The Economist print edition of 3 December contains an article entitled: “Dead munitions: talks on curbing cluster weapons fizzle and fail.” The article, which comments on the negotiations on cluster munitions at the Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, contains a number of unsupported and ill-judged statements and follows closely to the US negotiating line. Article 36 Director, Thomas Nash, posted the following response in the comments section.

Response from Thomas Nash, Director, Article 36

It’s good that the Economist is covering these cluster bomb negotiations, which were very significant in many ways. It’s also good that the author recognises that there is something meaningful at play when 50 small and medium sized states can prevail over pressure from US, Russia and China. It’s dismaying, however, to read a piece in the Economist that has failed to check facts properly and so obviously parrots the US line during the talks.

What fact-checking has the author done on the empty fact that 85% of the world’s stocks of cluster bombs are held outside states that have banned them? I imagine none at all because this fact is impossible to check given the lack of transparency from major stockpilers (other than the US). What fact-checking has been done on the assertion that the US-backed protocol would “have led to the destruction of far more devices than the Oslo deal ever could”? Again, this is just simply wrong.

It was a bad error of judgment by The Economist to publish a picture of a boy, presumably recovering from injuries sustained by a cluster bomb, with a caption saying ‘the price of failure’. This caption should be changed. The protocol under consideration would have facilitated the continued use of many of the worst types of cluster munitions. If these weapons are used in the future, and I think this outcome makes that less likely, then the responsibility will lie squarely with the users.

For most of the delegates in the room, the talks were not a failure. For most countries there and certainly for the non-governmental organisations involved in clearance and victim assistance, for the ICRC, and for UN agencies the talks were a success. They were an affirmation that the world considers cluster bombs unacceptable and subject to an international ban, which most of the world’s nations have joined. The talks strengthened the ban on cluster bombs.

The fundamental philosophical divide in the room was whether or not one believed in the normative, stigmatising power of the strong international legal regime prohibiting the weapons. The Economist Article fails to engage with that dynamic. So let’s consider it on the basis of evidence. In 1997 over a hundred countries signed a treaty banning antipersonnel landmines. The US, Russia and China have never signed it. Today we have over 150 on board that treaty and the use of landmines is extremely rare, recent examples being use by Gaddafi’s forces, use by the Burmese junta and use on the Israel / Syria border. The US, clearly the main driver of opinion behind this article, has not used antipersonnel landmines since the ban was signed in 1997.

With proper research, The Economist would have noted that by 2018, the US will have gotten rid of virtually all of its cluster munitions anyway and this protocol would have had no effect on that whatsoever.

One final word on the tweeting from the conference – it was not only NGOs tweeting from the room, a range of individuals were doing so, including Ambassadors and other diplomats from several countries. Surely The Economist must realise that this technological genie is out of the bottle and that transparency – sorely lacking in international affairs – should be welcomed.

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