Cluster Munitions Negotiations Launched

Wade Boese

Despite a process already underway to restrict cluster munitions, a group of states recently agreed to another set of negotiations on those weapons systems. The new talks will commence in January and involve countries, such as Russia and the United States, that defend the military utility of cluster munitions and abstain from the pre-existing process.

Concluding a seven-day meeting in Geneva, states-parties to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) announced Nov. 13 that they had reached the necessary consensus to initiate negotiations on cluster munitions, which are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse smaller submunitions over broad areas. Those grenades or bomblets, sometimes numbering as many as 600 for a single munition, can fail to detonate immediately yet maim or kill if disturbed later.

The states-parties to the CCW, which regulates weapons judged to be indiscriminate or inhumane, declared their new negotiating goal to be a “proposal to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations.” They scheduled four rounds of negotiations next year, the first of which runs Jan. 14-18, and called for a progress report next November. All 103 CCW states-parties can send experts to the negotiations.

In a Nov. 13 statement to the Geneva meeting, the head of the U.S. delegation, Ronald Bettauer, said the negotiations would be “challenging,” citing “significant differences” among states-parties. Indeed, CCW members agreed to negotiate a “proposal” instead of an instrument or treaty because the former term was considered more neutral and acceptable to countries, such as China and Russia, that still question the value of holding talks.

China, for example, reiterated its position that adherence to a 2003 CCW protocol on explosive remnants of war would “play an important role in effectively resolving problems concerning cluster munitions.” That existing protocol obligates governments to cordon off and clear areas of unexploded ordnance after conflicts end. (See ACT, January/February 2004. )

Until last June, the United States also had staunchly opposed CCW negotiations on cluster munitions. At that time, Bettauer attributed Washington’s reversal to “the importance of this issue, concerns raised by other countries, and our own concerns about the humanitarian implications of these weapons.” Still, he cautioned that the United States had no preferred outcome for any negotiation except that it help protect civilians from cluster munitions while permitting militaries to use the weapons. (See ACT, July/August 2007. )

The U.S. turnabout, however, followed the February startup of a Norwegian-led effort outside the CCW to negotiate a treaty to ban cluster munitions “that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” (See ACT, April 2007. ) Known as the Oslo Process, the effort initially attracted some 40 countries, including France and the United Kingdom. Since then, the number of participants has almost doubled. Some CCW members are participants in both processes.

Norway, itself a CCW state-party, launched the Oslo Process after convention members in November 2006 failed again after several years of attempts to approve cluster munitions negotiations. Frustrated by what they deride as the slothful approach of the CCW, Norway and many other Oslo participants aim to conclude a treaty in 2008. Their next meeting is Dec. 4-7 in Vienna.

The United States last year criticized Norway for its initiative and stayed on the attack this year. In his Nov. 13 statement, Bettauer argued that “the CCW is the only framework that brings together the users and producers” and therefore is able to achieve “meaningful” results.

But nongovernmental supporters of the Oslo Process see the combination of a vague CCW mandate and participation of countries averse to negotiating legally-binding constraints as a recipe for failure. Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition, stated Nov. 13 that the CCW decision “is a road to nowhere.” The coalition consists of roughly 200 organizations that support action to prevent civilian cluster munitions casualties.

Although some independent experts charge that the major powers’ change of heart on CCW negotiations appears suspiciously timed to steal momentum away from the Oslo Process, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has sought to downplay competition between the two, encouraging both. Still, Ban has prodded CCW states-parties, calling on them in a Nov. 7 statement to “address the horrendous humanitarian, human rights and developmental effects of cluster munitions by concluding a legally binding instrument.”

Ban also urged countries to adopt national restraints on cluster munitions. At the Geneva meeting, Bulgaria and Croatia proclaimed their intent to join a growing number of states that have enacted domestic limits.

Meanwhile, the United States urged CCW members to pledge themselves to another voluntary commitment. For several years, the United States had teamed with 30 other governments to promote adoption of a new CCW protocol to restrict deployments of anti-vehicle mines that are undetectable or lack self-destruct or self-deactivation measures. After Belarus, China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Russia refused to drop their opposition to such rules, the United States last year made them part of a nonbinding declaration to which other governments could subscribe. (See ACT, December 2006. )

Speaking Nov. 7, Bettauer said the United States remained ready to negotiate an anti-vehicle mine protocol but that Washington was not interested in a “fruitless repetition of many prior discussions.” Stating that he was under the impression that positions had not changed, Bettauer encouraged other governments to sign up to the U.S.-sponsored declaration, which has been endorsed by two dozen other states.

Bettauer volunteered that the Bush administration, for its part, would work in the coming year to ratify four CCW measures that the United States has yet to bring into force. Those include the explosive remnants of war protocol, two separate protocols restricting the use of incendiary weapons and blinding lasers, and an amendment to apply the convention beyond interstate conflicts to intrastate fighting. Bettauer said the administration is supporting “expeditious Senate action on these treaties.”