Condemn All Use of Cluster Munitions—Whatever the Language: Reflections from the Virtual Second Review Conference of the Convention on Cluster Munitions

Kasia Derlicka-Rosenbauer and Diana Carolina Prado Mosquera, International Campaign to Ban Landmines–Cluster Munition Coalition

Campaign graphic that reads: Join the treaty! Rejoignez le traité! ¡Unáse al tratado! In English, French, Spanish. Credit: Cluster Munition Coalition.
Credit: Cluster Munition Coalition

2020 has been an exceptional year not only because of the global COVID-19 pandemic but also because it saw the first ever virtual review conference of a disarmament treaty. Ten years after the entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the first part of its Second Review Conference was held virtually from November 25-27, 2020.

Much of the multilateral system, including disarmament, has faced the challenges and disruptions of the pandemic and cancelled or postponed meetings and events this year. The cluster munition ban community, under the current leadership of Switzerland, however, stepped up to the task and went ahead with preparatory meetings and the first part of the Review Conference. The second part of the conference is scheduled for February 4-5, 2021 as a hybrid meeting in Geneva. At the February meeting, states parties will make formal decisions and adopt all the outcome documents of the Review Conference, including the Lausanne Action Plan, the political declaration, and the proposals for the convention’s future meetings and machinery. 

A Decade of Progress

The Convention on Cluster Munitions has made a real difference over the 10 years since its entry into force. It enjoys a remarkable level of compliance. Nearly two-thirds of UN member states, including former producers, users, and stockpilers, have joined the convention. As reported by the Cluster Munition Monitor 2020, 99 percent of stocks held by states parties have been destroyed, vast areas of contaminated land have been cleared, six countries became entirely free of cluster munitions, including Croatia and Montenegro this year, and risk education is more extensive and effective. Steps to assess and address the needs of cluster munition survivors and victims are also being taken. 

Not all is good news, however. 

Condemnnation of All Use

Cluster bombs continue to maim and kill in a handful of countries, and civilians account for 99 percent of all casualties. Most notably, the use of cluster munitions in Syria since 2012, by Syrian armed forces with active support of Russia, accounts for more than 80 percent of global casualties from these weapons. Cluster munitions were also used in Libya in 2019 and in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 by both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

At part one of the Review Conference, there seemed to be an overall agreement that use of cluster munitions is unacceptable and should be condemned. Many states spoke up on this issue, including: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Holy See, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, and even a state not party, Azerbaijan. 

However, the question whether any use of cluster munitions by any actor under any circumstances is equally unacceptable and requires condemnation still remains open for some. It is intriguing why, for a majority of states engaged in military alliances, such language does not pose any difficulty, whereas for a few others in the same position, it does! Whatever the reason, arguments over the legitimacy of use of an illegal weapon under certain circumstances are absurd. As repeatedly stated by the Cluster Munition Coalition, unequivocal condemnation of cluster munition use is absolutely essential to the credibility of the convention. 

While the interim report from the first part of the conference did not include any mention of cluster munition use and condemnation, the second part of the conference must adopt language in its political declaration that is at least as strong as the language adopted five years ago at the First Review Conference, and that leaves no doubt that states parties to the Convention on Custer Munitions condemn any use by anyone under any circumstances of the weapon they collectively banned


The continuing slow pace of universalization of the convention was also widely acknowledged at the virtual Review Conference. While congratulations were directed towards the new accessions and ratifications that brought the number of states parties to 110 this year, most speakers noted that we are far behind the goal of the Dubrovnik Action Plan of 130 members. At the current rate, the 130 goal would only be achieved by 2030. Many states spoke about the urgent need for further universalization of the convention. Few shared what specifically they have done to advance this goal, even fewer what they planned to do to this end in the future. None of the signatories or non-signatories present reported on progress of their ratification or accession. Similarly, while states recognized the need for further promotion of the norms established by the convention, none proposed how this could be done more effectively in the future. 

