The Oslo process: ending cluster-bombs

Steve Goose
19 November 2007

The "convention on certain conventional weapons" (CCW) ended its annual meeting in Geneva on 7-13 November 2007 without achieving much. Perhaps that is not surprising. It is a consensus-driven forum dominated by the United States, Russia and China that likes to "go slow and aim low" when asked to take on weapons systems.

But the convention's sloth is no laughing matter for the 255 people killed or injured in Lebanon since August 2006 by cluster bomblets dropped by Israel in its war with Hizbollah; or the dozens who die or lose a limb in southeast Asia each year from clusters fired by United States forces as long ago as the 1960s and 1970s; or the tens of thousands of cluster-munition victims in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Chechnya, and some twenty other countries.

Cluster-munitions leave a deadly legacy for years because once dropped, they scatter hundreds of unguided bomblets randomly over a wide area - and then many fail to explode. In effect, they turn into landmines. And just as campaigners spurred a global ban on anti-personnel landmines in the wake of the CCW's inability to do so, the aim today is to ban cluster-bombs that kill civilians around the world every week of every year.

The effort is gathering momentum. In 2007, Norway launched an initiative to negotiate a ban on clusters outside of the weapons convention. The confident aim among campaigners is that this project - known as the Oslo process - will bear fruit in 2008 with a new treaty that prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and trade of cluster-munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Steve Goose is director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Cluster Munitions Coalition

The next stage in the Oslo process is a meeting in Vienna (5-7 December 2007) to engage in detailed consideration of a treaty text; further meetings are planned in Wellington (18-22 February 2008) and Dublin (19-30 May 2008). So far, more than eighty countries have signed on to the process. The failure of the CCW to advance towards a new clusters treaty is a strong signal to the rest that it's time to support Oslo.

The nature of the Geneva discussions illustrates why the Oslo process is the more likely route to progress in achieving an international cluster-munitions ban. Several states - among them Brazil, India, Pakistan, South Korea and the United States - were apparently shocked by the prospect of movement elsewhere into an attempt to revive talks within the CCW. But all the meeting could produce was a weak agreement to "negotiate a proposal" on cluster munitions in 2008. This is characteristic: the convention has a penchant for unending, unproductive talks and its consensus rules ensure the weakest position is accepted.

Moreover, representatives of the main backers of the CCW process (including China, Israel, and Russia as well as South Korea and the US) have revealed both in private conversations and public statements a remarkable uniformity about how they envisaged the outcome of negotiations: no prohibitions and no real restrictions on use. In short, it's very unlikely that any CCW agreement would alleviate the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions.

The Oslo process, by contrast, has the energy required to address the carnage caused by cluster-munitions effectively and rapidly. The countries committed to progress on the issue would best contribute by joining the Vienna and Wellington meetings to further develop a treaty-ban text. They should commit to conclude formal negotiations in the Dublin meeting on a treaty forbidding the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians by the end of 2008.

Some states - France, Germany, Switzerland, and Britain included - have up to now tried to have it both ways by signalling support for the Oslo process while continuing to talk about the CCW as the "most appropriate forum" for addressing cluster munitions. They have a real opportunity to become leaders in the Oslo process by abandoning an approach that is becoming increasingly untenable.

By contrast, other countries (such as China, Russia, and the United States) which maintain big stockpiles of clusters are likely to stay outside the Oslo process for the time being, and maintain with a straight face that they are dealing with the issue effectively in the CCW. But once a ban is negotiated most states will not be willing to pay the political price of flouting it: as with the mine-ban treaty (or "Ottawa convention") 0f 1997, they will act in accordance with the new standard of behaviour being established globally.

Every day of delay adds to the grim toll. On 5 November 2007 - designated as the first global day of action against cluster munitions - the Daily Star (Beirut) reported that Abbas Khalil, Mohammad Khalil and Hafez Milhim were wounded by cluster-bombs while working in an agricultural field in southern Lebanon. The world can't wait any longer. The countdown to a clusters treaty has begun.

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