Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Unacceptable Harm: Geneva launch

On Friday UNIDIR launched a new book I wrote entitled Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won at the Palais des Nations, the home of the United Nations in Geneva.

Chaired by the Norwegian Permanent Mission in Geneva, the lunchtime event featured four speakers: Dr. Gro Nystuen (Chair of the Council on Ethics for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global), Richard Moyes (policy and research director at Landmine Action and co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC)), the CMC’s Coordinator Thomas Nash, and myself. Turn-out was very good, with a full room and some interesting discussion following the presentations.

The chair of the meeting, Norwegian diplomat Hilde Skorpen, recalled the origins of the project. It grew out of a proposal I made in 2007 to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For several years, we at UNIDIR had carried out research analysing a range of negotiating processes as part of a project on Disarmament as Humanitarian Action : Making Multilateral Negotiations Work, and in the course of that work we found a lacuna in the policy and academic literature on the landmine negotiations : while some good stuff had been written about the Ottawa process, no narrative historical framework existed to tell the story of the achievement of the Mine Ban Treaty as a coherent whole – from its origins to its agreement – for a wide audience.

Memories fade quickly, and hindsight can obscure what we can learn from success and failure in multilateral negotiations. Myths can arise and take hold. This isn’t necessarily helpful when it comes to try to distill lessons learned with a view to improving the performance of multilateral negotiators. So my proposal on UNIDIR’s behalf was a simple one : shouldn’t someone try to capture what would happen on cluster munitions ; that is, if we really are to learn and so improve our performance as negotiators?

This idea must have seemed a little risky. At that stage nobody knew how the emerging Oslo process or in the CCW would turn out! To their credit the Norwegians decided to fund the project. (And then, like a good funder of such research should, they stood back to let us get on with it.)

The rest, as they say, is history. A history though that would be a larger and more complicated task than we originally envisaged in researching and writing ‘Unacceptable Harm’…

But now the book is 'out there'. Thanks to all of the speakers and those who came out for the launch on a cold, bright Geneva day. With Unacceptable Harm no longer under embargo, those readers who are on UNIDIR’s publication circulation list or those (like a considerable number of CMC campaigners) who have placed orders for the book should receive their copies through the mail before too long. In due course the book should also become available in the UN's bookshops in Geneva and New York, and eventually on Amazon.

There will be further events associated with the launch of the book in the New Year. We’re anticipating something in Oslo on 12 January and perhaps elsewhere. Read this blog for further updates.

John Borrie

Photo courtesy of Tamar Gabelnick, International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

More Unacceptable Harm

The second review conference of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention commenced yesterday in Cartagena, Colombia, which is obviously this week’s big news on the multilateral conventional weapons front. Good luck to all of the folks over there and congratulations to a regime that despite its ongoing implementation challenges has retained its vitality after a decade and made a positive difference to people’s lives on the ground in many mine-affected countries. Even the United States – which, to date has resisted joining the regime – recognizes this: it’s attending the summit as an observer. (It would be even better if the US would choose to come in from the cold and join the treaty, which already has 156 state parties.)

We have a bit of a news of our own: the history I’ve been working on for the last two years of international efforts to deal with the humanitarian impacts of another problematic weapon, cluster munitions, is now printed.

The book is entitled Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won. The cover image (see above) is of a French F.1 ‘Ogre’ submunition, with the gracious permission of the French artist and photographer Raphael Dallaporta. There are also colour plates in the middle of the book, with some great images by the Norwegian photographer Werner Anderson and others. The book also has a foreword written by Dr. Eric Prokosch, one of the pioneer researchers on cluster munitions, and author of the classic book The Technology of Killing: A Military and Political History of Anti-Personnel Weapons (1995).

Unacceptable Harm explains how the Convention on Cluster Munitions was achieved through the ‘Oslo process’, a partnership of governments, international organizations and civil society not unlike the one that resulted in the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention in 1997. The book examines why it took the world so long to act on cluster munitions, why it eventually did, and what lessons banning cluster munitions might hold for future efforts on a pressing challenge of our time: protecting civilians from the effects of explosive weapons. (For further info on explosive weapons, see also Landmine Action's recent report).

The book will initially be launched in Geneva on 11 December, to be followed by events in Oslo and elsewhere in early 2010. Stay tuned to the blog for further updates.

John Borrie

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Consensus rules the Arms Trade Treaty. Or does it?

The recent adoption of a United Nations resolution to produce legally binding international standards for the transfer of conventional arms is a real boost to the cause of international peace and security. Overwhelming support in the First Committee of the UN General Assembly for the negotiation of these new rules has set the scene for a series of preparatory meetings leading to the convening in 2012 of the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.

This is an important development on at least three levels. First, it surely reflects the international community’s new-found urgency for pursuing arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation initiatives. It follows hard on the heels of the Cluster Munitions Convention adopted in 2008. Russia and the United States in the meantime are negotiating radical cuts to their nuclear arsenals. Efforts are intensifying to resolve long-standing nuclear weapons differences with Iran and North Korea. Nations of Africa have just brought into force the Pelindaba Treaty, significantly increasing the nuclear-weapon-free areas of the world. And the Conference on Disarmament (CD) is on the threshold of pursuing, alongside other major issues, a global ban on the production of fissile materials, the essential ingredient of nuclear warheads.

The Arms Trade Treaty has thus clearly caught the mood. More significant – and this is the second level on which the resolution is so important – is the intrinsic worth of this initiative. As proponents of an arms trade treaty have made clear, with hundreds of thousands of people dying each year from armed violence “Governments must ensure that negotiations live up to the promise of setting the highest possible standards”.

This leads directly to the third noteworthy aspect of this development. The terms of the resolution require the 2012 Conference to achieve a strong and robust treaty “on the basis of consensus”. Are these aspirations contradictory? Is it impossible to live up to the “promise of setting the highest possible standards” if governments are only allowing themselves to reach an outcome to which none of them objects? Is this a prescription for a lowest common denominator outcome, rather than a strong and robust treaty?

