The clock appears to be ticking on the unconstrained use of cluster munitions. The ranks of a Norwegian-led initiative to prohibit these types of weapons have swelled to approximately 70 countries. Meanwhile, the United States recently switched its position in another forum to support negotiating some restrictions on cluster munitions.
Cluster munitions are weapons fired from artillery and rockets or dropped by planes that fragment and spread as many as 600 submunitions (small bomblets or grenades) over broad areas. When the submunitions fail to detonate properly, which can happen frequently, they can injure or kill people who later come into contact with them. Independent studies estimate that tens of thousands of noncombatants over the past several decades might have fallen victim to cluster munitions.
The first use of cluster munitions dates back to World War II, but Israel’s large-scale use of cluster munitions against Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon last August increased attention to the weapon system. (See ACT, October 2006. ) In a June 5 report, the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in South Lebanon stated that 904 cluster munitions strike areas had been identified in Lebanon and that leftover cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance had claimed 236 postconflict casualties, including 31 deaths.
At a June 19-22 meeting in Geneva, the United States, a supplier of some of the cluster munitions used by Israel last summer, announced it would back negotiations on cluster munitions under the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which numbers 102 states-parties. The convention regulates indiscriminate and inhumane arms, such as incendiary weapons, through five separate protocols.
Last fall, Washington helped block work on a new CCW protocol on cluster munitions. (See ACT, December 2006. ) Ronald Bettauer, head of the U.S. CCW delegation, said June 18 that the about-face reflected “the importance of this issue, concerns raised by other countries, and our own concerns about the humanitarian implications of these weapons.”
Bettauer indicated four days later that the United States does not have a specific proposal. “The United States has taken no position as to the outcome of the negotiations,” he told other delegations. Bettauer, however, noted that any result should “protect civilians while taking into account security requirements.”
On behalf of the European Union, Germany has proposed a negotiating mandate to conclude a CCW protocol on cluster munitions by the end of 2008. Acting on its own accord, Germany also has submitted a draft protocol that would phase-out cluster munitions, but initially permit the use of cluster munitions that met certain technical requirements, such as submunitions failure rates of less than one percent. It would also allow cluster munitions use against targets not near populated areas.
Despite the U.S. reversal and the EU proposal, there is no guarantee that negotiations will be initiated. The CCW operates by consensus and other countries, including China and Russia, have previously balked at cluster munitions measures. CCW members will decide this November on whether to start any cluster munitions negotiations.
Frustrated with the cumbersome and slow-moving CCW process, Norway last year—much to Washington’s chagrin—opted to launch an independent process to negotiate a cluster munitions treaty. The inaugural February meeting of the so-called Oslo Process brought together 46 countries that committed to concluding in 2008 an agreement banning cluster munitions “that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” (See ACT, April 2007. )
A growing group, including several African states, gathered May 23-25 in Lima, Peru, for a second meeting to propel the process forward and give the proposed treaty more shape. Norway provided the countries with a draft discussion text.
Key aspects of that document included an initial six-year period for destroying stockpiled systems and an initial 10-year period for clearing cluster munitions contaminating a country’s territory. There were also provisions for governments to assist cluster munitions victims and make regular implementation reports. The Norwegian draft also called for entry into force of a future treaty once 20 countries ratify it.
Differences of opinions emerged on all of those issues, but two other issues provoked more substantial debate and revealed some divisions.
Participants disagreed over whether there should be a transition time permitting states to use cluster munitions until alternative weapons become available.
They also diverged over what cluster munitions should be prohibited. For example, some contended cluster munitions equipped with self-destruct mechanisms or those with low failure rates should be allowed, but other states argued for a blanket ban.
This latter group is strongly backed by nongovernmental groups involved in the Oslo Process. Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work against anti-personnel landmines, told the Lima conference May 25, “Honest assessments of the use of cluster munitions in real combat situations, we believe, can only lead to the elimination of cluster munitions.”
In general, states coming down on the more stringent sides of the transition and exemption issues are those that hold out little hope for or are not party to the CCW. Led by Norway, this group also includes Ireland, Lebanon, Mexico, New Zealand, and Peru.
Oslo participants supporting transition times and exemptions tend also to back negotiating a CCW instrument. Australia, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland rank among those states putting greater stock in a possible CCW instrument, while Canada, France, and the United Kingdom occupy more middle ground, voicing support for both paths. The contention by some of these states is that a CCW protocol, if negotiated, would potentially capture more major powers and cluster munitions producers and users.
Nongovernmental organizations are urging states to ignore the siren song of the CCW. Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch and a co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, argued in separate May 25 press statements that the CCW was a “dead-end process” and “a distraction that should be avoided.”
Meanwhile, Oslo Process participants are pushing ahead on several fronts. At the May meeting, Peru declared that it would work toward turning Latin America into a zone free of cluster munitions. In addition, Hungary and Switzerland announced national moratoriums. Belgium and Costa Rica are arranging regional meetings of Oslo participants, while the next full meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5-7 in Vienna.