Charli’s posts on Human Rights Watch and Autonomous Weapons got me thinking: should we really expect human rights international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to influence weapons systems? On the whole, human rights NGOs are a pretty powerless lot: NGOs don’t control military resources like states do and they are typically not at the decision-making table. Why would a powerful state ever listen to the musings of an NGO? Are all of these reports and calls-for-action by NGOs really just hot air?
At multilateral “Meetings of States Parties (MSP)” conferences, delegates are there to review progress made since the establishment of some treaty standard or another – in this case the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CMC) three years ago (3). In the plenaries, therefore, diplomats praise one another’s efforts to implement the treaty with fancy prepared speeches, congratulate their hosts for a beautifully organized event, call on non-signatories to join the treaty, and generally take stock of how to strengthen adherence to the rules. But just like at academic conferences, all the really interesting stuff happens outside the plenary, in the corridors, in the bars or in “side events” organized by NGOs. In these informal mini-panel discussions, civil society pitches its ideas about how to trouble-shoot the implementation process, but also – importantly for my research – they incubate ideas for new norm campaigns in related areas.
These conversations are very early steps on a road that may (though won’t always) lead to later multilateral framework conferences designed to create rather than implement international norms. At the 3MSP-CMC Conference this week in Oslo, 80% of the side events have to do with implementing provisions of the CMC, particularly the victim assistance provisions. But the other 20% has to do with other, emerging weapons issues. (I include here break-out sessions at the pre-conference Youth Seminar as well as a side event in the regular conference entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward: The CCM and What it Means for Limiting the Impact of Other Weapons Systems.”) The latter will cover the new explosive violence campaign as well as the now very-much percolating issue of autonomous weapons. In the Youth Seminar the topics covered included nuclear weapons, explosive weapons, and incendiary weapons. The nuclear weapons group drew by far the most youth participants, though whether this was due to the issue’s relative salience or to the fact that it was the only session to be held in Norwegian is unclear. Explosives drew a medium-sized crowd and the incendiary weapons workshop, which I attended, drew the smallest. This variation in salience of these emergent issues is interesting to me because of these three campaigns incendiaries has in objective terms the most ingredients of agenda-setting success, including a) prior adoption by a human security “heavyweight” (Human Rights Watch), b) grounding in existing international law (the Incendiary Weapons Protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons), c) ample documented historical evidence of human suffering and d) a recent “trigger event” provided by Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza. (These four factors together seem strong indicators of the likelihood that a civil society campaign has legs.) The other two campaigns each have some of these ingredients but neither yet has all four, yet both are also causing a buzz at the conference.