The answer to these questions must, for the sake of all the victims of inadequate arms transfer controls and in the interest of sustaining the current global arms control and disarmament momentum, be a resounding “no”. The fateful words “on the basis of consensus” should be interpreted with circumspection. First, the rules of procedure of the 2012 Conference are yet to be drafted, let alone adopted. Second, the phrase “on the basis of consensus” cannot and must not be equated with, for example, the consensus rule in the CD’s rules of procedure which state baldly and without qualification that that body will “adopt its decisions by consensus”.

If the phrase in question does not mean the automatic application of the notion that the eventual draft of the Arms Trade Treaty will be adopted only if no State voices an objection to the text (and thus without voting), what does it mean? This remains to be settled by the governments that will participate in the elaboration of the new treaty under United Nations auspices.

It is to be hoped, however, that they will be guided by UN precedents. The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, for instance, proceeded to settle fundamental new laws governing all uses of the oceans through a procedure that contemplated voting but with a very significant rider. Before a matter of substance was put to the vote it was required that the Conference make a determination, by a two-thirds majority, that all efforts to reach general agreement had been exhausted. A Declaration, which was appended to the Rules of Procedure provided as follows: “Bearing in mind … the desirability of adopting a Convention on the Law of the Sea which will secure the widest possible acceptance, the Conference should make every effort to reach agreement on substantive matters by way of consensus and there should be no voting on such matters until all efforts at consensus have been exhausted.”

The Law of the Sea approach is the classic way of proceeding “on the basis of consensus”. Voting is a last resort. But it is not foreclosed. Even the UN Standard Rules of Procedure for UN Conferences envisage the possibility of a vote (Rule 51). And, to give a more recent example, the Rules of Procedure for the UN Conference on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court make it clear that if "in the consideration of any matter of substance, all feasible efforts to reach general agreement have failed, the President of the Conference shall consult the General Committee and recommend the steps to be taken, which may include the matter being put to the vote" (Rule 34.2).

The remote possibility of voting concentrates the minds and improves the ultimate product by raising the level at which compromise is finally brokered. Had this rule existed in the CD, the efforts made to reach consensus on the programme of work would patently not have spanned over a decade. (see my post of 18 June)

Let’s not beat about the bush. Some governments prefer outcomes that they see as being representative of the breadth of views in the international community, while others regard them as watered down outcomes. This is the quantitative approach: lower standards but with more adherents. It is the dichotomy represented on the one hand by the efforts of the parties to the Certain Conventional Weapons Convention (CCW) in dealing with landmines and cluster munitions, and on the other by the Ottawa and Oslo processes which have surpassed the CCW in terms of imposing higher standards - the qualitative approach.

With at least a third of a million people killed directly with conventional weapons and many more injured, abused, forcibly displaced and bereaved as a result of armed violence every year, the negotiators of the Arms Trade Treaty will surely be aspiring, as their recent decision envisages, to the highest possible common standards for regulating the transfer of conventional arms. It is to be hoped that as the work intensifies the negotiators will drive the process in an enlightened manner, taking along as many governments as possible but without succumbing to the tyranny of the minority.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.
Photo Credit: " Knotted Gun at the United Nations" by Tankwart on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, 30 October 2009

Disarmament Insight: Just popped out ...

In March 2007, along with Patrick Mc Carthy from the Geneva Forum, I started the Disarmament Insight blog to help communicate the findings of UNIDIR's project on Disarmament as Humanitarian Action: Making Multilateral Negotiations work (DHA). At that time, I think none of us involved envisaged that more than two-and-a-half years later the blog would still be running, or that it would have covered the myriad of subjects it has - from the Conference on Disarmament to the cognitive constraints on negotiators, from export controls to explosive violence, nuclear disarmament to negotiation theory - in hundreds of posts from dozens of contributors. During that time we've witnessed an almost-complete turn-over of core contributors, with Patrick having shifted to UNDP and Maya Brehm on board at UNIDIR.

Along the way, the blog became one respected source of news and analysis on international efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions, in particular. This emphasis on cluster munitions was only fitting: the UN's Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons talks and the eventual Oslo process that emerged in parallel underlined many of the points we were trying to make in the DHA project's work. The achievement of the Convention on Cluster Munitions in May 2008 was hugely gratifying, and obviously we believe lends weight to some DHA findings.

Another reason was that as a follow-on from the DHA project's work we undertook a new project to tell the story of these efforts on cluster munitions. This project officially commenced in March 2008. A detailed analytical history, entitled Unacceptable Harm: A History of How the Treaty to Ban Cluster Munitions Was Won, which I wrote, was intended to be the main product. This book is now completed, and earlier this week it went to the UN print shop for production. We hope that the book will be available for launch and distribution in December. (During the pretty intense editing and production period in September and October, regular readers may have noticed we weren't posting on the blog, for which I offer our apologies.)

Apart from launch events associated with Unacceptable Harm in December and January, the cluster munition project is now finished. Both Maya and I are taking a break while we wait for word on future funding for an exciting new project. It means that this will be the last Disarmament Insight post for a while.

But keep checking the blog come December, and retain it on your list of RSS feeds as we anticipate news to come of various kinds including more information about Unacceptable Harm when it's out in print.

John Borrie

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Cluster munitions: eradicating a deadly legacy

Later today, the United Nations is hosting its second Special Event on the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) at its Headquarters in New York. Apparently, the event is being webcast in real time (at www.conflictvoice.org) from around 13h15 New York time.

The UN envisages the event, like last year's, to be an opportunity for States to come and sign and ratify the CCM, as well as express support for Lao PDR, which has agreed to host the First Meeting of States Parties of the CCM.

In view of the swift rate of accession to the treaty, this First Meeting of States Parties is expected to be held sometime in 2010. (Article 17 of the CCM states that it "shall enter into force on the first day of the sixth month after the month in which the thirtieth instrument of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession has been deposited.") Already, 100 governments have signed the CCM and 23 have acceded to it, bringing the treaty within seven ratifications of the golden thirty. This is good going by the standards of multilateral treaties.

