Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 29 April 2009

What could the CCW do about improvised explosive devices?

If there is a weapon that reflects our times, it is the improvised explosive device (IED). These weapons come in myriad forms– whether it's the suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest approaching a checkpoint in Afghanistan, the command-detonated roadside bombs encountered by troops in Iraq or, indeed, the seizure of passenger planes in mid-air by hijackers to be used as flying bombs – as occurred on 911.

Most often on this blog, when we’ve provided commentary on the work of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) it’s been with reference to its Group of Government Experts’ efforts on cluster munitions. However, the CCW is a framework treaty that contains five protocols, two of which – Amended Protocol II on mines and booby traps, and Protocol V on explosive remnants of war – have active sub-processes of their own.

Last week, in a discussion facilitated by the Swiss, states party to Amended Protocol II began a discussion about IEDs. Presenting were Chris Clark from the UN Mine Action Service, Richard Moyes from UK NGO Landmine Action, Erik Tollefsen from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, and Colin King, an independent explosive ordnance consultant.
An IED is

“A device placed or fabricated in an improvised manner incorporating destructive, lethal, noxious, pyrotechnic, or incendiary chemicals or explosives and designed to destroy, incapacitate, harass or distract. It may incorporate military stores, but is normally devised from non-military components.” (IED Factsheet)
Colin King observed there has been an evolution of attacks using IEDs over the last few decades. In the 1970s, non-state armed groups like the Irish Republican Army (IRA) really did have to improvise using commonly available materials such as nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers, stolen blasting caps and mechanical or electronic timers cannibalized from devices like alarm clocks. The IEDs tended to be unreliable, and to have uncertain effects in terms of explosive yield and signature. In other words, these types of IED were low-tech, basic weapons not particularly well suited to their targets.

The 1970s seem rather halcyon days now. Armed groups making and deploying IEDs in conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have become highly sophisticated in terms of funding and organisation: as their experience and access to materials began to match the scale of their ambitions and inventiveness, it has made life increasingly hazardous for both soldiers and civilians.

The IRA’s best chance of destroying a vehicle in Britain or Northern Ireland in the 1970s, for instance, was by physically attaching a time-delay bomb. More recently, insurgents in Iraq and many other places have long had access to shaped-charge explosives like the High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds launched from rocket-propelled grenade launchers. But in recent years they’ve also been able to hold of explosively formed penetrators able to destroy modern armoured vehicles - potentially from a significant distance, we were told. And along with the technology, methods of attack involving sophisticated means of coordination have made counter-measures against IEDs a difficult cat-and-mouse game for military forces.

And, as Richard Moyes pointed out, IEDs are certainly an issue in humanitarian terms too. Landmine Action’s research into incidents of explosive ordnance based on English language news reports of 1,836 incidents in 38 countries over six months revealed that 60 per cent related to IEDs causing many civilian deaths and injuries.

It’s a moot point what the CCW can actually do – if anything – about IEDs, not least because the primary makers and users of IEDs are armed non-state actors, not governments bound by agreements like Amended Protocol II. And, as the International Committee of the Red Cross pointed out, there isn’t anything especially novel about the fact a munition is improvised from a humanitarian law perspective. IHL rules still apply.

Nevertheless, in a ‘food for thought’ paper for the meeting, the Swiss set out some possible avenues for discussion about specific measures such as:
“What are specific best practices to cut the supply?
• What can be done in order to avoid that AXO, UXO, badly managed stockpiles, and commercially available products provide the explosives)?
• Could the CCW APII work towards a best practice guide for the improved storage, security, and transport of explosives?
• What mechanisms would help better controlling the manufacture and trafficking of explosives?
• Are there different approaches to deal with IEDs under domestic criminal law?”
Certainly last week’s CCW talks didn’t come up with any clear answers about what to do next. But, as presenters like King pointed out, a lot of IEDs are ‘local manufactures’ – mass produced, but using parts like abandoned or stolen military munitions. Artillery shells have become a favoured source of explosive for many roadside or vehicle-borne IEDs in Iraq, for instance.

