of the International Law Commission, Finalized by Martti Koskenniemi, (UN document A/CN.4/L.682, 13 April 2006, available online at: http://www.un.org/law/ilc/).
Photo credit: Kees de Vos, from Flickr.