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June 1, 2018
Cluster Munition, Anti-Vehicle Mine Limits Sought
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Wade Boese

Upset at the lack of progress at a November meeting on multilateral arms issues, some states took matters into their own hands. Norway announced plans to lead negotiations on banning cluster munitions, while Australia, Denmark, and the United States crafted a voluntary pledge under which governments would promise to limit their use of anti-vehicle mines.

These were announced near the end of the third review conference of the 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that took place in Geneva Nov. 7-17. The accord’s 100 states-parties must commit to at least two of its five protocols that seek to protect civilians and combatants against injury or death from indiscriminate or inhumane arms. The convention’s newest protocol entered into force Nov. 12 and commits adherents to clear their territories postconflict of unexploded ordnance, or explosive remnants of war (ERW). (See ACT, January/February 2004. )

Although fully committed to the new protocol, Norway wanted the review conference to pursue additional steps to prevent ERW altogether. Specifically, Oslo hoped states-parties would commit to outlawing cluster munitions, which are bombs, rockets, or shells that spread smaller submunitions or bomblets, sometimes up to several hundred, over a broad area.

Independent studies have found that these weapons have accounted for a significant portion of unexploded ordnance, as well as ERW casualties, in recent conflicts. The UN Mine Action Service reported Nov. 13 that cluster munitions have caused all 23 deaths and “most” of the 136 reported injuries from unexploded ordnance in Lebanon following fighting there last summer between Israel and the radical Shiite group Hezbollah. (See ACT, October 2006. )

Norway was not alone in singling out cluster munitions. In a Nov. 7 message to the conference, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged countries to “freeze the use of cluster munitions against military assets located in or near populated areas.” Austria, the Holy See, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, and Sweden also advocated negotiations for a legally binding instrument that “addresses the humanitarian concerns posed by cluster munitions.”

But several larger powers indicated at the outset that such proposals were overly ambitious and undesirable. The Department of State issued a Nov. 3 statement declaring that countries should focus on fulfilling the new ERW protocol and “not on negotiating new rules on cluster munitions.” Similarly, Anatoly Antonov, head of the Russian CCW delegation, stated Nov. 7, “[W]e cannot accept the logic of restrictions or even bans on ammunition artificially and groundlessly declared as ‘most dangerous.’” Moscow and Washington have both employed cluster munitions in recent military conflicts.

The CCW operates by consensus, and opponents of cluster munitions negotiations were not swayed. But the conference agreed to a June 19-22, 2007, meeting of a group of governmental experts to discuss arms that cause ERW, including a “particular focus on cluster munitions.” The group would report on these talks to next year’s annual states-parties meeting in November.

This compromise did not satisfy Norway. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced Nov. 17 that his government would organize a conference in hopes of moving toward an international cluster munitions ban. He argued the urgency of the problem demanded action and that the “time is ripe” because of “increasing calls” for a ban.

Some states already have cluster munitions restrictions. Belgium has outlawed them, Norway has instituted a use moratorium, and Germany has stopped procuring them.

The Norwegian initiative recalls Canada’s effort a decade ago to ban anti-personnel landmines (APLs) after the CCW and the Conference on Disarmament failed to do so. This initiative produced the 1997 Ottawa Convention that now numbers 151 states-parties and which has helped destroy some 38 million stockpiled APLs worldwide. (See ACT, November 2006. )

No date has been set for the Oslo meeting nor have any invitations been made. A Norwegian official told Arms Control Today Nov. 20 that this process should not be considered as competition to the CCW meeting but as a parallel process.

Ronald Bettauer, head of the U.S. delegation to the CCW conference, made clear Nov. 17 that Washington sees things differently. Describing the United States as “disappointed” with Oslo’s move, he said, “the effort to go outside this framework is not healthy for the CCW” and would “weaken the international humanitarian law effort.”

Bettauer contrasted Norway’s response on cluster munitions with how other states reacted to the failure of the conference to adopt a long-standing, 31-nation proposal to restrict the use of anti-vehicle mines. Rather than “go outside” the CCW and undermine it, Bettauer said frustrated governments would proceed on an anti-vehicle mines agreement when the states-parties were ready. But in the meantime, some governments would move forward and enact as national policies the restrictions that they had sought internationally.

Five years ago, the United States and Denmark proposed that the CCW adopt a protocol restricting anti-vehicle mines. The initiative gained 29 other co-sponsors, including Norway.

The latest version of the proposal calls for limiting the use of undetectable anti-vehicle mines or anti-vehicle mines lacking self-destruct or self-deactivation mechanisms to clearly marked perimeter areas. It would further restrict exports of undetectable anti-vehicle mines or those that cannot self-destruct or self-deactivate.

In the past few years, Belarus, China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Russia have blocked the proposed protocol. In November, they again opposed the measure.

Pakistan insisted that undetectable and long-lasting anti-vehicle mines are necessary for security, while China raised what it claims are the economic and technical challenges of making anti-vehicle mines detectable and outfitting them with self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms. Antonov further asserted a case had not been made that anti-vehicle mines pose a “serious humanitarian threat.”

The State Department Nov. 3 issued a statement detailing incidents of civilian deaths inflicted by anti-vehicle mines. In addition, protocol proponents argue that threats of anti-vehicle mines can dissuade or slow the delivery of aid, food, or medicine to areas needing help.

Confronting a persistent stalemate, CCW members did not extend negotiations for another year. The conference did agree to devote up to two days to discuss anti-vehicle mines at the 2007 states-parties meeting.

Washington, which voiced readiness to resume negotiations if positions changed, did not hide its unhappiness. “The United States was deeply disappointed that after five years of discussion, the conference was unable to achieve consensus on the adoption of an anti-vehicle mine protocol and had to suspend work on this important subject,” the State Department declared Nov. 17.

Still, Australia, Denmark, and the United States unveiled the same day a voluntary “Declaration on Anti-Vehicle Mines” incorporating the key elements of the anti-vehicle mine proposal. By the close of the conference, 22 additional countries, including Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, had pledged to adhere.

CCW members reached consensus on two issues at the conference. They agreed to establish a pool of experts for states-parties seeking compliance assistance and create a voluntary contribution fund that poorer states-parties or nonmembers could use to help pay for CCW-related activities or events.