Over 100 nations sign ban on cluster munitions.

March 16, 2009

On December 3, 2008 representatives from over 100 nations met in Oslo Norway to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The United States, the world’s largest producer of cluster munitions, did not sign the historic treaty.

Vientiane, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Laos is not the only country in the world contaminated by cluster munitions.  Over the past forty years, cluster munitions have been dropped on 29 different nations, killing or injuring an estimated 100,000 people.  And, every country that has ever been struck by cluster munitions continues to suffer, to some degree, the ongoing consequences: death and injury of innocent civilians, loss of livelihood, contamination of productive land, delay of refugees returning to their homes, and a hindering of post-conflict reconstruction and economic development.

The current debate over the continued use of cluster munitions has immediate relevance since these munitions have been employed in almost all recent wars.  In 2006, over a 34 day period, Israel dropped more than 4 million bomblets on Lebanon; as many as one million of them failed to explode.  During the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict in South Ossetia each side dropped cluster munitions on the other.  The United States used cluster munitions in Kosovo and continues to employ them in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The tragic impact of cluster munitions has been well documented in both professional literature and in the popular media.  As a consequence, representatives from a group of concerned nations met for the purpose of addressing issues related to cluster munitions and to seek international agreement on the banning of such weaponry.

In February 2007 the first international cluster munitions meeting was held in Norway and initiated what later became known as the “Oslo Process”.   At the conclusion of that meeting 46 states agreed to the “Oslo Declaration” and committed themselves to drafting a new international treaty that would address the harm caused by cluster munitions.  (This effort used as a model the process used to create the Mine Ban Treaty, now ten years old and signed by all but 39 nations).

Subsequent to the initial meeting in Norway, four additional international meetings were held over a two year period, in which representatives of various governments developed a text for the proposed treaty.  These meetings were held in Peru, Austria, New Zealand and Ireland.  In addition, multiple regional meetings were held around the world, giving many diverse nations an opportunity to provide input.

At the last of the four meetings, held in Dublin in May 2008, over 100 nations expressed support for the proposed text, now entitled the  “Convention on Cluster Munitions”.  Then, in December 2008 the process climaxed with 111 nation states sending representatives to Oslo for an official signing ceremony. That event was hailed as one of the few occasions in military history in which an entire category of weapons has been banned.

Since Norway is credited with beginning the drive to ban cluster bombs, Jens Stoltenberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, was invited to place the first signature on the document.  In his opening remarks to delegates, Stoltenberg said, “Banning cluster bombs took too long. Too many people lost arms and legs.”

Laos and Lebanon, in recognition of the great suffering endured by their citizens, were invited to sign next.

Although the total number of participating nations was impressive, cynics note that some signatories, such as the Vatican’s Holy See and the Republic of San Marino, were unlikely to ever be engaged in a conflict in which cluster munitions might be employed, while the world’s major users of cluster munitions, the United States, Israel, China, and the Soviet Union, were absent from the meeting.

In response, proponents point to major military powers, such as France, Germany, Italy and Japan, that did sign the convention, as well as to several signatory nations that are located in unstable regions and have a recent history of conflict.  For instance: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Sudan, Timor, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a major diplomatic defeat for the United States, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown overruled concerns expressed by his nation’s military and, shortly before the meeting began, announced that Britian would also be a signatory.

One stumbling block for the compact could be that the United States stockpiles cluster munitions at military bases that it maintains on British soil.  The pact does not specifically prohibit non-treaty nations from stockpiling cluster munitions on bases they control within a signatory nation’s territory.  Nor does it prohibit nations that have signed the treaty from participating in joint military operations with nations that have not signed (For instance, North Atlantic Treaty Organization maneuvers and deployments.)

Simon Conway, from the Cluster Munitions Coalition, predicted growing international pressure on the US:  “We think now that all of America’s key allies have just renounced the weapon, it will be very difficult for the US to engage in operations with countries who have banned this weapon and continue to use them.”

Although Barack Obama was supportive of efforts to restrict landmines and cluster munitions while he served in the United States Senate, he has, as president, refrained from taking a position on the treaty.  He has said that his administration will “carefully review the new treaty and work closely [with] our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians.”

Leaders from 67 national religious and civic organizations recently petitioned President Obama, asking for reconsideration of America’s opposition to both the landmine and the cluster munitions treaties. Signers included the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the chair of Evangelicals for Social Action, the president of CARE and the heads of communion of seven major U.S. churches.

In light of strong Pentagon opposition to the two treaties, the signers asked that the US government base its policy decisions not solely on military interests, but on humanitarian and diplomatic concerns, as well.

Details of the Cluster Munitions Treaty

The Convention on Cluster munitions explicitly bans the production, stockpiling, transfer or use of cluster munitions.

The agreement requires that signatories to the Convention to:

*  Never use, produce stockpile or transfer cluster munitions.

*  Destroy stockpiled cluster munitions within eight years of the Convention entering into force.

*  Clear all contaminated areas under their jurisdiction or control within ten years.  In the case of countries like the Lao PDR, which are unable to meet this timeline due to the severity of contamination, extensions of up to 5 years at a time may be requested.

*  Conduct risk reduction education to ensure awareness among civilians living in or around areas contaminated by cluster munitions of the risks posed by such remnants of war.

*  Collect reliable relevant data with respect to cluster munition victims, and provide assistance to victims, including medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, as well as provide for their social and economic inclusion.

*  The Convention also recognizes that each signatory nation has the right to international assistance for the purpose of meeting their obligations and requires all participating states to share technical, material and financial assistance with states affected by cluster munitions.

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