So, governments undertaking practical work at the national level to tighten up stockpile management and storage of explosive material in places under their jurisdiction or control would be an important start. Another thing states can do is to join and fully implement the CCW’s ERW protocol to ensure that unexploded and abandoned ordnance is cleared up quickly, and not diverted to putting the bang into IEDs. Not sexy stuff, but worthwhile.

John Borrie

Image: IEDs made from military munitions found in Baghdad (retrieved from Wikipedia Commons, sourced in turn from U.S. Department of Defense).

Thursday, 23 April 2009

A corrupt trade

Yesterday, South Africans headed to the polls to elect their national and provincial leaders in the fourth democratic elections since the end of Apartheid. In spite of bad weather conditions and various other difficulties that have beleaguered these elections, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Jakob Zuma is widely expected to take over as South Africa’s next President.

Until recently, Zuma faced charges of corruption relating to a massive arms deal signed in 1999 to modernize the South African defence force. The procurement package comprised the acquisition of aircraft, helicopters, submarines and ships at a cost of 29 billion Rand (then 4.8 billion USD). Evidence supporting allegations that Zuma had accepted bribes came to light in 2005 during the trial of his former financial advisor Shabir Shaik, who was convicted for his role in the deal. But earlier this month, the National Prosecuting Authority dropped the charges against Zuma on procedural grounds.

Zuma is by no means the only high ranking government official to be implicated in a defence-related corruption scandal, nor is it the first time that an investigation into such a scandal has been called off before it could unearth the whole truth. According to Transparency International, a leading civil society organization in the fight against corruption, the defence sector is among the top three sectors for bribery and corruption. The industry’s share of corruption is grossly disproportionate to its share of trade. Arguably, corruption in the arms trade accounts for about half of all corrupt transactions globally.

The controversial South African arms deal involved companies from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Britain, France and South Africa. The French arms manufacturer Thales, for instance, allegedly paid Zuma 500’000 Rand a year (about 85’000 USD in 1999) as an incentive to sign a 400 million USD contract for South Africa’s new warships and in exchange for protecting Thales against an investigation into the arms deal. The French police raided Thales’ headquarters in Paris, but the case was allowed to go cold after a visit by former South African President Mbeki to France. Thales has been the subject of several other judicial inquiries, including its 1991 sale of six La Fayette frigates to Taiwan. French industrialists are suspected of having paid hefty commissions to politicians in Taiwan and of having organized a system of payback of money to French politicians. In 2003 Taiwan sued Thales to recover 590 million USD in kickbacks deposited in Swiss banks.

Also involved in the South African arms deal was the British arms manufacturer BAE and its Swedish partner Saab. According to the British Guardian newspaper, BAE paid more than 100 million GBP in commissions through various secret routes, including Swiss bank accounts and a Swiss-based off-shore company, to win a contract to supply fighter jets to South Africa. BAE has also been the subject of investigations by British and foreign authorities regarding its activities in Bosnia, Nigeria, Zambia, Costa Rica and Egypt, Tanzania, Romania, Chile, the Czech Republic, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The investigation by the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) into the Saudi arms deals was stopped after threats from the Saudi ruling family and the intervention of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair (read all about it here). This caused international uproar and Britain was severely criticised by the OECD in a 2008 report. A month ago, the British government finally acted on one of the OECD’s demands and submitted a draft bribery bill to Parliament.

Corruption, it appears, is not peripheral to the arms trade, it is at the centre of procurement decision-making. But why is the international arms trade so prone to corruption? Among the factors that contribute to this sordid state of affairs, Transparency International lists excessive secrecy invoked in the name of national security, the technical complexity of arms deals and the high value of products, widespread use of off-sets in the form of investments in the local economy by the company winning the contract, widespread use of agents and embedded networks of intermediaries, extensive use of single source bidding, use of military expenditures not approved by Parliament, and lack of implementation of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention by States Parties.

