Cluster Munitions Treaty Effort Moving Ahead

Wade Boese

Recalling the international campaign against anti-personnel landmines (APLs) a decade ago, nearly 50 governments have joined with nongovernmental organizations to negotiate a treaty to prevent civilians from being victimized by another type of weapon. This time, the focus is on cluster munitions, and the goal is to complete an agreement by 2008.

Meeting Feb. 22-23 in Oslo , Norway , 46 governments committed to pursue a legally binding instrument on cluster munitions, which are weapons that can spread up to some 600 small bomblets or grenades over areas as large as 200,000 square meters. These weapons can be dropped by aircraft, fired by artillery, or launched by rockets.

Failure rates for various submunitions can range from less than one percent to reportedly extreme cases of 100 percent under certain circumstances. Submunitions that fail to detonate properly can remain dormant, sometimes for decades, and then explode, possibly injuring or killing whoever might disturb them or happen to be close by.

Delivering the opening Oslo conference address, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre noted that children are “particularly vulnerable and constitute a disproportionately large group of [cluster munitions] victims.” He argued that the “humanitarian and political consequences” of cluster munitions “far outweigh their usefulness.”

Some governments at the conference, however, contended that cluster munitions have some utility. Sweden , for example, said that a successful agreement would balance “legitimate humanitarian and military interests,” while the United Kingdom drew a distinction between acceptable cluster munitions and “dumb” ones. The British government defined dumb munitions as those without self-destruct or self-deactivation capabilities or the ability to discriminate between targets and noncombatants.

Other governments, such as Ireland and Mexico , contended that all cluster munitions should be outlawed. Støre seemed to lean toward the more absolute perspective, arguing that “technical improvements in weapons technology will not be enough to address the complex humanitarian problems caused by cluster munitions.” He added that “it is impossible to create a 100 percent-reliable weapon.”

In the conference declaration, the participants set a goal of banning cluster munitions that inflict “unacceptable harm to civilians.” What cluster munitions fall inside or outside that definition will be determined through future negotiations.

The declaration also stated that the proposed accord will create “a framework for cooperation and assistance” to help aid victims, clear contaminated areas, conduct risk education, and destroy stockpiled weapons. Similar to the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning APLs, such assistance and cooperation will most likely be voluntary, not mandatory. Many countries already have donated millions of dollars to help clean up and dispose of dangerous cluster munitions remnants worldwide, including most recently those Israel employed in Lebanon last summer. (See ACT, October 2006. )

Egypt , Finland , France , Italy , Germany , and the United Kingdom reportedly surprised many in Oslo when they endorsed the declaration after earlier expressing some reservations about the process or objective. China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States were some of the notable but expected no-shows.

Japan , Poland , and Romania were the only conference attendees that declined to sign the final declaration. In a March 20 statement to Arms Control Today, the Polish Foreign Ministry stated that Poland is very interested in reducing the “negative effects” of cluster munitions but that its policy is to seek a solution through the framework of the 1981 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). Japan and Romania offered similar explanations.

The CCW currently has five protocols regulating arms, such as incendiary weapons and booby traps, judged to be indiscriminate or inhumane. Many countries, including Austria , Ireland , Mexico , New Zealand , and Norway , have been pushing for a cluster munitions protocol for several years without success.

The CCW operates by consensus, and some countries, such as the United States and Russia , repeatedly have blocked such negotiations. This continued opposition is what compelled Norway to convene the Oslo gathering outside the CCW. (See ACT, December 2006. )

Still, several countries that signed the Oslo declaration are not giving up on the CCW. Germany, for instance, is drafting a draft cluster munitions instrument for CCW consideration.

Seeking to avoid making countries feel they must choose the Oslo process or the CCW, the Norwegian government added a line to the declaration that states should continue to try and address cluster munitions dangers “within the framework of international humanitarian law and in all relevant fora.” In its final conference statement, the United Kingdom thanked Norway for the amendment.

Through his press spokesperson, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also commended Norway 's handling of the matter. The CCW and Oslo processes “should not be seen as in competition with one another but as complementary and mutually reinforcing,” the Feb. 23 statement read.

Some of the more than 100 nongovernmental participants in Oslo were less diplomatic toward the CCW. Steve Goose, co-chair of the 177-member Cluster Munition Coalition and director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, told government representatives Feb. 22 that the CCW was a potential “pitfall” and warned them that “there should not be any pretense that the CCW will be able to deal with this issue urgently or effectively.”

Nongovernmental participants and some states also were disappointed that the declaration did not call for countries to enact moratoriums on cluster munitions use. Instead, the declaration simply stated governments should “consider taking steps at the national level.” Austria and Bosnia and Herzegovina both announced moratoria at the conference.

Norway , in consultation with other governments, is drafting a “discussion paper” for circulation before the next meeting of participating countries. That meeting will occur May 23-25 in Lima , Peru . Subsequent meetings are tentatively scheduled for Vienna in late 2007 and Dublin, Ireland, in early 2008.

Although the declaration says negotiations should be finished by 2008, not all governments consider it a firm deadline. Sweden described 2008 as an “ambition,” and Canada , Denmark , Germany , and the Netherlands were among several countries that made similar statements.

Norway is encouraging other countries to join the process. Cambodia has been the only new volunteer as of mid-March.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has introduced legislation to stiffen U.S. cluster munitions use and export policies (see ACT , March 2007 ), criticized the Bush administration Feb. 23 for shunning the Oslo meeting. “I call on the United States to join in this effort and protect civilians from these lethal relics of war,” she declared.

A U.S. government official told Arms Control Today March 21 that the United States, which has not joined the Ottawa Convention, did not plan on enlisting in the Oslo process but would “fully participate in [CCW] discussions.” The official also stated it was “premature” to predict what position the United States might take on any agreement produced outside the CCW.