The CCM Special Event isn't the only activity concerning the CCM in New York. At present, diplomats from Geneva, New York and many capitals are participating in the annual UN General Assembly's First Committee on disarmament-related matters, which runs throughout October. Ireland and Lao PDR are lead co-sponsors of a First Committee resolution on the CCM on which all States will, in principle, vote. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition:

Last year, Ireland introduced a resolution on the Convention on Cluster Munitions that was adopted by consensus (it did not go to vote). The 2008 resolution was procedural and requested the UN Secretary General to fulfil functions assigned to him under the CCM. This year Ireland and Lao PDR will co-sponsor a resolution which is expected to be similar to last year’s resolution but will additionally have a specific reference to offer by the Lao PDR to host the First Meeting of States Parties.

Lao's leadership role on CCM-related matters is significant. Lao PDR is the world's most severely affected country from the post-conflict effects of explosive submunitions dropped during the South East Asia War of the 1960s and 1970s. It's support for the CCM is an extension of its view that the new Convention is an effective means to tackle these effects - not only in Lao PDR, but in other affected places around the world.

Laos was a prominent and early signer of the CCM at the treaty's signing ceremony in Oslo in December 2008, its Deputy Prime Minister, Thongloun Sisloulith, remarking that:

Here, in Norway and in other countries of Western Europe, after the Second World War, peoples have been able to fully enjoy peace and devote their efforts and capabilities to the development of their countries, and children can enjoy their basic rights to life and safe

environment, in which to develop, learn and play; while in the Lao [People’s Democratic Republic], although the war ended more than thirty years ago, the Lao people continue to bear its legacy and the Lao children are denied the basic rights to which they are entitled.

Against this backdrop, the signing of this Convention is already one step forward to its realization, but at the same time, it is just the beginning of our journey to the ultimate goal of eradicating the scourge of cluster munitions and liberating the people and our children from fear and threat of such silent killer.

Bringing the treaty into force internationally is another step in that journey. Hopefully today's special event in New York acts as a spur to more States to join and begin implementing the CCM.

John Borrie


Last year's First Committee resolution text on the CCM is here.

The civil society project 'Reaching Critical Will' publishes monitoring reports on the First Committee online here.

Image from Wikipedia depicting a map of the Ho Chi Minh Trail traversing Southern Laos in 1967. American and allied forces bombed Lao heavily to try to interdict supplies moving along this trail toward North Vietnam, including with millions of cluster submunitions.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Conference on Disarmament: Getting Underway in 2010

On 29 May the Conference on Disarmament (CD) adopted its programme of work for 2009 after a 10-year gestation period (as recorded on this site on 18 June). That heady moment of four months ago is not easily forgotten despite the ensuing anti-climax.

The work programme (CD/1864) wasn’t, it turned out, quite still-born. But unfortunately it expired when the CD’s annual session came to an end in mid-September. “Expired” might be too strong a word to describe the fate of the decision. It certainly lay dormant on the table while CD Members sought to give it life by agreeing on the seven individuals who would co-ordinate work on seven major issues and on a timetable that would fairly reflect the hierarchy of treatment accorded to those issues in the programme of work. Their efforts, however, were in vain. But this outcome need not mean that CD/1864 has entirely expired.

There is no disputing that agreeing the work programme is an annual event. (What is actually contemplated by the term “programme of work” is another question, and will be addressed shortly.) For better or worse, the rules of procedure require both the agenda and the programme of work to be adopted at the beginning of each yearly session. More accurately and significantly, the Conference shall “establish” its programme of work (rule 28) rather than “adopt” it (as is the case of the agenda according to rule 27). The agenda is regularly rolled over or renewed from year to year, and it is similarly open to the CD to accept that, with an obvious change of date, the work programme established in 2009 can be refreshed in its entirety for 2010.

Such an outcome is devoutly to be desired if the CD is really serious about pursuing a comprehensive programme embracing a range of issues of central importance to improving international peace and security. The only circumstances in which a Member might require the 2010 version of CD/1864 to be revisited would be if some sea-change in the international security environment were to occur before the next session of the Conference.

Pakistan made it clear two years ago (on 3 August, 2007) that it saw the US-India Nuclear Agreement as having implications on strategic stability in enabling India to produce quantities of fissile material and nuclear weapons from un-safeguarded nuclear reactors. Hence Pakistan’s ability to join in the consensus on the work programme on 29 May this year was clearly not without reservations. Those reservations, although not pursued to the point of an objection to the adoption of the work programme, were expressed instead in the context of the mere procedure - determination of timetable and chairs - by which that programme would be given life. (Curiously, Pakistan’s procedural arguments went largely unchallenged.)

This outcome served to cast a further cloud over the operation of the CD’s consensus rule (rule 18 of the Rules of Procedure), and it would be equally disturbing were Pakistan’s reservations to be revived next year and pressed to the point of objecting to what would effectively be an extension to the life of CD/1864. A question, however, that the membership of the Conference needs to ask itself in the meantime is why it has acquiesced in elevating matters of implementation of a formal decision to the same level of decision-making that it chose to apply to the work programme itself.

As each week passed without resolution of the proposed timetable, it was very painful to witness the CD having to lop another five working days off its schedule, running it down until the opportunity to give effect to CD/1864 was lost altogether. The burden of negotiating a way forward via a further formal decision was placed heavily – and unfairly so – on the Conference’s Presidents shuttling ever industriously between the nay-sayers and representatives of the overwhelming majority of the CD for whom substantive work cannot begin soon enough.

On the face of it, the task of implementing CD/1864 was not complicated. Indeed there seemed to be no difficulty with any of the proposed chairs and co-ordinators, at least not until the appointment of the seven individuals was linked with the timetable by which those office-bearers would carry out their work. Had the office-bearers been appointed first, the meeting time for their subsidiary bodies could have been divided equally, pending future adjustments based on the pace of the progress in their work, if warranted.

