This week, more than 600 representatives from 120 states, NGOs and other civil society organisations are gathered in Oslo to take stock of the convention that prohibits all production, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions. The convention has entered into force, and 75 states have already ratified it. This was no foregone conclusion when we first started this work.
I remember it well. In February 2007, Norway invited states and various organisations to Oslo to consider the possibility of working towards a ban on cluster munitions. For many years, efforts in the UN had been deadlocked. Was there another way forwards?
The problem facing us was daunting. The term “cluster munition” is used to describe an artillery shell that opens just before it hits the ground and then spreads small submunitions over a large area. Cluster munitions are not very accurate, and do not distinguish between combatants and civilians, and thus contravene international law. There is still unexploded ordnance from cluster munitions in 28 countries and territories, which continues to injure civilians, spread fear and make it impossible to farm huge areas of land. Some of these countries are so badly affected that it could take decades to remove all the unexploded remnants. In other words, this is a weapon that has unacceptable humanitarian consequences in a similar way to anti-personnel mines, which were prohibited in 1997.
I was surprised and encouraged to see that the meeting in 2007 was attended by nearly 50 states, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), representatives of the UN, and not least representatives of the countless victims of cluster munitions all over the world, people who had lost arms and legs from these hidden weapons. We soon reached agreement: it was worth trying to invite more countries to join a concerted effort to agree on a convention on cluster munitions.
As Minister of Foreign Affairs, my marching orders were clear. The Government had set out that it would work for a prohibition of these weapons in its policy platform of 2005. One year later, we drew up a strategy together with certain like-minded countries and in close cooperation with the Norwegian Ministry of Defence, experts in the Norwegian armed forces, and not least knowledgeable and deeply engaged civil society organisations.
After the meeting in Oslo, negotiations continued all over the world. More and more countries joined the effort. However, the major weapons producers, such as the US, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, made it very clear that they would not take part.
Was there then any point in trying to reach an agreement, the sceptics asked. I am very glad that we did not let them stop us. Gradually we won the support of the majority of the world’s states. When the convention was signed in Oslo in December 2008, there were nearly 100 signatories.
I have learned some important lessons from this work. More than anything, it has shown that politics work. Firstly, the method: this task required true diplomatic skill, and proved that we have outstanding diplomats in our foreign service. But willingness to work in new ways was also necessary. We invited civil society organisations to take part in the process. We discovered that the experience and knowledge of the victims of cluster munitions was invaluable. Not least, their input helped to put the humanitarian aspect at the centre of the convention. We also made active use of the experience gained by NGOs such as Norwegian People’s Aid – a true champion in mines and cluster munition clearance – which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Secondly, we have learned how important it is to establish a norm – a standard for what is acceptable. Although the largest producer countries have not signed up, we have seen that the use of cluster munitions has declined dramatically. It has rightly become stigmatised. As we have seen in Syria.
Thirdly, the convention is a forward-looking one. The states parties have destroyed nearly a million cluster munitions, and with them some 85 million submunitions, totalling nearly 70 % of all the cluster munitions that were stockpiled in these countries before the convention came into force. Armed forces, including the Norwegian armed forces, should have effective weapons. Cluster munitions, however, cannot be described as effective even from a military point of view. We have therefore destroyed all our stockpile of these munitions. More than 20 of our NATO allies are states parties. We have made a real difference.
At the meeting this week, we will reaffirm our commitments: to persuade more countries to join the convention, to protect the letter of the convention against attempts to weaken it, and not least to continue to support the victims. For this is a convention that focuses on the humanitarian perspective – on the effect of cluster munitions on civilians, on people’s livelihoods and welfare, and on whole communities.
We have demonstrated that politics work, that traditional diplomacy can be more effective when combined with a broad approach, and – as always – that people’s safety and welfare is at the heart of international cooperation.