The payment of huge bribes and corruption in the arms trade distorts and inflates the prices. It leads to unnecessary spending and waste of resources in both, importing and exporting countries and hampers economic development. In exporting countries tax payers’ money is used to pay massive subsidies to the indigenous arms industry and for export credit guarantees. Governments thereby become complicit in defence companies’ bribery. Corruption scandals can seriously undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, as a German case demonstrates, where some of the profits from an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s flowed back to Germany in the form of party donations to the Christian Democrats.

As roughly two thirds of arms transfers are to developing countries, corruption in the arms trade diverts colossal sums away from much needed investment in public health, education and infrastructure projects. This represents a huge opportunity cost for the citizens of these countries. In addition, the supply of arms can contribute to the destabilization of regions, exacerbate arms races and increases the global burden of armed violence.

Some believe that if the international legal arms trade ‘ceased to be a honey-pot for the enrichment of the well-connected, it would dwindle into an irreducible strategic reality.’ Consequently ‘removing or even significantly reducing corruption would do more to reform the trade than any other single act.’ Transparency International and other NGOs have undertaken important initiatives to that effect. Their recommendations include the creation of industry consortia against corruption, integrity pacts, the development of good practices, the strengthening of national and international instruments against bribery in the defence sector and their effective application, increased civil oversight into the defence establishment, democratic control of the procurement sector and parliamentary oversight over all military expenditures, as well as procurement reforms and external periodic procurement reviews as part of broader security sector reform.

Military procurement has always been an intensely political activity, but today, it is perhaps ‘realistic - and increasingly possible - for civil society organizations to play an active and critical role in defence governance’.

Maya Brehm


Photo Credit: 'South Africa's Latest Fighter - Gripen from Sweden' by DanieVDM on Flickr.

Friday, 17 April 2009

CCW cluster munitions: work without end ...

As suggested in my preceding post, although this was the last formal week of time allocated in 2009 for negotiating a proposal for a protocol on cluster munitions in the UN’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)’s expert group (which had already missed its end of 2008 deadline and awarded itself two more sessions, of which this week’s was the second), its Chair came up with an effective fudge today to allow efforts to continue.

Basically, the group’s Chair, Mr. Ainchil of Argentina, told delegates that he would need more time: he would write to government shortly, he said. The upshot is that the Chair intends to hold ‘informal consultations’ later in the year – tentatively scheduled for the week of 17 to 21 August in Geneva.

The Chair then opened the floor and the Czech Republic (as European Union President), Brazil, Croatia, Japan, Canada, France, Austria, India, China, Ukraine, Switzerland, the United States, Norway, Germany, Russia, Israel, Turkey, Ecuador, Republic of Korea, Pakistan, Mexico and Cuba spoke. Some huffed and puffed about the need for flexibility (from others, mostly, of course), some tut-tutted about the weakness/rigorousness/absence/presence of specific provisions, but all assented to the further consultations.

What does this mean? It means – on the face of it – that the chances of some sort of Protocol VI on cluster munitions is increasingly likely to be presented this November at the CCW’s next meeting of State Parties.

To this end, the Chair was able to get his procedural report agreed, annexed to which is an updated ‘consolidated text’ based on his consultations bilaterally and in small groups over the course of the week. That this text has evolved further toward a final product since his last text issued in February is undisputed. But it has not grown noticeably any more robust in its provisions, and some argued that on key issues such as definitions, general prohibitions and restrictions, and articles on stockpile storage and destruction clearance, as well as rules on cluster munition transfers, the new text was a backward step.

