Disarmament Insight


Thursday, 31 July 2008

Moving closer to an Arms Trade Treaty

Glen Cove Mansion, Long Island, NY, where the Geneva Forum held a high-level retreat on an Arms Trade Treaty last weekend (Photo by Mike Costolo on Flickr)

Imagine a legally-binding multilateral treaty that would regulate the global trade in all conventional arms. Under such a treaty, States would be obliged to take into account certain criteria before authorising arms exports. These criteria could include the importing State's respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, the overall security situation in the recipient State's region, and the risk of the exported arms being diverted or misused, for example.

Believe it or not, such a treaty does not yet exist. States do have a range of obligations under existing international law when it comes to the arms trade. These are contained, however, in a patchwork of disparate regulations at the global, regional and national levels, some of which are legally-binding, some not. This would not be so much of a problem if States consistently complied with the obligations they already have. The fact is, not all do, and so the irresponsible trade in conventional arms continues.

But an 'Arms Trade Treaty' (ATT) is in the works. The purpose of such a treaty would be to identify and clarify States' existing obligations under international law when it comes to the arms trade and to compile these into a single, legally-binding treaty text that would provide clear criteria for States to use when deciding whether or not to authorise an arms export.

The UN General Assembly identified the need for an ATT in 2006 with resolution 61/89. This resolution, supported by 153 States, put in motion a process for elaborating such a treaty. It solicited the views of all UN Member States on the feasibility, scope and parameters of an ATT. An unprecedented 98 States made their views known. The vast majority of these believe that an ATT is both needed and feasible (see the 2007 and 2008 UNIDIR reports analysing the views of States).

The resolution also established a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to continue examining the feasibility, scope and parameters of an ATT, informed by the views expressed by UN Member States. The GGE, comprising experts from 28 States from all regions of the world, met for two weeks during the first half of 2007. On July 28, the GGE began its final, two-week meeting, during which it should draft a report to this autumn's session of the UN General Assembly. It will then be up to the General Assembly to decide how best to proceed towards an ATT.

On 25-27 July - over the weekend before the GGE began its final session - the Geneva Forum convened an informal meeting at Glen Cove Mansion on Long Island, New York, (pictured above) to discuss the modalities of moving towards an effective Arms Trade Treaty. Twenty-one of the 28 States represented on the GGE participated, together with 13 other interested States and a number of experts from NGOs, international organisations and the arms industry.

The purpose of the meeting was to facilitate interaction between GGE members and a wider group of States, along with civil society and industry experts, and also to provide constructive input to the work of the third and final meeting of the GGE by providing an opportunity for wider stakeholders to air their views on areas of substance. The discussion that took place was both interesting and illuminating and provided a rare insight into the ambitions and concerns held by certain key States. I do not have space here to summarise the weekend's discussion but a brief (4 pages) report of the meeting is available online.

The meeting demonstrated two things very clearly. First, there is a very high level of support for an effective Arms Trade Treaty among States, civil society, international organisations and the arms industry. Second, there are currently some differences of opinion, particularly among States, on the scope of an ATT and on the parameters that should be used in its application if it is to be effective.

The outcome of the meeting also suggests two things; first, that the differences of opinion that do still exist are not insurmountable and, second, that there would seem to be a strong preference for an ATT with a broad scope and relevant, clear parameters that include, at a minimum, considerations related to the respect of UN Security Council arms embargoes, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

As the recent 3rd Biennial Meeting of States to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action on small arms and light weapons demonstrated, many States are losing patience with the low level of results being posted by multilateral disarmament and arms control processes (see our post "UN small arms process 'back on track'." A lot of time and resources have already been invested in moving the ATT process to the stage it is at today. Much more work remains to be done if negotiations are to be successfully initiated and concluded and if an ATT is to be put into practice in a timely and effective manner.

The eyes of the international community are on the GGE as it commences its final meeting. The international community expects from the GGE a full examination of the issues before it so that progress towards an effective ATT can be continued.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Missing a trick: expertise in mediation and negotiations

UNIDIR’s ‘Disarmament as Humanitarian Action’ project has examined how process in multilateral arms control negotiation matters. Arms control is but one area in which issues of human security are subject to complex negotiation. In my research field – analyzing the roles of international organizations in peacebuilding – I believe that, similarly, many international organizations pay insufficient attention to the institutional machinery and expertise required for managing negotiations to end high intensity conflict.

