Disarmament Insight


Friday, 7 November 2008

CCW: The wailing wall

In the preceding post on this blog on Wednesday, I observed that the Chair of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)'s determined efforts to achieve agreement on a cluster munitions protocol based on his own text this week was not without risk - that trying to force an agreement (or, as importantly, being perceived to be doing so) could see work fail.

That afternoon in CCW session, Costa Rica read out a statement on its behalf and that of Austria, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Chile, Croatia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Holy See, Honduras, Indonesia, Ireland, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Uganda, Uruguay and Venezuela. Senegal also subsequently associated itself with the statement, which said:

"We have been encouraged to see the growing recognition of the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions within CCW since 2006. We have constructively engaged in working towards a credible outcome that would effectively address the grave humanitarian problems caused by the use of cluster munitions.

"The Chair's text as it stands does not, however, meet that standard. Instead, by allowing states to choose from a menu of vaguely-worded options, we do not see how it would provide sufficient added value over the current situation, and it could be used as a justification for the continued use of cluster munitions that have already proven over the past decades to cause exactly the humanitarian consequences that we are trying to address.

"For these reasons, the Chair's text as it stand is not acceptable to our delegations.

"The credibility is measured by its substantive outcomes, and whether they make a contribution to the strengthening of IHL [International Humanitarian Law]. This protocol could set a dangerous precedent in allowing the CCW to fall behind stronger existing standards [i.e. the Convention on Cluster Munitions]. To ensure a strong and credible CCW any outcome must represent a significant development of IHL, rather than affecting its clarity and coherence. We are prepared to work constructively towards this end."

There were some strong reactions in response, including from India, the Czech Republic and Russia, against attempts - as Russia saw it - to carry over the logic of one process (the CCM) to another (the CCW). For its part, the Cluster Munition Coalition told the meeting that, in its view, "we believe that the text as drafted will not enhance the CCW's reputation or credibility. Instead, it will hurt the CCW's reputation and credibility because it is fundamentally flawed".
The Chair, Ambassador Bent Wigotski of Denmark - clearly one very unhappy man - said he would hold private consultations on Thursday morning to try to sort out the situation. But these did not appear to make much head-way. That afternoon, he told another meeting of the CCW group of experts in plenary that, as a result of his intensive consultations, he didn't see any possibility of arriving at an agreed Chair's text, and that he did not plan any more initiatives from the Chair. Moreover, Wigotski said he had become a "mobile wailing wall" for delegations.

This morning, the last allotted day of 2008 expert work on cluster munitions under the current CCW mandate, the plenary convened again for general statements. Most in the room were bracing themselves for the almost inevitable commencement of the blame-game. And so some of the statements proved to be. Countries which had earlier in the week criticized a Chair's text that they claimed violated their national red-lines on multiple, substantive points such as Pakistan, Brazil, China, Russia, Israel and India could now be heard praising it as the basis for agreement and bemoaning attempts to exert the influence on the CCW of standards set elsewhere (that is, in Dublin in May) - and thus now the national red-lines of many others present - as a sort of fifth column. The U.S. said it was unrealistic to expect it to adhere to any kind of prohibition related to cluster munitions: they remained lawful weapons, in its view, and critical to its national security interests.

Another target for their ire were the re-issued amendment proposals of some of the Costa Rican group as well as a Mexico-New Zealand-Norway proposal for an alternative protocol text containing only the CCM definition of a cluster munition and provision for a complete transfer ban on the weapon. That proposal aside, the amendments had largely been re-issued existing proposals (done so at the Chair's request) because one reason for the joint-statement on Wednesday had been growing frustration that the views of these countries were not being reflected in any of the Chair's series of texts. This allowed the Chair to say he hadn't heeded them because he didn't think they would fly, which to this observer seemed to be at odds with the earlier surprise he had expressed that such views still existed. For good measure some of these re-issued proposals were attacked as "unrealistic" by certain cluster munition possessor states in the CCW although, of course, most were less ambitious than provisions agreed by 107 states at the CCM negotiations earlier this year.

On the whole, those countries associating themselves with Wednesday's statement read by Costa Rica kept their powder dry and their microphones switched off today, although Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras and Croatia did speak. Croatia argued, in particular, that the CCW needed to get beyond the orthodox national security mindset so dominant, and think more deeply about the human consequences of what it did or didn't do in terms of the difference it would make to people on the ground.

So where does that leave things? Consultations continue in the margins, but there is little time left. The procedural report and meeting wrap-up session is due to commence at five o'clock this afternoon (CET). The tone of many of those who spoke today, both among the 25 and their critics, was that work needs to continue to achieve a consensus on a CCW protocol. Although there are persistent rumours of textual compromise proposals in certain back-pockets, it's unlikely the gulf in views can be bridged between now and next Friday, when the CCW's annual general meeting wraps up. But that conference may well agree on a mandate extension for cluster munitions for one more year (the ninth that the CCW has been working to 'urgently' address humanitarian problems related to cluster munitions in one form or another). Or, as Canada suggested, a couple more weeks in spring 2009 might be sufficient.

A new year, and with it a new mandate and Chair (Ambassador Wigotski is no doubt sick to the back teeth by now of anything to do with cluster munitions), may well change the tense atmospherics that have developed this year in the CCW. Maya, Virgil and I will provide further thoughts in the course of next week, once we've had a chance to reflect on what has been a turbulent few days.

John Borrie

Picture of the CCW conference room by John Borrie.