States that have shunned the Oslo process and the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) such as Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States are the keenest to forge ahead. They insist that the CCM should not be the benchmark for the CCW’s efforts (certainly the strength of that Convention’s provisions make the ‘consolidated drafts’ proposals look wan indeed), and that any product of the CCW will automatically have substantial humanitarian benefit by virtue of the fact that (if they joined and applied its rather loose provisions) the protocol would apply to their large current stocks of cluster munitions. As it has argued before, the US argued that the text, if agreed, would have implications for 95 per cent of its cluster munition arsenal.

In the other corner are many countries, including many in the European Union, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Cluster Munition Coalition who argue the CCW exercise has some way to go before it delivers real humanitarian benefit, will not conflict with the CCM’s more robust provisions or contain much in the way of meaningful prohibitions.

And, they argue their proposals to improve the text have not been reflected in the new version of the consolidated text to any great degree. Several pointed out that the emphasis on submunition reliability as a basis for acceptability in the consolidated text is based on assumptions about testing that were discredited during the course of the Oslo process, and that the Chair’s draft has little to say to address the inaccuracy of cluster munitions and the hazards that poses to civilians.

These are sound arguments, in my view. The problem for the maximalists at present is that however firmly they make their points, the psychological advantage lies with the more minimalist in the negotiation. It is easier for the Chair to believe that the latter may play procedural games to prevent an outcome too strong for their liking, rather than others blocking an agreement on the grounds that they perceive it to be weak.

John Borrie

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

CCW: Still searching in the undergrowth

The UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)’s Group of Governmental Experts began a four-day meeting today, the latest – and perhaps the last – in its efforts to negotiate a protocol on cluster munitions.

When the last CCW Meeting of States Parties wrapped up late last year it had not been able to produce an agreement. Two-third of the CCW’s membership were about to sign the new Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Oslo, and concerns were widespread and deeply felt that the CCW product being touted by Denmark, the GGE’s Chair at the time, would deliver too little humanitarian benefit, and would conflict with the CCM’s obligations to ban the weapon and help victims. They dug in, much to the chagrin of CCW members shunning the CCM and unhappy at being depicted as international bad guys in the media and by civil society.

So, the compromise achieved was for two more short GGE sessions in early 2009 to see what could be salvaged. Argentina took over from Denmark as GGE Chair, and we reported in February that the new Chairman had made some progress – although the differences between the ambitions of major possessors and producers shunning the CCM (like Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States) for a cluster munition protocol still seemed very different from the higher humanitarian standard others expected. The European Union, for instance, has repeatedly stated that any new protocol should deliver measurable humanitarian benefit, be compatible with the obligations of the CCM, and must contain some sort of substantive prohibition, whether on use, transfer or some other aspect of cluster munitions.

In this morning’s general debate to start off the four days of GGE meetings this week, there seemed little new of note. Argentina’s “consolidated Chair’s text” distributed at the end of the February meeting was generally accepted as a basis for work, although most countries also raised problems about key Articles such as its definitions, how the protocol’s obligations would sit with existing international humanitarian law obligations, the nature of its prohibitions, and derivative questions related to stockpile destruction such as transition periods.

None of these issues are new, although many delegations speaking today seemed keen to sound as constructive as possible. Even so, it is difficult to see how a protocol agreeable by consensus could be agreed in the space of four days: the International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out in detail a number of serious problems remaining in the text, which many Europeans and others agree with, for instance, and which others will resist.

That said, while the GGE mandate for meetings (which cost money, and therefore need the CCW Meetings of States Parties to okay them) effectively runs out at the week, it doesn’t necessarily mean negotiations will end. There is nothing to stop Argentina continuing bilateral and small group consultations with a view to having a final draft to offer to the next CCW Meeting of States Parties later this year. That is what I suspect it will do.

John Borrie.

Photo by author of battle area clearer searching for unexploded submunitions. From a photograph in an exhibition in the Esplanade des Nations (outside the CCW's meetings in the Palais), taken in November 2007.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

What I talk about when I write about cluster bombs

As the world financial crisis deepens and the G-20 meet in London (and as anarchist protesters angle for a bit of argey-bargey with London’s bobbies) it was at least a lovely spring day in Geneva yesterday.

