- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

Edward Cummings is an assistant legal adviser at the State Department and head of a 16-member U.S. delegation to international talks in Geneva. On Friday, participants in the talks agreed to a new accord on disposing of unexploded conventional weapons that pose dangers to civilians. Mr. Cummings was interviewed in Geneva by special correspondent John Zarocostas.

Question: What’s the U.S. position on the agreement reached here today?

Answer: We support the goals of the agreement and welcome its adoption. Most of the provisions in this Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) instrument track with U.S. practice, and we will give careful consideration of becoming a party to that agreement.

[The protocol will enter into force as the fifth under the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons, after ratification by 20 of the 92 signatory countries, which include Japan, the United States and China. The protocols each deal with a specific weapon or class of weapons, and are based on principles of international humanitarian law.]

In the meantime, we are working with what are now 30 co-sponsors to win agreement on a new protocol on antivehicle mines in 2004.

Q: Many participants at the talks indicated that multilateral disarmament diplomacy was back after a difficult six or seven years. Any comment?

A: We have looked upon this agreement as [being] in the tradition of humanitarian law of the laws of war. This is one forum that has traditionally worked very well to produce agreements. It was true in 1996 with land mines. It was true in 1980 before. We have always worked very professionally in this body, which is a consensus-based process where military and humanitarian concerns are truly balanced and countries approach the issues very seriously.

It always has been a good negotiating environment and continues to be. … In this forum we have a tradition of coming to agreement through consensus — listening to all the military people, listening to all the [nongovernmental organizations], listening to the [International Committee of the Red Cross]. So it’s a process that’s worked in the past.

I think some people were surprised, to be honest with you, that the U.S. was willing to join. One reason is that the U.S. made it clear from the very beginning, three years ago, that we felt work on explosive remnants of war would best be done in a political document rather than a legal document. …

A good example is Afghanistan. A lot of the ERWs that we have seen in Afghanistan were not placed there by the U.S. But we are clearing it up. And it’s not because it’s a legal duty. It’s a moral issue. And we felt we should do something here that should generally say, “People should do this anyway.”

… It’s fair to say many of our friends and our allies took a different view. They felt that it should be legally binding. They preferred it to be that. And last week, we indicated we looked at the substance of the document. The substance that was negotiated was good. It reflected our practices and our military practices, that we took into account the views of our allies …

Q: Some delegations said they would have liked stronger language in some clauses, but others said this was a balanced, negotiated text that took into consideration the views of all countries. What’s your view?

A: I think the fair statement is this was balanced. A balance that reflects the realities of war. We’re dealing with postwar situations, where people have to clear a battlefield. Some wanted provisions in there that cannot be met by military forces clearing explosive remnants even if they wanted — things which are just not feasible.

Q: Like what?

A: [An] absolute obligation that the moment the conflict is over, you will immediately clear it up in a certain time period. If you look at places like Iraq and other places where there’s an enormous amount [of ERWs], it just can’t be done, even with the best of wills. And so you should not have provisions countries cannot comply with.

What we needed is provisions of what countries could do, assuming that they have the people on the ground, assuming that they can physically hit the surface. We wanted it to be realistic, and something that was workable. In certain areas we would have liked more.

One of the things that we feel is a contribution here is generic measures. We wanted countries to try to consider to make their weapons as accurate as possible, like 99 percent accurate in certain areas. That was too much for a lot of countries to accept. We didn’t say they had to do it but just to try to do it.

But we compromised on that, and the compromise was a good compromise. Nobody got everything that they wanted, but the important thing is that we went through every article, and tried to make it solid in a genuine give-and-take, and people tried to come up with provisions that would work.

Our friends from the ICRC, which played a major role in these negotiations, were very helpful in that connection, in trying to come up with provisions that worked.

Q:Is the bottom line here how much technical and financial assistance can be given to help civilians in some poor countries that are in war zones? Is there the will to do that, or shall we be hearing about donor fatigue that we have seen in other areas of international aid?

A: I think it’s fair to say many countries in this room are contributing substantially on unexploded remnants of war. I don’t know whether this agreement will make a difference on donor contributions.

I don’t think that was the purpose of this particular document. It was more a question of how do you actually deal with clearing a battlefield after the war.

It clearly encourages countries to do more, and we certainly encourage countries to do more. …

Q: Worldwide, won’t it be expensive to remove ERWs from so many wars and so many battle zones?

A: I think the important thing that we need to convey is that people should be doing things to clear those battlefields, regardless of what we have done here today. And they should not be saying, “Unless this agreement requires it.”

They should be taking action just like many states. Many of our allies are doing that. They should be doing that because it’s the right thing to do, and not solely because we have negotiated an agreement on that issue. And I think I speak for many, many countries that would agree with that.

Countries should act and do what they can to help deal with ERW.

Q: Besides the joint U.S.-Danish proposal to deal with antivehicle mines, which attracted more than 27 co-sponsors, there’s also another proposal by some countries to open negotiations on munitions to outlaw or penalize the use of cluster bombs and certain other munitions. What are the prospects of negotiations down that path? This ERW accord started as a working group and switched into a negotiation. Is that plausible?

A: I don’t think so. The restrictions on submunitions were considered in the last three years. Provisions on reliability were considered, and countries did not agree to them. Not with acrimony, but largely because many of these proposals would not work.

For example, the U.S. has a policy of trying to make all of its future submunitions 99 percent reliable. The government of Switzerland proposed that we put into the agreement we negotiate a requirement that submunitions be 98 percent reliable. … But most countries said that they could not incur additional costs.

If I could give you the primary example: When it comes to antivehicle mines, we have proposed that all antivehicle mines be detectable. It costs pennies to do so and countries said that was too expensive.

So when it comes to submunitions in terms of an agreement — when countries are unwilling to do what we, the U.S., and Switzerland and others are, if they’re not willing to put the money in an agreement — it’s not going to have an effect on the ground.

Again, countries should be acting in this area. [The United States is] doing so. It is good from a military standpoint. It is good from a humanitarian standpoint. But an agreement is not what will deal effectively with these particular risks and problems.

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