Unfortunately, the timetable became a battleground on which attempts were made to re-litigate the very decision that was in the process of being implemented. This strenuous rearguard action, in other words, had as its objective a re-jigging of the subtle hierarchy of treatment of issues so carefully crafted in the May work programme by Ambassador Jazairy and his fellow Presidential colleagues.

The dispute over how to fairly reflect - or “balance” - that hierarchy in the timetable warrants close analysis as Members gear themselves up to getting the CD underway in 2010. Several matters arise for debate. First, in the case of a comprehensive series of mandates or programme of work such as CD/1864, is it wise, or even feasible, to prescribe in advance a detailed timetable that can anticipate every eventuality? Changes along the way will be required whether they are brought about by the need to accommodate a visiting dignitary or to reflect qualitative changes in the intensity of the activities of any one or more of the Working Groups.

Secondly, there is nothing in the Rules of Procedure that requires the CD to take a formal decision on either the office bearers or the daily conduct of the activities of the Conference. These matters should be left in the hands of the President in the certain knowledge that no President would be rash enough to proceed to announce the way ahead on either front unless his or her consultations had established that all Members could agree with, or tolerate, the proposed timetable and list of office-bearers. The mandates of subsidiary bodies must, however, be formally agreed, but that rule was clearly met in CD/1864.

Thirdly, why does the CD allow itself to be held hostage to matters of procedure when the mandates for dealing with substance have already been agreed? In the Conference, it is true that matters of procedure are inextricably linked with substance, and this is certainly the case when it comes to developing an appropriately balanced timetable to implement the mandates set out in the work programme. But the balance that is being sought must be responsive to the qualitative differences in the mandates contained in CD/1864, and above all, to the progress achieved in the subsidiary bodies, rather than to the notion of “equal and balanced allocation of time” in CD/1873 tabled by Pakistan almost 3 months after the breakthrough on the work programme.

In reality, the CD has allowed confusion among various procedural requirements to dominate its existence. Current practice is surely not what was intended by the Rules of Procedure. Why would one want to handicap the CD by having it take formal decisions on its agenda, its programme of work, the mandates of its Working Groups, its timetable and its office bearers before it can actually conduct substantive work? The tail is wagging the dog.

The Rules of Procedure, as well as CD/1036 (the decision on the “Improved and Effective Functioning” of the Conference adopted on 21 August 1990), envisage a much more streamlined and sensible process whereby the programme of work would be no more than that which its literal interpretation suggests, that is, a mere programme rather than an overarching mandate. CD/1036 led to the current rule on the work programme, rule 28, with its emphasis on establishing rather than adopting. This is not a matter of semantics. It contemplates that mandates such as those contained in CD/1864 could be given effect through the efforts that a President would undertake in establishing through his or her consultations that no reasonable objection exists to the proposed manner of implementing the decision on the Working Groups’ mandates.

No-one underestimates the complexity of the substantive work facing the Conference. But surely that challenge will be less debilitating and damaging for the CD as an institution - and for the standing of its Members - than any prolongation of the charade of elevating the implementation of a formal decision to the same level of decision-making as for the work programme (i.e., mandate) itself. The immediate way ahead requires a greater readiness among Members to address the CD’s current problems on the floor of the Council Chamber rather than leaving it to successive Presidents to work miracles behind the scenes.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.

Image Credit: "wag the dog" by Linda Silvestri from her blog "sketched out - drawing on my perspective".

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Unacceptable harm: Nearing the end of a long run …

As many of this blog’s readers know, I’ve been researching and writing a history of international efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions as part of a project commencing at UNIDIR in March 2008 funded by the Government of Norway.

I’m pleased to say that the total book manuscript of Unacceptable Harm: A history of how the treaty banning cluster munitions was won is now done, and is in the hands of UNIDIR’s copy editor.

Writing a manuscript of 140,000 or more words is not something I’ve done before, and as I mentioned in April (as I was plodding along the long, uphill straight of drafting the book’s eleven chapters), running it can be a bit of a difficult, lonely business:

“It’s quite tricky psychologically to keep myself properly motivated and I, for one, tend to get depressed easily about my lack of pace, especially as deadlines begin to loom. All of this, of course, against the backdrop of story of how cluster bombs were banned that’s complicated, fascinating and ultimately inspiring as an example of how the world’s less powerful states, international organizations and civil society can make a positive difference to human security – I have no real reason for complaint!”
There are still some tasks to be done, including final changes based on the book’s editing. And, I still have to chase up some of the 90 or so people I interviewed in order to check the odd thing. But the end is in sight, and UNIDIR hope to have the book available in print before the end of this year (keep following this blog for updates).

We’re winding down for a summer break here, so the Disarmament Insight blog probably won’t be updated over the course of August. Here’s hoping you all have a pleasant month, and keep reading our stuff after the height of summer.

John Borrie

Friday, 24 July 2009

A world without nuclear weapons is vital

The video embedded above was submitted to us by WPSU/Penn State Public Broadcasting. In the video, Ambassador Richard Butler, former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), Chairman of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, and currently distinguished scholar for international peace and security at Penn State School of International Affairs speaks about nuclear arms control and disarmament.

Below are some extracts:

“What exists today and is on high alert is 100'000 times stronger than Hiroshima!”

“We are at a critical point (...) where the possession of nuclear weapons is starting to expand. And I think that's truly serious.”

“They (nuclear weapons) are not just a bigger pop-gun. They are qualitatively different because of the radiation they produce and because of the extent of the damage they produce and because it takes years for any agricultural community to recover.”

“We know exactly what nuclear weapons are. We know how utterly devastating they are. How any use of them would be unconscionable, but we've continually stalled (...) in doing anything about it. And I think the time has come for us to stop that.”

“About 70% of people say it would be best if they disappeared. The same figure in Russia is about 65%.”

“We know exactly what we need to do to bring the nuclear horror under control. There's no lack of knowledge. What there has been, is a lack of political will.”

“As long as any country have nuclear weapons, others will seek to get them.”

“New arrangements have to made for the political management of this world, the world without nuclear weapons.”