Laurie Nathan has presented a strong and eloquent argument for increasing institutional support for mediation in a concept paper called ‘Deficiencies in African Mediation’ prepared for the Organ Directorate of the South African Development Community (SADC) Secretariat. His argument rests on the premise that mediation is a specialist endeavour ‘not reducible to common sense or power-based diplomacy’ and that the quality of mediation matters; ‘depending on their proficiency, mediators can either heighten or reduce the prospect of a positive outcome’ [1].

Nathan noted that the evolution of mediation skills to facilitate dialogue and co-operative problem solving between individuals and groups has taken place primarily in domestic contexts, where in many cases it’s regarded as a professional discipline. Examples of relevant skills and techniques include: conflict analysis, shuttle diplomacy, designing and convening mediation processes, preparing agendas, conducting meetings, managing media relations, paraphrasing or re-framing positions, identifying common ground between the parties, and generating options for resolving deadlocks.

Recently, the Economist newspaper ran a double feature highlighting the increasingly important role of secular (such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (CHD)) and faith-based (such as the Sant’Egidio community) organisations in mediating intra-state conflict. In addition to the essential pre-requisite of impartiality, it noted the value of ‘discretion, secrecy and flexibility’ that such small organizations can bring, and also stressed the importance of their experience and specialist mediation skills. For example, the Economist suggested that the technical support of a back-up team of mediators from the CHD was critical to avoiding deadlock and maintaining momentum in recent post-election mediation between the ruling party and opposition in Kenya, led by Kofi Annan. It concluded that ‘the betting is now on Mr. Annan and his team trying to repeat their Kenya trick in beleaguered Zimbabwe’.

Chance would be a fine thing. After the (un)contested Zimbabwe election the African Union reiterated its support for SADC’s mediation effort led by President Thabo Mbeki. Yet, there are critical weaknesses in this mediation effort. The most obvious and well-documented is mediation bias. As Nathan has shown, there is abundant historical evidence that a mediator who displays bias ‘will lose the trust of the disfavoured parties, become less effective if not ineffectual as a result and complicate or even heighten the conflict’ [2]. Since 2005, Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party - the Movement for Democratic Change - has repeatedly objected to President Mbeki as a mediator because he was perceived to be biased. Unsurprisingly therefore the post-election ‘talks about talks’ focused on the issue of the mediator(s) with the MDC insisting on a permanent African Union (AU) envoy to join the talks alongside Mbeki. In the deal that enabled the current negotiations, Mbeki remains the main mediator, but is crucially assisted by a ‘reference group’ composed of AU head Jean Ping, the UN’s Zimbabwe envoy Haile Menkerios, and the SADC official George Chikoti.

Over and above the issue of finding mediator(s) that are acceptable to the parties, it is unclear as to whether the proposed reference group will be able to deliver the requisite specialist expertise. Both the AU and SADC lack institutional knowledge and specialist expertise to support mediation efforts. For example, in the case of the Darfur peace process in 2006, the head of the AU team, Ambassador Sam Ibok, recognized this handicap but couldn’t find suitably experienced mediators to join the process at short notice. This, Nathan said, contributed to

‘a deeply flawed approach of deadline diplomacy emanating from AU headquarters and the international funders and partners of the peace process. It inhibited effective mediation, produced a peace agreement that did not achieve peace, and sowed divisions that exacerbated the conflict’.
[This is a quote from 1. Argument elaborated in 3.]

Nathan has identified various categories of expertise required for supporting mediation processes. These include mediation, country, thematic, intelligence, communications and management and administrative expertise. Specialist expertise could be located within expert mediation units, while organizations might also consider decentralized ways to harness mediation talent through roster mechanisms and cooperation with specialist non-governmental groups.

Other international organizations and donor states are themselves not particularly well endowed with much of this expertise. (For example, although the UN has traditionally provided the forum for the resolution of international disputes, it has only recently invested in building up its mediation capacity. This followed recommendations from the 2004 High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which led to the establishment of a Mediation Support Unit and website in the Department of Political Affairs. Tellingly, the Panel stressed that in appointing envoys, mediators and special representatives, high-level competence should be placed above all other criteria.) This perhaps explains why mediation support has received little attention in on-going efforts to strengthen peace and security capacities of the AU and African regional organisations.