It found me holed up in my apartment fighting spring hay fever and roughly halfway through researching and writing a history of efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions to be published by the United Nations later this year. The history looks at the earliest efforts to place restrictions on the weapon in the 1970s, as well as the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapon process’s subsequent attempts to engage with addressing the proven hazards of cluster munitions to civilians. But the book’s main focus is on why and how the Oslo process unfolded (which regular readers of this blog will know I’ve followed since its origins) and what some of its lessons might be.

I find writing a rewarding but lonely and difficult 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 organisations and civil society can make a positive difference to human security – I have no real reason for complaint!

In the second half of last year I decided I’d get myself into shape after a long and intense period of work on the Oslo process and my UNIDIR research. I entered to run L’Escalade, a 7.5 kilometre running race held every December in Geneva to commemorate an attack by the Duke of Savoy’s troops the Genevois repulsed in 1602. (According to Genevois legend, Catherine Cheynel, originally from Lyons and the wife of Pierre Royaume, ("Mère Royaume"), a mother of 14 children, seized a large cauldron of hot soup and poured it on the attackers. The Royaume family lived just above the La Monnaie town gate. The heavy cauldron of boiling soup landed on the head of a Savoyard attacker, killing him. The commotion that this caused also helped to rouse the townsfolk to defend the city.)

Now 7.5 km isn’t far. But I’d been travelling the two preceding weeks and only arrived back in Geneva from the Oslo signing ceremony for the Convention on Cluster Munitions the previous evening. But I did run l’Escalade despite the dark, the freezing temperature and it being my first-ever running race (being jostled by a thousand bony elbows took a bit of getting used to). I even ran a respectable time (for me!) and managed to overtake some of those sets of sharp elbows later in the run.

In retrospect I think it was good mental preparation for tackling a book – since with researching and writing like this you certainly have to take a long-view and pace yourself, but keep going whatever happens.

At the moment I’m reading a memoir by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He’s one of my favourite novelists, and a lot of what he says in the book strikes a chord with me. I loved this passage:

“No matter how much long-distance running might suit me, of course there are days when I feel kind of lethargic and don’t want to run. Actually, it happens a lot. On days like that, I try to think of all kinds of plausible excuses to shake it off. Once, I interviewed the Olympic runner Toshihiko Seko, just after he retired from running and became manager of the S&B company team. I asked him, “Does a runner at your level ever feel like you’d rather not run today, like you don’t want to run and would rather just sleep in? He stared at me and then, in a voice that made it abundantly clear how stupid he thought the question was, replied, “Of course. All the time!”

Now that I look back on it I can see what a dumb question that was. I guess even back then I knew how dumb it was, but I suppose I wanted to hear the answer directly from someone of Seko’s calibre. I wanted to know whether, despite being worlds apart in terms of strength, the amount we exercise, and motivation, when we lace up our running shoes early in the morning we feel exactly the same way. Seko’s reply at the time came as a great relief. In the final analysis we’re all the same, I thought.”
Moreover, for Murakami, the motivation to write, just like his motivation to run at least a marathon every year, has to be a sense of accomplishment rather than competition with others:
“What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike.”
I’m neither a novelist nor do I have much inclination at the moment to train for a full marathon.
But I did feel a sense of accomplishment after completing L’Escalade – however modest the objective; one similar to the feeling I get when I finish a piece of decent research. The feeling doesn’t last long, and it always just gets me thinking about what’s next, but for a short while it’s tangible.

I guess time will tell how apt Murakami’s advice is in the context of me getting my manuscript finished by deadline. But it did at least encourage me to gulp down some hayfever medicine and go for a decent run next to the lake yesterday evening as a break from my own historical marathon.

John Borrie

Photo ('Run like hell!!!) of a Baku roadsign by 'Today is a good day' retrieved from Flickr.