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Countries Sign Cluster Munitions Convention
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Jeff Abramson

During a December ceremony in Oslo, 94 countries signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), including many western European countries that have stockpiled and produced the weapons. Unexpectedly, Afghanistan also agreed to the treaty, breaking with the United States, which reiterated its preference for a separate process that would recognize greater military utility for cluster munitions while establishing some limits on their use. As expected, other major producers and stockpilers, including China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and Russia, did not sign the treaty.

The Dec. 2-4 signing ceremony culminated a relatively rapid process begun in February 2007 with an Oslo meeting to negotiate a legally binding agreement on cluster munitions. The CCM, which resulted from the so-called Oslo process, bans nearly all cluster munitions and sets guidelines for stockpile destruction and clearance, as well as assistance to and involvement of cluster munition victims. (See ACT, December 2008.)

At the ceremony, Norway signed and ratified the treaty. So too did Ireland, which hosted the critical May 2008 meeting where the treaty text was concluded with key compromises allowing for military cooperation with nonmember states and the use of weapons that meet stringent criteria to avoid indiscriminate effects. (See ACT, July/August 2008.) Those compromises made it easier for NATO allies to sign the convention, 18 of which did so at the ceremony.

Afghanistan, currently supported by NATO troops, signed the treaty at the last moment. In explaining the move, Ambassador Jawed Ludin noted that his country belonged to "a region that suffers from dangerous overarmament" and credited the advocacy of Afghan victims of cluster munitions in the decision. Cluster munitions were used by Soviet forces in Afghanistan during 1979-1989 and again by U.S. forces during 2001-2002.

The Holy See and Sierra Leone were the only other states to ratify the treaty, which will enter into force six months after the 30th state ratifies it.

As the Oslo ceremony was beginning, the Department of State released a statement reiterating Washington's position that "such a general ban on cluster munitions will put the lives of our military men and women, and those of our coalition partners, at risk." The United States has adopted a policy that limits the use of weapons that fail to detonate as intended more than 1 percent of the time. It is also pursuing an agreement on cluster munitions within the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Other major producers and stockpilers, including China and Russia, are also participating in that process, which reconvenes in February, and did not sign the treaty.

The position of Russia, which used cluster munitions in Georgia last summer, may be particularly relevant to some of its eastern European neighbors. Finland, which indicated in May that it would sign the treaty but then stated in October that it would not, is concerned about defending itself against potential Russian aggression, according to Finnish and Japanese media reports. An Oct. 31 government statement did not mention Russia but said that the CCM "will be discussed again after an evaluation of defence capabilities has been carried out and the international development work along with the supply and cost options of cluster munitions have been analysed." Finland indicated in 2004 that it would join the anti-personnel Mine Ban Convention in 2012 and subsequently that it would seek to replace its landmines in part with cluster munitions.

According to the press reports, Poland is also retaining cluster munitions to protect itself. On Sept. 9, the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza quoted Defense Minister Bogdan Klich as saying, "We need those weapons to defend our territory."

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse small submunitions over broad areas that sometimes fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing noncombatants. The United States, which possesses a stockpile of more than 700 million submunitions, used the weapons in the 1960s and 1970s in Southeast Asia, leaving an estimated 20 million unexploded bomblets in Laos alone at the end of the Vietnam War with casualties still occuring today. In signing the CCM, Laotian Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith claimed that the "signing of the convention...is just the beginning of our journey to the ultimate goal of eradicating the scourge of cluster munitions and liberating the people and our children from fear and threat of such [a] silent killer. If we are to achieve this goal, this convention has to be fully and effectively implemented."