Author: Thomas Nash
New Zealand has a reputation for progressive, smart and effective foreign policy in the realm of disarmament and humanitarian affairs. It's well-deserved, with Kiwi diplomats having played crucial roles on nuclear disarmament, banning landmines, dealing with small arms and, in 2008, hosting the crucial preparatory meeting in Wellington for the Dublin conference that negotiated the global ban on cluster bombs. Most recently, NZ was one of a handful of countries central to the agreement last June in Oslo of the Safe Schools Declaration aimed at protecting education from attack.
This last initiative provides an important and encouraging precedent for international efforts underway to address one of the most pressing contemporary humanitarian problems: the bombing and bombardment of towns and cities.
In 2011, a group of non-governmental organisations established the International Network on Explosive Weapons to work as a coalition dedicated to preventing harm from the bombing and bombardment of towns and cities. Since then, the UN Secretary-General, the ICRC and dozens of states have called for international action to address this problem. In response, the Austrian government will host a key informal meeting in Vienna on 21-22 September to begin work towards an international commitment on this topic.
Such a commitment would probably take the form of a political declaration rather than an international treaty. This is the approach taken by New Zealand and the other states that led the process on the Safe Schools Declaration. It is also an approach recommended in a recent report by Harvard Law School and Human Rights Watch.
Setting a standard, initially amongst likeminded countries, is a concrete step that responsible states can and must take in the face of this clear evidence of humanitarian harm. It would not legally bind the states that join it and some states may even oppose it, but it would be a standard nonetheless. It would also represent a responsible action by those states that consider it insufficient simply to appeal for compliance with international law. The history of international humanitarian law has not been to demand adherence to the status quo. It has been to consider the evidence of harm, to listen to the voices of those suffering under torture and bombardment and indiscriminate weapons and to take action, to advance our standards based on collective human morality. This is the choice before states as they consider the evidence of harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
New Zealand has been invited to participate in Vienna along with around 15 or so other countries. Its role at the conference and in the process towards an international commitment is likely to be crucial. Just as it did with the successful initiative to draw a strong humanitarian line against military occupation of schools and universities, NZ must use its credibility as both a troop contributor to peacekeeping missions as well as a global leader in humanitarian affairs to draw a strong humanitarian line against the bombing and bombardment of towns and cities.
The upcoming meeting in Vienna is an opportunity for New Zealand to voice its support for an international commitment that will help protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This is the kind of international leadership that would be a fitting legacy for New Zealand’s tenure on the UN Security Council, where the protection of civilians agenda needs all the support it can get.
Thomas Nash is Director of Article 36, a UK-based NGO working to promote public scrutiny over the development and use of weapons. He is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and from 2004-2011 he led the global campaign to ban cluster bombs. Together with the NZ Red Cross and Peace Movement Aotearoa, Thomas will be speaking on this topic at an event at 12:30 on Monday 24th August in Conference Room 1, Third Floor, St Andrew’s, 30 The Terrace, Wellington.
Photograph of Homs by Ghassan Najjar/Reuters