Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Cluster Munitions Talks Gain Steam
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Miles A. Pomper

A Geneva-based multilateral forum on conventional weapons is showing some small signs of progress in restricting the use of controversial cluster munitions, as a separate international effort, spearheaded by Norway, appears to be gaining steam.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse smaller submunitions over broad areas. These grenades or bomblets, sometimes numbering as many as 600 submunitions from a single munition, can fail to detonate immediately yet maim or kill if disturbed later.

British, Russian, and U.S. officials have said that some of these weapons need to be retained because they offer a unique military tool for dealing with dispersed or moving targets. For example, they say the weapons allow one pilot to hit a column of tanks in the open, rather than requiring many planes to undergo such dangerous flights. These countries have argued that the dangers of the weapons can be reduced by not using them in civilian areas and by cleaning them up faster, leaving fewer to affect civilians in a conflict’s aftermath. U.S. officials announced in January that the Pentagon was planning to create a quick reaction force that would have as a primary responsibility handling threats to civilians from unexploded cluster bombs and other explosive remnants of war.

Opponents of these weapons, such as the Red Cross and human rights organizations, say that, in practice, even the most advanced cluster munitions fail frequently and military officials use them without sufficient discrimination. The nongovernmental Cluster Munition Coalition claims that cluster munitions caused the greatest number of civilian casualties during the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The U.S. Department of State said these groups have exaggerated the problem. In a Feb. 15 fact sheet, the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs said that, “[i]n almost every recent conflict—Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Iraq—the initial estimates regarding the degree of impact caused by cluster munitions have been grossly off the mark.”

Nonetheless, the fact sheet did not take issue with a UN assessment that cluster munitions caused significant casualties in Lebanon during Israel’s summer 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. That assessment concluded that Israel’s use of these weapons had led by December 2007 to 19 civilian deaths and another 170 injuries. UN officials said Israel fired as many as four million submunitions into Lebanon, leaving behind as many as one million submunitions that failed to explode initially.

In an effort to restrict the weapons, the 82 supporters of the Oslo process, launched at a February 2007 meeting in Norway, have formally agreed Feb. 22 to seek to finalize a treaty at a mid-May meeting that would ban the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions that “cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” (See ACT, January/February 2008. )

In a separate effort, 104 states-parties last November in Geneva agreed to consider efforts to augment the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to lessen the dangers posed by cluster munitions. (See ACT, December 2007. ) In January, a CCW experts group held its first discussions on what form such an adjustment could take. The most substantive outcome of the discussions was a text demarcating where different states stood in defining what constitutes cluster munitions as opposed to other weapons systems. This text will now form the basis of discussion as states seek to agree on a common definition.

A U.S. official said Feb. 12 that it was particularly noteworthy that this effort was led by Russia. Russia, along with China, had led the opposition to drafting a new legally binding protocol to the CCW on cluster munitions.

U.S. officials claim that Russia has shown a new willingness to “talk constructively.” A significant shift in the Russian position would be needed for the United States and the European Union to achieve their newly stated goal of completing a legally binding CCW protocol by November. U.S. officials hope to begin discussions on such a protocol during a one-week session in April, with a final debate taking place in July. Under the U.S. proposal, the July debate would follow the circulation of a proposed text by Ambassador Bent Wigotski of Denmark, who is chairing the cluster munitions discussions.

Getting to that goal will not be easy. China and Russia have resisted as too expensive and technologically demanding a centerpiece of the U.S. effort: trying to limit cluster munitions to those that have submunitions with a failure rate of 1 percent or less. That position has already found its way into U.S. law, as Congress in December 2007 approved a one-year prohibition on the export of cluster munitions with a failure rate of greater than 1 percent. Potential importers must also agree to use the weapons only “against clearly defined military targets” and where no civilians are present.

 China, Russia, and the United States are supporting only the CCW process. But some states, such as the United Kingdom, are also participating in the Oslo process. 

Still, how much support it might attract is unclear. Although nongovernmental organizations and some states, including Norway, championed a total ban during a Feb. 18-22 meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, other states involved in the process, particularly Australia and additional U.S. allies in Asia and Europe, favor lesser restrictions. One European diplomat in Geneva said Feb. 14 that if a total ban were to be approved, major European countries would not support it and “a lot of pressure will disappear on the CCW.”

 The diplomat said that “there is great discontent” that the concerns of these countries “have until now not been reflected in the text of the draft treaty.” In particular, some Europeans fret that “the core group within the Oslo process is continuing to strive toward a total ban, in deviation of the Oslo declaration with its position on ‘unacceptable harm.’”

These countries are particularly concerned that the ability of their militaries to carry out military operations in coordination with the United States could be hampered. That worry was reiterated in a conference call that Joseph Benkert, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs, held with online journalists Feb. 11. Benkert said that if Oslo went forward with a total ban, a U.S. ally that signs the Oslo treaty might be seen as violating the treaty if it participated in a joint operation with U.S. forces and the U.S. forces employed cluster munitions. Many U.S. allies raised these concerns at the Wellington conference. To address such concerns in part, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan have said they would like a transitional period before any restrictions take effect.