Reference: WPSU/Penn State Public Broadcasting, "America's role in the world", Richard Butler interviewed by Patty Satalia, July 2009.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Proverbial Reset Button: Was It Pressed or Stroked in Moscow?

In February, when U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that “it’s time to press the reset button” on U.S. relations with Russia he could not have imagined what far-reaching effect his words would have. On March 6, in Geneva, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a palm-sized yellow box with a red “reset button” to symbolize improved ties between the two countries. But something must have been lost in translation – the button had the Russian word peregruzka printed on it, but the Russian word for ‘reset’ is perezagruzka, while peregruzka means ‘overload’ or ‘overcharge’.

Regardless of the dodgy translation, the reset button gimmick in Geneva served its purpose as it allowed for a ceremonial rebooting of relations and expanded, as an inadvertent side effect, a rather limited list of Russian words that are well-known outside the country, such as perestroika, glasnost, vodka, matryoshka, balalaika, sputnik, gulag, and pogrom.

Ever since, the word ‘reset’ (perezagruzka) has often been invoked by the Obama administration when describing what they would like to do regarding U.S.-Russian relations. “What I said coming in is that I wanted to press the reset button on relations between the United States and Russia,” President Barack Obama said in an interview with the Russian media ITAR-TASS/ROSSIYA TV on the eve of his visit to Moscow.

The idea won popularity in Russia as well. On the weekend before President Obama’s visit to Russia the misspelled reset button came to light on Pushkin Square in Moscow – a ten-minute walking distance from the Kremlin – for ordinary people to press. The button was placed on a table between cardboard cutouts of presidents Obama and Medvedev. The “Reset U.S.-Russian relations” event was organized by the Russian official state newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, which borrowed the button from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

So, were U.S.-Russian relations really reset when Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev met in the Kremlin on July 6? Were the heads of the two countries able to eventually press this proverbial perezagruzka button?

It appears that the summit resulted in several vital practical achievements. But at the same time it demonstrated that some substantial disagreements remain.

It seems that the crisis in U.S.-Russian relations – which at the end of the Bush administration were at their worst since the 1990s – has now been overcome. The tone of bilateral dialogue has changed from confrontational rhetoric to pragmatic discussions on issues of primary concern for both nations.

One of the most urgent issues before the two presidents was to achieve progress on a replacement for a vital U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control agreement – the START I treaty that expires this December. The task is a formidable one as the preparation of the START I took nine years, while a “START-Plus” treaty would only have nine months to negotiate after being effectively frozen by the Bush administration. As far as one can judge from the available information, the negotiations have encountered certain difficulties, with U.S. missile defense plans and Russian demands for sharper cuts in strategic delivery vehicles (land- and sea-based ballistic missiles and heavy bombers) presenting the key obstacles. Nevertheless in Moscow the presidents signed the Joint Understanding that outlines a new strategic arms control deal at the same time reflecting both mutual agreements and disagreements.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed to reduce the number of strategic delivery vehicles to 550-1,100, and the number of their associated warheads to 1,500-1,675. The specific numbers should be agreed on through further negotiations and recorded in the treaty. The warhead range of 1,500-1,675 does not look like a dramatic reduction when compared with the lower limit of 1,700 warheads of the Moscow SORT treaty signed in 2002 by presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. But the reality is that a START-Plus treaty should be concluded soon, preferably before December 2009, to preserve the verification mechanisms, which otherwise would disappear with the expiration of the START I treaty. The negotiating teams simply do not have the luxury of time to negotiate deeper cuts now. In this regard, the START-Plus treaty could be considered as an important but interim agreement preserving the continuity of the arms control and disarmament process. And, it paves the way for a next agreement that would take more time to negotiate.

The wide range for delivery vehicles – from 500 to 1100 – simply reflects the distinct negotiating positions of the two countries on this issue. The United States reportedly proposed setting the limit at 1100 strategic delivery vehicles while Russia suggested a significantly lower number, probably 500 delivery vehicles. This reflects the current status of strategic forces – the last START count on 1 January 2009 shows that the United States has 1198 strategic delivery vehicles, while Russia has 814. The Russian side is already well below the proposed level of 1100 delivery vehicles, and as Russia continues decommissioning old Soviet-era weapon systems 500 seems a reasonable number for it to suggest.

The presidents and their teams found a rather elegant solution when they included both suggested limits for strategic delivery vehicles in the Joint Understanding on the START follow-on treaty. But this will most certainly be an additional headache for the treaty negotiators who will have to come up with a more definite limit very soon. The number of delivery vehicles may become a major point of contention at the START-plus talks. But there are other difficult issues as well – there is no clarity regarding counting rules and verification procedures. Will a START-plus treaty follow the definitions and counting rules for strategic delivery vehicles and their associated warheads from the START I treaty or will they be modified? Will complex verification procedures from the old treaty be preserved, or will the new treaty opt for some kind of ‘verification lite’? Gary Samore, a U.S. National Security Council official for arms control, recently said that any new U.S.-Russian arms control agreement should “be free of the Cold War burden of intrusive inspections”. How then will this new START-plus treaty differ from the Moscow SORT treaty, which does not envisage any verification at all?

The Joint Understanding on the START follow-on treaty acknowledges “the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms”, which can be considered to be a reference to the Russian concerns with U.S. missile defense plans, especially the third missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic. Prior to his visit to Moscow, President Obama gave an interview to an opposition Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta, in which he said “In our meeting in London on April 1st, President Medvedev and I issued a joint statement on instructions for our negotiators for this new treaty. These instructions very explicitly did not mention missile defense as a topic of discussion for these negotiations”. The missile defenses may be another point of contention at the START-plus talks.

It does not seem that the parties are going to drastically change their positions on this issue. In Moscow the presidents signed the Joint Statement on Missile Defense Issues in which they rather vaguely agreed, “to continue the discussion concerning the establishment of cooperation in responding to the challenge of ballistic missile proliferation”. It is unclear right now what practical steps could follow from this statement.

