Disarmament Insight


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.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

The tip of the iceberg

As regular readers of the blog may have gathered, I've been working this year on a history of international efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions.

This history, to be published before the end of the year, focuses in particular on the Oslo process, which culminated in a Convention on Cluster Munitions in negotiations in Dublin in May 2008. But it also casts an eye much further back to the origins of international cluster munition work, which date from the Swiss Diplomatic Conferences in the 1970s and proposals there by Sweden and others to prohibit "cluster warheads".

Chronologically speaking, the Oslo process, which ran for approximately 15 months from February 2007 until the end of May 2008, was just the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot more under the surface. Concerns had been raised about the hazards cluster munitions pose to civilians both at time of use and post-conflict for many, many years by governments and NGOs. My impression is that this isn't necessarily widely understood when multilateral practitioners think about lessons to be learned (or not) from recent international efforts on cluster munitions. Nor is the question it poses but which is often not raised: why did the Oslo process get traction when previous efforts failed?

The easy thing to do would be to point to the 2006 summer war in Southern Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah and the massive use of cluster munitions there as the catalyst. Others disagree: Virgil Wiebe, for instance, whose posts have graced this blog in the past, feels strongly that the Lebanon conflict was "necessary but not sufficient". Certainly, determination among Norwegian policy makers to get an international process going on a treaty to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians pre-dated Lebanon. And NGOs in the Cluster Munition Coalition had been preparing for a break with the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons' talks in late 2006 unless its five-yearly review conference agreed on more meaningful work to restrict the weapon. So clearly the picture is more complex than it first appears.

The deeper I got into research for the history, the more convinced I became that it's difficult to draw useful lessons about the Oslo process for future 'humanitarian disarmament' endeavours without having this historical context. Fortunately, Eric Prokosch's classic book 'The Technology of Killing: A Military and Political History of Anti-Personnel Weapons' (Zed Books, 1995) is an excellent resource. (This book is unfortunately out of print, but second-hand copies can be scrounged via the internet and second-hand bookshops, and should be required reading for all Geneva multilateral diplomats, in my view.) Eric also has been very kind in sharing his insights in the course of my research about how cluster munition-related concerns evolved from their early days.

Such perspectives are important. Many of the other people I've interviewed and conversed with in the course of writing my book have quite reasonably drawn their own conclusions about what we can learn from international efforts on cluster munitions, but most do so based on their impressions of events this decade. However, if one only looks at the last few years the achievement of the cluster munition ban treaty might have looked simply spontaneous, and even easy - even though it was neither.

The impact of the Ottawa process on anti-personnel mines in the 1990s and the resulting 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention also needs to be considered. There are many similarities between the Ottawa and Oslo processes, and the former's example was at the very least a major inspiration to most of those centrally involved in the Oslo process. But again, context is important. A two-day seminar we convened in November last year with various multilateral practitioners on lessons learned from the Ottawa and Oslo processes underlined that there are divergent viewpoints on what kind of 'model' that the most obvious similarities between the two processes offer, or whether they constitute a model at all. (These similarities include free-standing activity outside traditional UN forums propelled by like-mindedness rather than universal participation, government-civil society partnership, and emphasis on humanitarian perspectives.)

The British historian Hew Strachan recently wrote in the journal Survival with regard to the Iraq war that "As history is turned into political science, it makes a casualty of contingency". It's a phrase I have written on my office whiteboard as a continual reminder. The most elegant international relations theories don't convincingly account (in my mind at least) for the role of individuals in the Oslo process. If anything is really clear to me, however, it's that individuals were key to that success.

I'm pondering all of this as I prepare to write my concluding chapter of the draft manuscript after a week off. Earlier this year, I related the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's comment that writing books is a bit like marathon running. I'm looking for my second wind!

John Borrie

Image credit: photo-montage of an iceberge from Wikipedia.org.