How far away is ‘a long way away’?

Thomas Nash, Director, Article 36

This week has seen substantial activity on cluster munitions in the UK and acute scrutiny of the government’s approach to the negotiations on a lower standard of international law that the US is seeking to force through at the UN in Geneva next week.

A group of peers and cross-party MPs met with the Minister for Counter Proliferation, Alistair Burt MP, on Monday 7 November and issued a press release to UK media.

On Wednesday 9 November, UK paper The Independent published an editorial and an article, raising concerns about the UK approach and potential support for the US-led draft protocol that would clearly contradict the standard set out in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, was forced to respond to these concerns in the House of Commons the same day, noting that: “we certainly do not want to weaken what has been agreed in the past, so it is important not to believe everything written in newspapers on this subject.”

A number of MPs have tabled an early day motion, number 2381 of Monday 7 November, on this topic in the House of Commons. Support for this EDM is growing.

At the same time the ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger reacted to the draft CCW protocol saying that “the draft at its present stage means practically that you can use until 2026 all cluster munitions except the ones produced before 1980.”

A global petition has been launched by AVAAZ with thousands of citizens around the world urging their governments to make sure that negotiations in Geneva align with the existing ban and to ensure that ‘cluster munitions are comprehensively outlawed and innocent children protected.’

The first signs of this pressure beginning to deliver results came in the government’s response to an adjournment debate called by Martin Caton MP on Wednesday 9 November in the House of Commons. Caton urged the government to resist the draft protocol, noting that “in practice, if the protocol goes through, it will contradict the existing convention and it will be very dangerous.” In response, FCO Minister David Lidington stated that the government believes “we are a long way from seeing a protocol that we regard as worth debating or as acceptable in any way” and that it is “disappointed by the progress achieved during negotiations” so far.

Questioning in the House of Lords, initiated by Lord Elton on Thursday 10 November, prompted a similar line from the government. Lord Howell noted that: “we do not want to legitimise lower standards or undermine or dilute the Convention on Cluster Munitions in any way. That is the approach that we will use in our negotiations.”

This political intervention is welcome at a time when the pressure from the US to adopt the protocol is no doubt intensifying. The British insistence that we are ‘a long away’ from a protocol will not be music to American ears. The danger of course will be how this plays out in the actual negotiations.

There are efforts afoot to insert a so-called endeavour clause into the current draft protocol that would see states parties pay lip service to a vague aspiration to do better in the future and strive to do more than the protocol requires. Such a change would be cosmetic and change nothing. But some states might argue that its inclusion is a major concession from the US, Russia and China and that we should celebrate a breakthrough.

So how far exactly is ‘a long way away’? It has to be a distance too far to bridge with some vague assertion that countries will try their best not to cluster bomb people.

As negotiations kick off in Geneva next week, Article 36 and other members of the Cluster Munition Coalition will hold UK Ministers to their statements in parliament that they will not support a protocol that legitimises lower standards. Anything based on the current draft will do just that. And we would need to see radical changes to the text for the government to claim that negotiations have come ‘a long way’.

Posted in: CCW, cluster munitions,
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