We’re missing a trick here. Building institutional expertise in mediation is arguably one of the most over-looked and cost-effective ways to promote the efficacy of international organizations in preventing and ending violence.

This is a guest blog by Catriona Gourlay. Catriona is a Marie Curie Fellow at UNIDIR, currently working on a project on EU-UN cooperation in peacebuilding.


1. Laurie Nathan, ‘Concept Paper: Deficiencies in African Mediation’, Prepared for the Organ Directorate of the SADC Secretariat, 13 December 2007.

2. Laurie Nathan, ‘Deficiencies of African Mediation’ and ‘A Case of Undue Pressure: International Mediation in African Civil Wars’, 1998.

3. Laurie Nathan, ‘No Ownership, No Peace: The Darfur Peace Agreement’ Working Paper, series 2, no. 5, Crisis States Research Centre, September 2006.

Picture downloaded from Flickr.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

CCW: Out of step and almost out of time?

Almost two months after the culmination of the Oslo Process in a ground-breaking new international Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Dublin, what does the traditional forum for regulating conventional weapon systems, the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), have to show? Is it indeed making progress toward an agreement by the end of 2008 that will also have a positive impact in reducing the risk of harm to civilians from cluster munitions? Or was the CCW's third (and longest) session of its Group of Experts this year instead a case, as someone in the Conference room put it, of "the treadmill is turning, but the hamster is dead"?

Those readers who've followed this blog's commentary on work in both the CCW and the Oslo Process on cluster munitions may recall that the CCW achieved a mandate in November 2007 to "negotiate a proposal to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations." It could be observed that the CCW was galvanized into action by the emergence of the Oslo Process and the way it snowballed.

Some major users and producers of cluster munitions shunned the Oslo Process. China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States (all CCW members) said the CCW was the appropriate place to negotiate on cluster munitions. Nobody would disagree, but it's indisputable that the Oslo Process emerged because of the CCW's failure to act. Yet in November 2007, as it by coincidence, the CCW achieved a mandate to work, although clearly less ambitious than the February 2007 Oslo Declaration, which called on states to "prohibit cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians."

Most countries in the Oslo Process echoed the UN Secretary-General's statement that the two processes on cluster munitions were "complementary" and "mutually-reinforcing". Many delegations worked in both, and some (especially the Europeans) argued that the CCW could deliver added value to any treaty agreed in Dublin by achieving CCW standards that would capture the big users and producers not in the Oslo Process, even if these benchmarks were lower. And, while the political stewardship of the CCW has been (in part because of its consensus practice) markedly imperfect, the CCW is an important international legal norm, and its protocols do have value and deserve universal support and adherence.

But now that the Dublin celebrations have subsided, there is a CCW a hang-over to deal with. Unlike most hang-overs, it's possible that with time this one will become worse and not better.

The basic problem for the CCW is that its members don't all agree on meaningful new international legal measures on cluster munitions. Russia has been the most vocal about its reluctance (it's more interested in 'best practice' of existing international humanitarian law (IHL) rules) but Russia isn't alone. No-one working in the CCW environment is under any illusion that anything can be achieved that's as ambitious as the CCM, but it's hoped that something is possible despite foot-dragging to date. Moreover, now 60 per cent or so of the CCW's membership have a new challenge: to ensure that whatever is developed in the CCW doesn't undermine what was agreed in Dublin.

And such a scenario is distinctly possible. In June, the Chair of the CCW this year, Ambassador Bent Wigotski of Denmark, circulated a working paper for "the sole purpose of providing a basis for further negotiations", adding that "It is based on proposals by the Friends of the Chair, as well as contributions put forward by delegations". Although containing gaps, Wigotski's paper was structured as a draft protocol.

The paper followed difficult discussions earlier this year in which concerns were raised, for instance, about selective use of IHL rules (and therefore scope for creative reinterpretation) in drafting proposals by one of Wigotski's Friends of the Chair. Although talks have continued this July, these concerns haven't subsided.

In addition, unease among some turned to consternation part-way through the three-week July CCW expert meeting when the Chair issued a "draft common approach paper" of possible elements to be included in a text as the basis for negotiations on several articles (2,3,4,5 and 6) of his earlier paper. This paper seemed to many to pander to a US Department of Defence policy on cluster munitions and unintended harm to civilians dated 19 June, widely regarded as very minimal, and which was castigated by the Cluster Munition Coalition.

