Disarmament Insight


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.


Patricia said...

excellent stuff John - keep going!
it is true that people involved with negotiations fondly imagine that they were in at the beginning & have scant regard for the decades of work that led up to that point.