We are all Costa Ricans today
26 November 2011
I tend to scowl when I hear people say that we can’t influence world affairs for the better because there are forces at play that are much too powerful. We can only tinker at the edges, they say. Sure, there’s plenty of room to be astonished by the collective madness that seems to govern a lot of what happens in the world, but looking back on this year, it’s hard to ignore the increasing number of examples where the ‘big boys’ are not getting their way. Authoritarian regimes being overthrown in the Middle East, grassroots mobilisation through the Occupy movement and now – in its own little way – a rejection by small and medium sized states together with civil society, UN and ICRC of a bid to legalise cluster bombs.
Over the past two weeks at the Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons we saw a united front by the US, Russia, China – together with India, Israel, Republic of Korea and some others – to impose their will. The stakes were high: either we adopt a new international agreement on cluster bombs that would circumvent the 2008 ban treaty or we reject this and reinforce the stigma against the weapon.
Our focus in the Cluster Munition Coalition and within UK civil society was to prevent an outcome we believed would have made it more likely that cluster bombs would be used in the future. We achieved that. But it wasn’t our moral conviction that won the day. There’s no doubt that some of those promoting the lower standard on cluster bombs genuinely believed it would help prevent harm and be a step in the right direction. We disagreed with them, but there was mutual respect throughout – aside from one or two rather isolated bitter statements towards the end of the conference.
What I think won the day was a belief that we could prevail if we had a clear vision of what we wanted (or didn’t want) and a determination to get organised and to stick together. In the end we had over 50 countries standing together to reject the proposed new protocol on cluster munitions. Over half a million people backed up this position by signing an AVAAZ petition just days before the conference. The way that ICRC, UN agencies and the Cluster Munition Coalition worked together with Norway, Mexico and Austria in capitals, in the media and during the conference was inspiring. It was also highly effective.
A colleague watching from Oslo reflected on the pivotal moment when Costa Rica spoke on behalf of 50 states to reject the draft protocol. He said “we are all Costa Ricans today.” Costa Rica embodied the sentiment within the group that this was about more than cluster bombs. It became a question of who sets the rules in international affairs and whether some voices should count more than others. We have heard this same defiant message in the Arab spring and in the Occupy movement: listen to us, we are not going away, we count and we will not be silenced.
As I travel home from the conference today I am a bit overwhelmed by the strength and determination of this group of individual people. Of course these individuals represent countries, ministries, organisations, but they are also people: people under pressure at home and from their neighbouring countries; people under pressure from their allies; people hearing rumours, being destabilised by the other side. It was because of a genuine openness and willingness to listen and learn that the group of 50 states emerged as a force, from Afghanistan to Venezuela. We kept each other strong through communication, through honesty and through humour. We also had the wisdom of some very good people to rely on.
It almost feels like we have banned cluster bombs again. If we can achieve this in the way we did then there is no reason to believe we can’t continue to achieve further prohibitions on weapons and I can think of a few areas to start with. Nuclear weapons need to be banned. And we need new prohibitions and restrictions on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This goes beyond weapons and the protection of civilians though. It is yet another foothold as we push on towards a new way of running the world. A way of running things where Costa can face down the so-called major powers and win. Where civil society and international organisations can swing the result. Where clarity, determination, organisation and respect for each other make us unstoppable.