Whatever the case, it was not great for trust in my view. The emergence of the paper appeared to polarise those in the conference chamber. And there are signs that CCM-supporting states (including not only the Oslo core group countries but Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the UK and other Europeans) are preparing to dig in, if necessary, against aspects of the Chair's papers despite the slightly strained and artificial outward bonhomie of this CCW meeting. It will be interesting in coming months to see what they make of his new edition of a text circulated at the very end of the expert meeting on its final day last Friday.

Historically in the CCW, the progressives have rolled-over in the face of disappointing agreements - perhaps figuring that some agreement is better than none at all, as in the case of Amended Protocol II in 1995-96. The situation is different now. There is already a robust standard, one agreed in Dublin and with high-level political support from CCW heavyweights among the NATO Europeans, among others. All bets are off that CCM supporters will allow themselves to be rolled for a lower standard in a CCW agreement that conflicts with or undermines the CCM.

If the Chair's approach, which focuses primarily on rules on use of cluster munitions, won't ultimately fly, is there any realistic alternative?

One option would be to go for a transfer ban, either in a legally-binding protocol or as a political declaration of CCW members. While not achieving any prohibitions or specific restrictions on cluster munition use, such an approach would at least acknowledge the reality that demand for cluster munitions internationally is going to diminish as the CCM takes hold. It could be a brief agreement - drafted in a paragraph - not an inconsiderable factor when the CCW experts have only a week in September of work time left and a few days in November to wrap things up. It wouldn't require any changes to military doctrine - always a complicating factor in negotiations for internal decision-making among the military powers. Most importantly, it would have a discernible humanitarian impact, ensuring that, as we've seen with other weapon systems, the oldest and least reliable stocks of cluster munitions disposed of from major military states don't end up proliferating (or being dumped on as 'military aid') to others and then being used.

Crucially, however, any such alternative path would have to be on the understanding that would only the first stage in further CCW work to ensure that, in coming years, other meaningful measures on cluster munitions are negotiated.

So the hamster's not dead, but that's no reason for complacency. Both the CCM and the CCW are too important.

John Borrie

Picture by author of the Philippe Schiller's landmine chair sculpture and Handicap International Suisse banner outside the Palais des Nations courtesy of Handicap International Suisse.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

UN Small Arms Process "Back on Track"

Emmanuel Jal raps about his experiences as a child soldier in Sudan in front of delegates to the 3rd Biennial Meeting of States to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (photo by the author).

UN Member States met in New York all last week to examine, as they do every two years, how the 2001 Programme of Action to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons is being implemented. A lot was at stake in this meeting. Guns are used to take the lives of about 300,000 people every year. They injure and disable about three times that number and commit millions more to living in perpetual poverty and fear. As some participating States pointed out, speaking from their own national experience, the uncontrolled proliferation and misuse of guns is a matter of life and death in many parts of the world.

I devoted two previous posts to previewing this meeting. The first - "the pros and cons of precedent" - outlined the difficulties that the UN small arms process has experienced since the Programme of Action was agreed in 2001, as well as plans that had been proposed to overcome these and to make this - the 3rd Biennial Meeting of States on the Programme of Action - the most effective one yet. The second post - "Testing the international community's resolve on small arms and light weapons" - reported on opposition that was beginning to be voiced by one or two States to the new, more focused approach being proposed by the Chair. It argued that:

The choice, at least, would seem to be a simple one: Give in to pressure from a small minority of States and revert to an approach that has twice proven less than effective. Or, go with what the vast majority of States wants - an effective, focused meeting that stands a much better chance of advancing international efforts to curb the illicit small arms trade and of sketching out a much-needed agenda for future action.

The meeting last week was indeed presented with this choice. But not, as I had predicted, at its beginning but at the very end, when Iran forced a vote on the outcome document. The document - substantive, detailed and forward-looking - passed with the overwhelming majority of 134 States in favour, none against and 2 abstentions (Iran and Zimbabwe). The Netherlands Ambassador proclaimed triumphantly - and to loud applause - at the close of the meeting, "The UN Programme of Action on small arms is back on track!"