Besides arms control, the United States and Russia agreed on a number of important bilateral issues that will contribute to improved relations between the two countries. For example, Russia will allow the transit of U.S. military personnel and lethal equipment through its territory to Afghanistan. The U.S. and Russian chiefs of staff agreed to resume military-to-military cooperation between the two nations. Moreover, Russia agreed to lift some restrictions on livestock trade with the United States – a market worth $1.3 billion a year.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev decided to create a U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission to serve as a new foundation for bilateral cooperation. This commission could actually be a very important development, for it provides different governmental agencies with a direct channel to their counterparts, a facility that was virtually absent during the Bush administration. An interesting thing is that the presidents decided to change the format of this new commission as compared to the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission of the 1990s, which was then co-chaired by the U.S. Vice President and the Russian Premier Minister. The new commission will be chaired by the presidents themselves and its work will be coordinated by Secretary of State Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Maybe the heads of states just didn’t want to leave the fate of their new undertaking at disposal of such “tough customers” as Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. It may be easier to find common ground for Obama and Medvedev, who throughout their summit repeatedly emphasized that they like and trust each other.

For all the upbeat public statements, a pall of disagreement over missile defense, NATO expansion and the situation around Abkhazia and South Ossetia lingered over the Kremlin hall where Obama and Medvedev had a press conference to present the results of their talks. There, President Obama reiterated his “firm belief that Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected”. His respect for international law can only be admired. But why are the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia more important than, say, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia? And what do we do with the Abkhazians and Ossetians who are not willing to live in one state with the Georgians after suffering through several military conflicts with them?

The spar over Georgia tends to hide broader issues. These include the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and what the Russians perceive as American interference in the region.

President Obama did not hint at waiving such Cold War leftover as the Jackson-Vanik Amendment which denies most-favored-nation status to Russia, and serves as a barrier to trade between the two countries. First enacted in 1974, it made normal trade relations with the Soviet Union contingent on free emigration. Russia has now allowed such freedom for years, but the amendment remains in force merely to provide Congress with political leverage over Russia.

In his speech at the New Economic School President Obama said, “America wants a strong, peaceful, and prosperous Russia” and “NATO seeks collaboration with Russia, not confrontation”. Hopefully he will keep his word and practice what he preaches.

The July summit of Presidents Obama and Medvedev certainly was a good start in resetting U.S.-Russian relations. Despite remaining differences it brought important practical results. The future will show whether further steps to create a new model of U.S.-Russian relations will follow.

This is a guest post by Dr. Yury Yudin. Yury is a Senior Researcher at UNIDIR and manages the project ‘Multinational Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle'.
His new study paper, 'Multilateralization of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Assessing the Existing Proposals' is available in PDF format by clicking here.

Image of 'Cutler Hammer Reset Button' by J L-S retrieved from Flickr.com.

Friday, 10 July 2009

War crimes: providing the means

People or companies that conduct (international) trade... in weapons or raw materials used for their production, should be warned that – if they do not exercise increased vigilance – they can become involved in most serious criminal offences. It should be made clear to them that they will face prosecution and long-term prison sentences...”
Court of Appeal The Hague, Judgment, 9 May 2007

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands upheld the conviction of a Dutch businessman, Frans van Anraat, for being an accessory to war crimes committed by the Iraqi regime in the 1980s. It thereby confirmed in most regards a 2007 judgment by the Court of Appeal in The Hague, which had found Van Anraat guilty of being an accessory to a violation of the laws and customs of war for having 'intentionally provided the opportunity and means' for attacks with mustard gas carried out in 1987 and 1988.

Between 1980 and 1988, Van Anraat had supplied Saddam Hussein's regime with at least 1'160 tons of TDG. TDG (short for 'Thiodiglycol' ) can be used to make mustard gas, a poisonous gas first used in World War I. This gas was used by Iraq in multiple attacks during the war with Iran on places in that country, as well as on the border region between Iraq and Iran, which is mainly inhabited by Kurds. Mustard gas, as well as TDG, today fall under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

In the Court's view, Van Anraat knew that the TDG he supplied would be used for the production of mustard gas. Although TDG also has civilian applications, the Appeals Court considered that in the quantities as supplied by Van Anraat, the TDG could not have been used for non-military purposes. And, because Iraq was at war, Anraat was also 'very aware of the fact that – 'in the ordinary course of events' – the gas was going to be used', and that this use was actually taking place.

It should be noted that Dutch export control law did not require a special license for the export of TDG until the beginning of 1985. And of course, the Chemical Weapons Convention only entered into force in 1997. The 1925 Geneva Protocol certainly prohibited the use of mustard gas in war, but it said nothing about the possession, production or transfer of chemical weapon precursors. In addition, it was arguably only applicable in international armed conflicts, (although the customary international law norm against chemical weapons use was possibly already broader in scope and applied also to internal armed conflicts).

Van Anraat did not commit war crimes himself, nor did he supply the weapons with which they were committed. He 'only' furnished a precursor thereof (although an essential one) - a chemical moreover, that has legitimate civilian applications. Nevertheless, Van Anraat was convicted of a crime (a separate civil case will also be brought against him by victims of the attacks) because the Court found that 'it is beyond doubt that the regime in Bagdad...committed extensive and extremely gross violations of the international humanitarian law' – violations, to which Anraat made a 'conscious' and 'substantial contribution'.

In finding that serious violations of the laws of war had been committed, the Court did not exclusively base itself on the fact that a prohibited weapon had been used. Therefore, this judgment should also be of interest to persons trading in other types of weapons, including small arms and light weapons (SALW). The judgment sets another important precedent for holding criminally responsible persons who transfer arms that are likely to be used to commit gross violations of human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Hopefully, a future Arms Trade Treaty will ensure greater accountability in the international arms trade.

Maya Brehm

Photo Credit: Adapted from 'Justitia in Frankfurt' by chaouki on Flickr.

