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"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
CCW Extends Work on Clusters Protocol

Jeff Abramson

At what was to be their final meeting of the year, a group of governmental experts failed to complete the text of a possible new protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) specifically addressing cluster munitions. The meeting chairman, however, vowed to push ahead in hopes of reaching an agreement. Meanwhile, a sixth country ratified a separate treaty on the weapons.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse smaller submunitions over broad areas. Those submunitions sometimes strike civilians or fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing military forces and noncombatants. Outrage over use of cluster munitions in southern Lebanon in 2006 and the failure of the CCW to adopt new measures related to the weapons helped spur the so-called Oslo process that led to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). That convention bars the use of nearly all cluster munitions and obligates countries to destroy stockpiles, conduct clearance efforts, and take steps to help victims. (See ACT, December 2008.) In April, Austria became the sixth country to ratify the treaty, which requires 30 ratifications to enter into force.

Despite international pressure, many of the world's top producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions, including Russia and the United States, have resisted calls to join the CCM, instead opting for continued conversation within the CCW. When the CCW failed in 2008 to develop a new protocol on cluster munitions, states-parties agreed to two more rounds of meetings in 2009, Feb. 16-20 and April 14-17. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Led by a new chairman, Gustavo Ainchil of Argentina, the second round of meetings of CCW governmental experts concluded without a final text. It did accept Ainchil's procedural report, which included the text of what could eventually be a sixth protocol to the CCW.

Article 4 of the text outlines general prohibitions and restrictions on cluster munitions that fail to meet one of two proposed standards. (See ACT, September 2008.) The first standard allows usage of cluster munitions that have a still-undefined number of safeguards, such as self-destruct, self-neutralizing, and self-deactivating mechanisms. The second standard follows current U.S. policy, which limits use of weapons with a failure rate of greater than 1 percent. (See ACT, April 2009.) Critics have argued that tests to determine such dud rates are inaccurate.

In a separate article, the draft exempts the same weapons that the CCM does from being defined as cluster munitions, a narrow range of weapons that meet five criteria. At the same time, the draft calls for those weapons to be covered by other provisions within the text, creating a source of contention within the group.

Additionally, the proposal allows states to defer compliance, with certain limitations, for "X years." Defining the length of that period remains a sticking point in the group. The U.S. Department of Defense indicated last year that it will continue to allow limited usage of cluster munitions with a failure rate of greater than 1 percent until 2018. (See ACT, September 2008.)

Recognizing that the CCW draft was incomplete, Ainchil asked to continue working and proposed a new round of informal consultations, tentatively scheduled for August. Because no future formal meetings of the group are authorized, the process for such consultations remains unclear.

The next meeting of CCW states-parties is Nov. 12-13. If progress is made on the text, the chair could submit a report that would serve as the basis for negotiation and possible adoption of a new protocol at the members' meeting.

The United States continues to support the CCW effort. In his closing statement April 17, U.S. delegation head Stephen Mathias said, "Over 95 percent of our cluster munitions will be affected by this new standard."

The impact the protocol might have on other countries' stockpiles is less well understood. John Duncan, British ambassador for arms control and disarmament, told Arms Control Today in an e-mail April 27 that other countries "have been less forthcoming about how this would affect their current stocks and it is this lack of confidence about the practical effect of the new protocol that in large part explains the impasse in the current negotiations." He commented that, for "many Oslo supporters the prohibitions...are not far reaching enough" and that there is "a slim chance that a deal could be made to allow adoption of a new protocol."

Mathias argued against critics who say the text does not go far enough. He said, "We have in front of us a text that, while certainly not perfect from any delegation's perspective, clearly would have a major positive humanitarian impact."