This was a truly remarkable achievement on a number of levels. The two main reforms proposed months before by the Chair - to make international cooperation and assistance and national capacity-building the overarching theme, and to focus the meeting on a small number of other issues (tracing, brokering, and stockpile management and surplus disposal) - worked better than anyone could have anticipated. States largely dispensed with delivering rambling and unfocused national statements, which had taken up so much valuable time at the two previous biennial meetings. Instead, they engaged in much more in-depth, substantive and at times even genuinely interactive debate on the focus issues.

Not only that. The substantive discussions were prepared well in advance of the meeting by States designated by the Chair - Egypt, Colombia, the Republic of Korea and Switzerland. Each consulted widely in advance of the meeting and prepared detailed discussion papers that helped, during the meeting, to focus minds on the issues at hand. Nongovernmental experts introduced the discussions with insightful overviews of where the problems lay - also an innovation in these kinds of meetings. Draft text for the outcome document, drawing on the discussions that had taken place, was posted on the meeting's website by 9am every morning (necessitating, it should be acknowledged, some dedicated people working all night).

The meeting also broke a number of other diplomatic molds. Music, for example, played an interesting role. At one point, the Chair invited Emmanuel Jal, an up-and-coming rapper from Sudan, to perform in front of delegates in the plenary hall one of the many songs he has composed reflecting on his experiences as a child soldier (Mr. Jal was abducted when he was six years old and sent to fight with the rebel army in Sudan's civil war). The effect was powerful and brought home, more eloquently than any statement could have, the importance of global efforts to stem the illicit arms trade.

Sticking with the musical theme, the Chair - Ambassador Dalius Cekuolis of Lithuania (himself an accomplished musician) - later quoted jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in an attempt to move participants towards agreement on an outcome document: "When you hit a bum note, don't stay on it too long," he quoted the master as saying and also pointed out that the difference between being in harmony or not can be a matter of raising or lowering the note by a semi-tone (or even, in some Asian music, by a quarter tone).

Achieving this harmony turned out, in the end, to be quite tough. By Friday - the last day of the meeting - the Chair had produced a detailed, forward-looking outcome document focusing on the four focus themes as well as a number of other issues that had been raised during the week's discussion. Already before lunch, participating States were ready to allow the Chair bring down the gavel on this document. He would have done so were it not for Iran, who complained about the new way that the meeting had been run and asked instead to have the proposed outcome document annexed to the procedural report of the meeting - something that would have significantly downgraded its status.

It was clear, however, that Iran was completely alone in holding this position. Many States in the room tried their best to bring Iran around. Some pleaded, some shouted, some cajoled but none were successful. In the end, the only option remaining to the Chair, aside from caving in to Iran's demand, was to proceed to a vote - a first for the UN small arms process.

The Chair proposed a vote by show of hands. Iran requested a recorded vote and so everyone had to traipse up the corridor to another room with the required voting machinery. Before the vote, Iran, clearly displeased, said that it would abstain and cryptically announced that, in retaliation of sorts, it would consider resorting to voting in other issue-areas of disarmament and arms control as well (!). The only surprise of the vote itself was that Zimbabwe joined Iran in abstaining. All other participating States - all 134 of them - voted in favour of adopting the outcome document as an integral part of the meeting's report.

In the end, there was consensus on how to move forward with global efforts to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons. It's just that Iran and Zimbabwe chose not to join it. In the end, there was harmony; although two voices chose not to sing.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Explosive issues

In between following the political and diplomatic progress of disarmament processes like those related to cluster munitions, small arms, the arms trade and nuclear weapons, Disarmament Insight posts have also looked at some broader issues. Last week in 'The Use of Weapons' I discussed aspects of David Edgerton's book, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 - focusing on Edgerton's analysis of Second World War technologies like strategic bombing, atomic weapons and the V2 rocket and implications for today.

One nice thing about blogging is that you sometimes receive feedback about your posts. For instance, our site offers a comment function (see the link at the foot of each post) on which readers can post their remarks or questions.

Last week a chap named Ward Wilson contacted Disarmament Insight. Ward wrote an article in International Security journal last year on "The Winning Weapon? Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima" - an interesting analysis that re-examines the widely-held presumption (which I also touched on my blog post) that nuclear weapons played a decisive role in winning the war in the Pacific. I'd been unaware of Ward's article, and it appears he was unaware of Edgerton's book until reading our blog, so it seems we're all better off.