  • Gerechtshof 's-Gravenhage (Court of Appeal The Hague), Judgment, 9 May 2007, LJN: BA6734.
  • Hoge Raad der Nederlanden (Supreme Court of the Netherlands), Judgment, 30 June 2009, LJN: BG4822.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Warfare: the victims’ perspective

Solferino, 24 June, 1859 : A tiny village in undulating countryside, just south of Lake Garda. Close by, a swirling, intense territorial battle involving troops from Piedmont, Sardinia and France confronting Austria’s army. Ten hours of volleys of cannon fire, cavalry charges and hand-to-hand fighting among almost 250,000 soldiers. The aftermath – more than one-tenth of them dead or wounded.

This bloody event one hundred and fifty years ago has had many consequences. In territorial terms, the Franco-Sardinian victory paved the way for Italian unity and for defining Italy’s northern frontiers from east to west.

In humanitarian terms, the conflict has similarly had a profound and enduring impact. A witness to the distress of the wounded arriving in great numbers in the neighboring village of Castiglione delle Stiviere, was Henry Dunant. Appalled by the lack of medical facilities and relief for the wounded, this Swiss entrepreneur (who was in the area on business) rallied support for them irrespective of their military allegiances. Soon, he was to be instrumental in founding the Red Cross.

Dunant, in effect, drew attention away from a popular perspective of the ‘glory’ of war to a down-to earth viewpoint of the victim. In the words of ICRC historian François Bugnion: ‘But what was important was not his [Dunant’s] personal role in Castiglione, but rather the two ideas he drew from this experience: the creation of voluntary relief societies – the birth of the Red Cross – and a treaty protecting medical staff on the battlefield – the start of the Geneva Conventions’. These treaties also embody Dunant’s spirit of neutrality and impartiality in tending to victims of war.

Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers from all round the globe gathered in Solferino last week to mark the 150th anniversary of the battle. An estimated thirteen thousand of them, red candles in their hands, symbolically traced steps that the victims had followed in desperate search for medical attention – medical attention that had been both inadequate and unprotected on the battleground on that horrific day in June 1859.

It may be an exaggeration to say that the surge of 13,000 volunteers thronging through the archways of Solferino’s Piazza Castello last Saturday night evoked scenes in that same square a century and a half ago. But it was impossible not to be moved by the commemoration. The terrors and consequences of face-to-face, soldier-to-soldier warfare exhibited in Solferino’s small museum and ossuary – the bayonets, the swords, the chilling array of skulls and bones – speak silently and grimly to us still about mortal combat as they have done in other parts of the world.

And the other victims of conflict: the civilians? The Battle of Solferino, by some accounts, produced a single civilian death. Modern conflicts, however, fought so often in densely populated urban rather than rural areas, take a high toll on civilians. In a survey of people affected by current conflicts published by the ICRC to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, 44% of the respondents said they had personally experienced armed conflict. Almost 30% of those directly affected by fighting said a close family member had been killed during fighting. 56% of the people directly affected by conflicts had been displaced, over half had lost contact with a family member and one in five had lost their livelihood. These figures are dramatically higher in some countries!

There are many victims of warfare, whether they are civilians or military or the dependents of those killed, maimed or traumatized in battle. Solferino – through Dunant – has been salutary in engendering an approach that views armed conflict through the prism of humanity.

But the humanitarian approach is not only about the promotion of the principles of the Red Cross or international humanitarian law. It is also about the promotion of international norms in support of humanitarian objectives more broadly. This includes prohibitions on the use and production of weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or, like landmines and cluster munitions, affect civilians and combatants without distinction, and that have wrought so much misery and deprivation on civilians. It means seeing disarmament as humanitarian action and bringing human security perspectives to bear in moving the disarmament agenda forward.

The enthusiasm for the cause of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement that marked the celebrations in Solferino, and its undertone of empathy with the victims of warfare, shows that the lessons of the past are not always forgotten. This is truly an example of Kipling’s ‘Lest we forget’ , in a practical, not a glorifying sense.

This is a guest post by Tim Caughley. Tim is a Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.

Photo Credit: ‘Perspectives at Piazza Castello, Solferino, 150 years apart’ by Jill Caughley.

- Henry Dunant, ‘A Memory of Solferino’, ICRC, 1986.
- ICRC, ‘Our World: Views from the Field’, Summary Report, Opinion Survey, 2009.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Protecting civilians from explosive violence: time for states to raise their voices

Last week the United Nations Secretary-General submitted his annual report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. The language of the report represents something of a break-though of a sort that's pleasing to see from the editorial perspective of this blog. Hopefully now states will also begin to make their voices heard in supporting the Protection of Civilians report's content both in the Security Council chamber and in elsewhere.

The Secretary-General's report observed that the "choice of weapons is critical in minimizing and reducing the impacts of hostilities on civilians". While this might sound obvious, it's worth noting that heavy weapons such as artillery and rockets were nevertheless used in populated areas in conflicts in recent months such as Gaza and in Sri Lanka, something the report also commented on in its paragraph 36:

"As demonstrated by this year’s hostilities in Sri Lanka and Israel’s campaign in Gaza, the use in densely populated environments of explosive weapons that have so-called “area effect” inevitably has an indiscriminate and severe humanitarian impact. First, in terms of the risk to civilians caught in the blast radius or killed or injured by damaged and collapsed buildings. Secondly, in terms of damage to infrastructure vital to the wellbeing of the civilian population, such as water and sanitation systems."
These are certainly issues that individually some Security Council members are taking very seriously. Only today, for instance, the New York Times reported that the new American military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, would sharply restrict the use of airstrikes there in an effort to reduce the civilian deaths he had concluded were undermining the American-led mission. In today's warfare, in which the lines between military objectives and civilian concentrations are usually blurred, those on the cutting edge of military thought are increasingly aware that the use of explosive violence in such areas can be counter-productive, as well as morally and legally unacceptable.

The Secretary-General further noted in last week's report that the Security Council "has a critical role in promoting systematic compliance with the law" including condemning violations "without exceptions", threatening and if necessary applying targeted measures against the leadership of parties violating their obligations to "respect" civilians and keeping track of violations and mandating commissions of inquiry "where concerns exist regarding serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law".

