'Civilian killer': Cluster bombers’ pact on table

Vietnam War cluster bombs are seen displayed at Hanoi's military museum(AFP Photo / Hoang Dinh Nam)
Campaigners have lashed out at the US and other countries who own stockpiles of cluster munitions for what they see as an attempt to water down an international ban on the deadly weapons.

At the moment, some 111 countries have ratified the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), a total ban on cluster bombs which came into force in August 2010. The biggest drawback of the treaty is that no major holder of CMs has joined it. Now activists say the US wants to undermine the Oslo convention by sponsoring an alternative document.

The activists oppose the addition of a new protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) a UN treaty restricting or banning the use of so-called “anti-personnel” weapons which disproportionately harm soldiers and, especially, civilians. At the moment the convention covers land mines, booby traps, blinding lasers and incendiary weapons, but not cluster bombs.

The initiative to amend the convention, sponsored by the US and supported by countries like Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, is currently being discussed in Geneva. It would restrict the stockpiling and use of cluster munitions to those manufactured after 1980. It would also ban the transfer of any cluster munitions that have no safeguard. Campaigners, however, want nothing less than a total ban on CMs.

Organizations like Action on Armed Violence, Amnesty International UK, Article 36 and Oxfam have turned to Britain, a signatory of the CCM, in a call to torpedo the draft protocol.

Thomas Nash, Director of Article 36, which coordinates UK campaigning on cluster bombs, said:

“This new draft protocol would make civilian suffering from cluster bombs more likely, not less. The UK was on the right side of history when it banned cluster bombs in 2008. Now we need to make sure it is on the right side of history this week by helping prevent this unacceptable new law being adopted.”

Anna Macdonald, Head of Arms Control at Oxfam International, said:

"What is being proposed is a cluster bombers’ pact. UK Ministers told parliament before these talks that they would not support a lower standard that legitimizes cluster bombs. That political intervention was crucial and we will need more leadership from Ministers this week to resist US pressure."

Cluster munitions pack many small explosive bomblets in one larger bomb or shell. The large bomb scatters its contents over a large area prior to impact. Its effects are lethal and highly indiscriminate.

But the worst aspect of the weapon is that not all bomblets detonate immediately, instead lying inert until found and triggered. Civilians, and particularly children, are among the most likely victims of these unintentional but deadly traps.

The US argues that the proposed addition to the CCW will have a bigger real-life effect than the Oslo Convention ever had.

Phillip Spector, head of the US delegation to the Geneva meeting, said the protocol “would immediately, upon ratification and entry into force, prohibit over 2 million cluster munitions… of the total US stockpile of more than 6 million cluster munitions. In other words, the pre-1980 rule alone will prohibit more cluster munitions for the United States than the Oslo Convention has prohibited for all of its member states combined.”

He added that the situation is similar in countries like Ukraine and Russia, which reported that the new protocol would have them dispose of millions of their cluster munitions.