Ward, it seems, is quite a busy guy, as he too has a blog, entitled 'Rethinking Nuclear Weapons', which is worth checking out. Ward says it's part of a project "to explore the practical realities of nuclear weapons".

In addition, Ward's also just been awarded the Doreen and Jim McElvany Nonproliferation Challenge Essay Contest's Grand Prize for a piece he wrote entitled "The Myth of Deterrence". This is a big deal. Hopefully Ward's article will be available somewhere online soon. In the meantime, congratulations and well done to him.

Someone else out there on the World Wide Web doing some hard thinking about questions related to aspects of armed violence is Richard Moyes, Policy & Research Manager at the British NGO Landmine Action. Richard has just started a new blog entitled 'Explosive Violence' that examines news reports and issues related to the use of explosive weapons in crime and conflict.

Throughout the twentieth and early twentieth centuries we've seen the boundaries between the use of force in the battlefield and in civilian areas increasingly blurred, whether you think of strategic bombing in the Second World War or South East Asia, or suicide bombing. And what was nuclear deterrence during the Cold War if not the threat to unleash massive quantities of explosive force in populated areas, no matter how strategic planners tried to dignify it?

Recent efforts, like the new Convention on Cluster Munitions, are doing something about this as regards certain specific weapon types, and the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons has tried and is trying - with varying success - to tackle this in its own manner. The use of explosive force in populated areas is an elephant in the room in both multilateral disarmament and arms control and in international humanitarian law efforts and its logical that greater efforts are made to consider what the implications of that are.

So good luck to both Ward and Richard, and we look forward to reading their future thoughts on aspects of these issues and more.

John Borrie


Wilson, Ward. "The Winning Weapon? Rethinking Nuclear Weapons in Light of Hiroshima." International Security 31 4 (Spring 2007): 162-179.

Picture: 'Explosive!' by Lili Vieira de Carvalho downloaded from Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, 11 July 2008

CCW: No rest for ...

It's July, summer has finally come to Geneva and, under normal circumstances, the thoughts of disarmament diplomats would now be turning to a few weeks of holidays before the Conference on Disarmament resumes again on July 28. This year, though, any such vacation plans have been dashed by three weeks of work to "negotiate a proposal" on cluster munitions, which began on Monday in Geneva, and one week of talks on the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, which begin on Monday in New York.

Negotiations on cluster munitions? I hear you ask; "hasn't that all been taken care of by those Dublin negotiations Disarmament Insight wrote so much about in May?" Well, yes and no. The Dublin Conference on cluster munitions, which was part of the stand-alone "Oslo Process," did agree a treaty banning cluster munitions, which was adopted by 111 States and is due to be signed in Oslo on 3 December.

In parallel, however, States party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) - about two-thirds of which participated in the Dublin conference but which also includes some not in Dublin including the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel - are also engaged in an effort to negotiate a proposal on cluster munitions that would balance military with humanitarian concerns.

The big question before the CCW meeting began on Monday was: How would States that had adopted the new Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) approach the negotiations, bearing in mind that the CCW negotiations had virtually no chance of setting the same high standards of international humanitarian law (IHL) as had been achieved in Dublin? The answer now seems apparent. These States - most of them at any rate - do not want to end up in the CCW with a Protocol developed in the CCW that would, in effect, countenance the further use of cluster munitions rather than stigmatizing them.

Adopters of the new CCM want a CCW outcome on cluster munitions that complements their achievement in Dublin, not undermines it. Possible acceptable outcomes for these States could include a CCW Protocol that prohibits the transfer of all cluster munitions, or that prohibits the use of cluster munitions in or close to civilian areas.

And a number of States and organisations raised concerns this week that suggested language for a new CCW Protocol on cluster munitions, as had been outlined in a Chair's paper, ran a real risk of rolling back existing IHL rather than building on it. These concerns were first raised in April (see our blog on 'Cherry picking at the CCW' for background) and again at this CCW meeting, partly stemming from the fact that the proposed text reiterated (in some cases with modifications) selected existing rules and principles of IHL, while remaining silent on others.