The British NGO Landmine Action issued a media release responding to the Secretary General's report, which
"welcomes the clear expression of concern from the UN Secretary-General regarding the humanitarian problems caused by explosive weapons. Landmine Action urges States, international organisations and civil society to further document the civilian harm caused by explosive weapons, work to prevent the use of explosive weapons in populated areas and support all efforts to minimise the post-conflict harm that explosive weapons cause."
One of the key points underlined by multilateral processes representing 'disarmament as humanitarian action' such as the Ottawa process to prohibit anti-personnel mines and the Oslo process resulting in the Convention on Cluster Munitions is that the collection and analysis of empirical evidence is crucial in changing policy makers' minds and re-framing issues in ways that make them more tractable. Nevertheless, weapons-specific processes like these require a huge amount of effort that is difficult to sustain throughout treaty implementation, let alone repeat for other weapons.

And, a risk of weapon-specific multilateral processes in general is that governments opposed to stigmatising the use of explosive violence in populated areas will succeed in breaking up and subdividing issues around use of explosive weapons (as Richard Moyes at Landmine Action has pointed out) that muddy the waters, or denude relevant multilateral processes of real value.

There is a need for the international community to begin looking beyond just the weapon specific to highlight explosive weapons as a broad category of concern at time of use and post-conflict. This is something a few of us have already begun trying to do (Landmine Action's media release mentioned, for instance, Disarmament Insight's work at facilitating such discussion).

In light of the Protection of Civilians report, the Security Council could be one place for states and international organisations to take the new discourse forward. But it also needs to be a broader debate. The international community should do more to ensure civilians are protected, and that will necessarily entail some fresh thinking.

John Borrie

Image downloaded from Wikipedia: "A Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon is prepared for testing at the Eglin Air Force Armament Center on March 11, 2003. The MOAB is a precision-guided munition weighing 21,500 pounds and will be dropped from a C-130 Hercules aircraft for the test. It will be the largest non-nuclear conventional weapon in existence."

Thursday, 18 June 2009

The CD lives again, but let history not repeat itself !

29 May 2009 was a red-letter day in the Conference on Disarmament. The Conference has secured a new lease of life. Its future must be informed by its past.

Just over 30 years ago, the UN General Assembly held a special session devoted to disarmament. It saw the need for a “single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum of limited size taking decisions on the basis of consensus”, i.e., without voting. This Geneva-based body became the Conference on Disarmament (CD) comprised now of 65 states.

Important treaties emerged from the CD, culminating in the Comprehensive Test Ban agreement in 1996. Since then, the CD has failed to agree – with one exception – even on a mandate to negotiate a treaty, let alone a treaty itself. Meanwhile several disarmament treaties have emerged from processes other than the CD. Conventions banning anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions were agreed in negotiations that were purposely conducted by like-minded states outside of another consensus-observing process, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Until May of this year, the CD’s last decision to negotiate on substance (on a treaty prohibiting the production of fissile material, a key ingredient of nuclear weapons) occurred late in 1998. That decision was short-lived, however. In 1999 the Conference failed to agree to renew that mandate. A decade-long deadlock followed.

In the face of growing concerns about its future, concerted efforts were made to raise the political profile of the Conference. Since the beginning of last year, senior political figures from almost half the CD’s membership have come to Geneva to urge the Conference to resolve entrenched differences over its priorities and get back to work. The UN Secretary-General personally attended twice in that period to reinforce those exhortations. So too has the Russian Foreign Minister whose latest CD address, extraordinarily enough, took place on a Saturday early this March. Something was afoot.

And so it has proved. On 29 May, on his last day as president, Ambassador Idriss Jazaïry of Algeria, gavelled through a decision that ended an empty decade in the Conference. The loud and lingering applause that greeted the decision reflected a range of emotions. Sheer relief that the long drought had been broken. Relief, too, that this institution had seemingly been spared, as the president said, irrelevancy. Delight with the manner in which Amb Jazaïry had so skilfully engineered the breakthrough.

There was more sobering recognition, also, that the taking of this decision (CD/1863) was just the beginning of things. It will require more than a new spirit of multilateralism to make this delicate compromise work. Delegations will have to get used to spending virtually the entire week in the Council Chamber (the CD’s venerable meeting room) rather than the occasional day. They will need to deepen considerably their involvement in the complexities of the issues, calling on extra support where they can from capitals. Many of them will be anxious about tackling a work programme that embodies not just one major issue but four – a fissile material production ban, security assurances, nuclear disarmament and preventing an arms race in outer space.

Throughout these past barren years, CD members have frequently voiced, like a mantra, the Conference’s role as the world’s single disarmament negotiating body. It would seem to follow that the eyes of the international community, if not CD members themselves, will be on the topic of a fissile material production ban, the sole issue amongst the four that enjoys a negotiating mandate.

In any event, the decision of 29 May has raised widespread expectations that the Conference will, in due course, embellish its fine history with a new and vital treaty or treaties of comparable significance to its past products, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) , and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is imperative that the efforts of the Conference to set up and sustain the necessary Working Groups that will implement this decision enjoy universal political and public support from the outset.

Certainly, the decision has attracted international acclaim at the levels both of political leaders and civil society. And in terms of the new political profile of the Conference, it cannot have escaped the notice of all who continued to believe in the CD that amongst those who welcomed the event of 29 May was the US President himself in a press statement that same day heralding what, surely, will be a new beginning for the Conference.

The CD’s decision is entitled “Draft Decision for the establishment of a Programme of Work for the 2009 session”. International disappointment if the decision is literally confined to the CD’s 2009 session will be as palpable as the relief that surrounded the extraordinary breakthrough of 29 May. Will the new political and public profile that the Conference now enjoys insure it against the fate of the short-lived predecessor to CD/1683 almost eleven years ago? Let history not repeat itself.

This is a guest blog by Tim Caughley. Tim is Resident Senior Fellow at UNIDIR.

Photo credit: courtesy of Mary Wareham.