Status of ERW Instrument Remains Uncertain

Diplomats negotiating a new agreement on cleaning up abandoned and unexploded munitions will not likely decide on whether it should be legally binding until the last days of the talks.

The negotiations are taking place within the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which regulates or bans the use of weapons judged to be indiscriminate or “excessively injurious.” Comprising 90 states-parties, the CCW has four legally binding protocols addressing incendiary weapons; blinding lasers; nondetectable-fragment weapons; and mines, booby traps, and other devices.

In the current negotiations, the United States stands virtually alone in urging for a political outcome that is not legally binding. Although some countries have suggested they do not have a strong preference, they are seen as simply not wanting to disagree with Washington publicly at this time, according to Western diplomats.

Speaking at the latest round of talks June 16-27 in Geneva, Edward Cummings, head of the U.S. negotiating team, repeated a March statement that Washington has a “comprehensive objection to all language that implies a legal character to the instrument.” Cummings was commenting on a Dutch draft of the instrument with terms, such as “high contracting parties” and the verb “shall,” that the United States had previously singled out as unacceptable. (See ACT, April 2003.)

Other outstanding issues pertain to who should be responsible for cleaning up explosive remnants of war (ERW)—the term used to describe munitions on the ground that remain potentially lethal after the fighting stops—and what should be done about existing ERW that has been dormant for years and possibly decades, such as unexploded World War II bombs in the Egyptian desert.

The Netherlands plans to circulate a revised ERW draft in September or October for review by other governments before negotiators meet November 17-24. The understanding, according to one diplomat, is that the text of the instrument will be largely completed and then a decision will be made on whether it should be legally binding.