Extension Requests

The excellent implementation record of the convention’s time-bound obligations has recently been overshadowed by the first requests for extensions to stockpile destruction and land clearance deadlines. Five such requests were presented at the Review Conference. All were recommended for approval by the conference in February. While these extensions requests are unfortunate developments, the draft Lausanne Action Plan includes a so-called “early warning mechanism,” which should help states to stay on track and prevent situations of missed deadlines. The newly introduced section on “Measures to Ensure Compliance” in the action plan should also further strengthen the convention’s compliance record. 

Meetings and Machinery 

Discussions over the convention’s future meetings and machinery also featured at the virtual meeting, with views divided between those strongly in favor of reintroducing intersessional meetings, and others against. The latter pointed to the additional costs and burden of such meetings, despite the fact that, thanks to the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Disarmament (GICHD), intersessional meetings would be held at no cost to states. 

One of the concluding debates of the meeting was devoted to the issue of multilingualism, and though we recognize its relevance, for a good while one was not sure whether we were still at a conference devoted to cluster munitions. Even the simultaneous interpretations into the six official UN languages did not seem to move the conversation along. An agreement was reached at the end to include a separate paragraph on multilingualism in the conference’s interim report. However, no mention of use or condemnation was included. 

Recommendations for Review Conference Part Two 

As we move towards part two of the Review Conference (February 4-5, 2021), states parties must not miss this unique opportunity. It is time to get serious and to work out the missing pieces to ensure that the outcome documents actually address the most critical issues and equip the convention with the right tools to deliver the results we want and need in the next five years. These tools include:

  • A strong political declaration that condemns any use of cluster munitions by anyone under any circumstances

A political declaration is a crucial document of a review conference; it is the states parties’ public manifesto with key commitments for the next five years. Unequivocal condemnation of all cluster munition use is absolutely vital to the credibility of the convention. This should be as clearely and strongly reflected in the political declaration, as it was five years ago in Dubrovnik at the First Review Conference.

  • A new mechanism to coordinate a response to instances of use and to defend the norms established by the convention

States parties could establish a group of interested states (or extend the scope of the recently established informal group on universalization) to address instances of use and promote the norms established by the convention through concerted international action. Alternatively, states parties could request the successive Convention on Cluster Munitions presidencies (or the Presidential Troika) to actively engage with states not party in this respect on behalf of all state parties. States parties could also decide that future convention meetings (meetings of states parties, intersessional meetings, and review conferences) will monitor progress in this area, including through reports by the presidency and states parties on actions taken and progress achieved. 

  • Reintroduction of an intersessional work program

The Convention on Cluster Muniitons has missed out over the past five years on an informal intersessional work program and would greatly benefit from an additional informal meeting to supplement the formal meetings of states parties. With the GICHD’s current offer at NO cost to states parties, the Second Review Conference should reintroduce annual intersessional meetings, to be held back to back with the intersessional meetings of the Mine Ban Treaty to promote widely desired efficiency and synergies. Intersessional meetings provide an informal opportunity for updates on progress made, public exchange on extension requests, and engagement of signatories and holdouts regarding their steps towards joining the convention. 

  • Clarification of mandates in regard to compliance

With the introduction of the new section on the “Measures to EnsureCompliance” in the draft Lausanne Action Plan, there is a need to clarifywho within the convention’s machinery would be in charge of this area. It would seem logical to amend the mandates of the president and the coordinators of the general status and operation of the convention to include this area of responsibility. The president’s mandate should also be expanded to reflect its role in the so-called “early warning mechanism.” 

  • Gender mainstreaming and diversity

As suggested by the informal gender working group, a clear proposal on designation of gender focal points within the convention’s coordinating committee should be included in the machinery document to assess the extent to which states parties integrate gender and diversity considerations in the future work under the convention. 

The next five years are crucial. And this Second Review Conference is a deciding moment. Virtually or not – let’s get it right!