There were tough discussions under the Japanese Friend of the Chair in the latter part of the week in a key suggested Article in the Chair's paper, on 'protection of civilians and civilian objects', with New Zealand, Austria, Mexico, Germany, Canada, the UK, US and India the most active in the debate. These differing views should have convinced Japan that its current tack of trying to get countries to accept reformulations of existing IHL rules they feel deeply uncomfortable about is unlikely to yield results. Of course, it would be good to see this approach abandoned in favour of one that focuses on elaborating new rules and principles, whatever these may be. But there remains fundamental opposition to that, as New Zealand found in defending the square-bracketed language in paragraph 3 of Article 3:

"It is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians [or in areas normally inhabited by civilians] the object of attack using cluster munitions."
Overall, the third session of the CCW negotiations got off to a sluggish start this week, with most negotiating sessions running well under their allotted time. Perhaps it has something to do with the hot and heavy weather and thoughts of squandered vacation time. More likely, though, it can be put down to the unfamiliar and downright awkward situation of trying to do something that has already been done very well elsewhere. It's hard to draw motivation from that.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: Geneva's Jet d'Eau by neurosis on Flickr.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The use of weapons

On 30 June I discussed technology historian David Edgerton's thought provoking book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, especially the relevance of use-centred accounts of technological development and 'creole technology'.

Edgerton's work also challenges conventional wisdom as to the significance of certain technologies. Among the examples he discusses are World War Two technologies we're accustomed to thinking as central to eventual Allied victory - strategic bombing and the first use of atomic weapons.

During the war, British air commanders such as Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris claimed that continued area bombing of targets in German-occupied Europe were devastating. However, a United States Strategic Bombing Survey (USSBS) found a wide range of evidence to contradict this after the war had ended. In contrast, the USSBS's assessment of the American bombing of Japan - which overall was much less heavy in terms of tonnage of bombs dropped - was that it did similar damage "because the bombs were more concentrated in time and more accurately delivered".

These are not new facts, but they're often overlooked. One obvious lesson is that technologies in themselves don't ensure success in war, especially if the adversary has time to respond and adapt, as the Third Reich did to several years of area bombing. While of course this had its costs, area bombing also had costs for the Allies. In 1940 there weren't many other options for an isolated Britain to take the offensive than to bomb what it could hit with its air force (that is, cities rather than the precision targets the RAF thought it could strike in planning before the war). But later in the war there were more options, yet the UK was heavily invested in its bombing strategy by then and found it hard to change, except for limited periods (like the run-up to D-Day). It's worth recalling that Stalin never doubted that the opening of a Western land offensive - not area bombing - was the only way to relieve the military pressure on the Soviet Union. The terrible fire-bombing of Dresden in February 1945 immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five occurred in part because the Allies wanted to demonstrate to the Soviets that their air power was of some use.

Assessments of the usefulness (the utility) of a given technology have to be made against the most effective alternatives, not simply the absence of them. The USSBS compared conventional and atomic bombing in Japan in terms of resources required to achieve equivalent effects - that is, death and damage caused. While the total destructive power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs was great, a lot of the energy was not directed at the target. Edgerton explains that "What the report was suggesting was that an atomic raid did the same sort of damage as a standard large conventional one, a few per cent at most of the destruction meted out to Japan from the air."

However morally distasteful such calculations may strike us, they are illuminating. Edgerton points out that the American atomic bombs were products of an industrial effort costing just under US$2 billion (or $20 billion in 1996 dollars). At the time, it cost around $3 billion to construct the 4,000 or so B-29s used exclusively in long distance operations against Japan, including to drop the atomic bombs:

"One billion dollars to destroy a city which would have been destroyed at minimal additional cost by one [large] conventional raid represented an awful lot of 'bucks per bang' ... In other words, by reducing the conventional material available [since resources are finite], the atomic programme, it could be argued, lengthened the war and this cost lives. That we do not see this is partly the result of a carefully fabricated myth put about after the war, that the bomb brought the war to a quick end and saved no fewer than 1 million US lives. This myth depended on the dubious counterfactual argument that the Japanese would have fought on and on had they not suffered atomic bombing, and that the only other way of defeating them involved an invasion that would have cost 1 million lives. In other words, this argument assumed that blockade and conventional bombing were ineffective by comparison with the atomic bomb."
Yet, based on USSBS and other data, blockade and conventional bombing clearly did have profound effects on Japan's war-making capacity. It means that, in 1945, arguments for the efficacy of atomic weapons compared with other means at the time were doubtful - they were not thought to be the war-winners we may consider them to be in hindsight.

