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Draft on Unexploded Munitions Could Prove Controversial
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Wade Boese

A June 16-27 meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) will discuss the draft text of an “instrument” intended to reduce dangers posed by unexploded munitions left over after battles end. Although the goal is widely shared, the United States is expected to clash with most of the CCW’s other 89 states-parties over whether the instrument should be legally binding.

CCW states-parties agreed last December to negotiate the instrument, and the Netherlands was put in charge of its drafting. The Dutch recently completed the initial version, and the United Nations circulated it May 20 to other governments for their review. Negotiators are aiming to finish the talks before this year ends.

The CCW bans or restricts the use of weapons that are deemed indiscriminate or “excessively injurious.” Its four existing protocols apply to incendiary weapons; blinding lasers; nondetectable-fragment weapons; and mines, booby traps, and other devices. The Dutch draft could become the treaty’s fifth protocol.

Comprising 11 articles, the draft text is aimed at establishing who is responsible after combat ceases for cleaning up and destroying bombs, artillery shells, and other munitions that fail to detonate, known as explosive remnants of war (ERW). It calls for combatants to take “all feasible precautions” to protect civilians from the dangers posed by such battlefield debris. Suggested steps include public warnings, risk education, and fencing off dangerous areas.

Washington has declared that it opposes provisions that suggest the instrument is establishing legal obligations. Speaking at the first round of talks on the instrument in March, Edward Cummings, the head of the U.S. delegation, said, “Phrases like ‘high contracting parties’ and the verb ‘shall’ are objectionable to us as they connote a legally binding instrument.” He also indicated that the United States disapproved of creating “rights.”

The draft text is replete with all of these potentially offending terms and concepts. The draft states that countries “shall” provide assistance, such as victim rehabilitation, to those requesting help. It further declares that countries with existing ERW have a “right to seek and receive assistance” and that there should be a right to the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, material and scientific and technological information” among countries signing up to the instrument. Yet, the draft does contain qualifiers throughout, such as stating that a provision applies to those “in a position to do so” or in a situation “where appropriate.”

The draft is largely devoted to post-conflict measures, but one article does urge countries to take steps to reduce the possibility that their weapons will not detonate as they are supposed to when used. Storing munitions in controlled environments, transporting them in secure ways, and extensive testing to identify unreliable stockpiles are some of the actions recommended in the document.

The upcoming meeting is taking place following the recent U.S.-led military action against Iraq and as reports circulate by media and nongovernmental organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, of civilian casualties caused by unexploded ordnance.

During the Iraq conflict, U.S. and British forces used cluster munitions, which distribute submunitions over a broad area. Some governments have been highly critical of cluster munitions use because the weapons are viewed as indiscriminate and have a relatively high dud rate.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers told reporters April 25 that coalition forces had “dropped nearly 1,500 cluster bombs” during the Iraq conflict and that 26 of them were used on targets within 1,500 feet of civilian neighborhoods. He said that there was only one known case of collateral damage. Myers’ comments do not appear to account for cluster munitions fired from artillery or rockets.

Whether the use of cluster munitions by U.S.-led forces and the problem of unexploded ordnance in Iraq may affect the forthcoming CCW negotiations is unclear.



Posted: June 1, 2003