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CCW Considers Limits on Cluster Munitions

Jeff Abramson

In September, delegates to a Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) meeting considered possible limitations on the use of cluster munitions, while supporters of a separate process criticized the effort as too little, too late. The discussions came against the backdrop of alleged use of the weapons in the August conflict between Russia and Georgia. A next round of meetings in November will determine whether a new protocol will emerge from the CCW this year.

The CCW governmental group of experts on cluster muntions convened Sept. 1-5 in Geneva. During the meeting, delegates discussed many of the most contentious issues involved in drafting a new treaty protocol, including general prohibitions and restrictions, and provisions on storage, destruction, and transfer of cluster munitions between countries. The discussions followed the May conclusion of a separate treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), outside the CCW treaty process. The CCM, which opens for signature in December, bans the use of cluster munitions, with the exception of a narrow range of sophisticated weapons, and imposes strict guidelines for stockpile strorage, destruction, and transfer. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

The CCW draft protocol is filled with bracketed text indicating possible additional changes. It provides a variety of options for defining which cluster munitions would be prohibited. Relying on technical features to minimize “the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions,” some of the proposals could bar the most commonly used cluster munitions. One option matches current U.S. policy, which calls for using more advanced cluster munitions so that no more than 1 percent of submunitions remains unexploded after dispersal. (See ACT, September 2008.) Yet another lists the technical characteristics of acceptably sophisticated weapons laid out in the CCM but leaves unclear whether all or only part of that treaty’s five-part definition of what constitutes such a muntion would apply.

Under the CCM, cluster-like weapons are permitted that contain no more than nine explosive submunitions, each of which must have the following characteristics: weigh more than 4 kilograms and less than 20 kilograms; be designed to detect and engage a single target; and be equipped with an electronic self-destruct mechanism and an electronic self-deactivating feature. The vast majority of the world’s cluster munitions, including those from the United States, do not meet these requirements. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)

Supporters of the CCW process stress that it involves the major users and stockpilers of cluster munitions, including countries such as China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States, which have thus far remained outside the Oslo process that led to the CCM. The CCW meeting’s chair, Danish Ambassador Bent Wigotski, told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 17 e-mail that, “for the first time in public, most of the major players not taking part in Oslo indicated their readiness to negotiate restrictions/prohibitions on some types of cluster munitions.” He added, “I hope that everybody will keep in mind that 90 percent of world stockpiles are not covered by the CCM.”

Others have raised questions as to whether the CCW is on track. Norwegian Ambassador Steffen Kongstad, who led Norway’s delegation to the CCW meeting as well as his country’s efforts in the Oslo process, told Arms Control Today in an e-mail Sept. 14 that “it is not clear that any solution or consensus agreement is emerging in [the] CCW at this stage.” Instead, he suggested that “perhaps a more constructive approach is to see if a more limited scope like a transfer ban could be a more productive way for [the] CCW. Trying to establish an alternative to the CCM seems a bit too late.”

Nongovernmental advocates of the CCM have been more critical of the CCW approach. The Cluster Munitions Coalition, a leading international alliance in the Oslo process, passed a negative judgment on the CCW effort and issued a press release Sept. 5 titled “USA, Backed By Denmark, Works To Legalise Cluster Bombs After Ban Agreed.”

As the CCW meeting was beginning, new allegations of cluster munitions use in Georgia surfaced. On Sept. 1, Human Rights Watch announced that it had received a letter from the Georgian Defense Ministry acknowledging Georgia’s use of cluster munitions “against Russian military equipment and armament” but stating that they “were never used against civilians, civilian targets and civilian populated or nearby areas.” The letter was later made available on the ministry’s Website. Human Rights Watch had previously documented Russian use of cluster munitions in Georgia. (See ACT, September 2008.)

The issue does not appear to be impacting the likelihood of an agreement coming from the group. According to Wigotski, “Events in Georgia did not affect the CCW process.” Kongstad also expressed skepticism that the issue would impact future deliberations, but did say that “it emphasizes the relevance of the CCM and the importance of establishing an international norm.”