And post hoc rationalization remains strong about huge weapons programmes like the Manhattan Project. Moreover, the post-war American atomic programme, including bombers and missiles, cost nearly US$6,000 billion in 1996 prices according to Edgerton - roughly one-third of all defence expenditure and just under the total spent on social security by the United States. These programmes were regarded as crucial tools of national defence and might. Yet, Edgerton further point out:
"Had the [Second World] War extirpated militarism from the world and had the development of weapons stopped, the rocket and the A-bomb would not have been seen as harbingers of the future, but more likely as the last dreadful examples of the irrationality of war and military technology."
In Nazi Germany the V-2 rocket is - notoriously - believed by some historians to be responsible for killing twice as many people involved in its production (mainly due to starvation) as were killed at the receiving end of the weapon. At a cost of one-quarter of the American atomic bomb programme, the German military could have had thousands of fighter planes, tanks, motorized vehicles and artillery pieces it desperately needed late in the war. The Nazis's own pursuit of a military technology oblivious to the alternatives sapped its strength - testimony indeed to the need to be aware of the relative costs of different technologies.

Moral arguments for nuclear disarmament or those based on the costs to civlians are - despite their importance - often pooh-poohed by the so-called realists. So whatever one feels about the rightness or not of the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945, Edgerton's type of analysis seems highly relevant. At a time now when new uses are being sought for existing nukes and new nuclear weapons are being proposed for development, such resources are desperately needed for pressing global problems of massive significance like global warming and sustainable development.

John Borrie


David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Picture taken of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, from Wikipedia.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Testing the International Community's Resolve on Small Arms and Light Weapons

About three months ago, I wrote on this blog about 'the pros and cons of precedent.' As a case-study, I referred to efforts by UN Member States to re-shape the upcoming third Biennial Meeting of States (July 14-18) to consider implementation of the UN Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects.

The previous two biennial meetings - in 2003 and 2005 - had not been too successful in monitoring implementation of the Programme of Action. This in turn contributed to the failure of the 2006 Review Conference to assess the overall impact of the agreement and to sketch a plan for its strengthened future implementation.

In response to all of this, the Chair of the third biennial meeting - the Ambassador of Lithuania to the UN in New York - made some very sensible suggestions about how to make this next meeting more effective. He proposed focusing on a small number of issues on which there was already a good deal of international consensus (with a special focus on international cooperation and assistance and national capacity-building). He appointed facilitators on these issues, who then produced useful discussion-papers to prepare the debate. And he insisted that the meeting should aim to produce a consensus final report that would include recommendations on next steps and on a practical implementation agenda.

In my April 8 'precedent' post, I commented on how unusual it was to see such sensible proposals for change gain broad support given the almost reflexive attachment of disarmament diplomats to doing things as they have been done before. Now, however, although the Chair's proposals still seem to enjoy the support of the vast majority of UN Member States, cracks are beginning to appear in the new plan.

A small number of States - perhaps only two or three, but possibly more - are beginning to question the efficacy of the proposed new approach. The Chair is engaged in intensive bilateral diplomacy to see if he can address their concerns.

This presents a challenge to the international community; a test, if you like, of its resolve to deal seriously with the humanitarian impact caused by the illicit trade in, and misuse of, small arms and light weapons, which are used to take the lives of about 300,000 people every year and to cause untold misery to millions more.

Although they started out as such, efforts to deal with small arms and light weapons within the framework of the UN Programme of Action are, unfortunately, no longer based on consensus. Following the 2006 Review Conference, the United States cast the only vote in the UN General Assembly's First Committee against holding another biennial meeting of States this year.

When the third biennial meeting begins (without the U.S.) on July 14 at 10am (EST), diplomats may again be faced with the challenge of what to do if a small number of States refuse to play by the new rules that are being proposed. The choice, at least, would seem to be a simple one: Give in to pressure from a small minority of States and revert to an approach that has twice proven less than effective. Or, go with what the vast majority of States wants - an effective, focused meeting that stands a much better chance of advancing international efforts to curb the illicit small arms trade and of sketching out a much-needed agenda for future action.

Watch this space to see which way the cookie crumbles.

Patrick Mc Carthy

Photo Credit: "Demobilize child soldiers in the Central African Republic" by hdptcar on Flickr.