Work on Cluster Munitions Extended Again

Jeff Abramson

In what has now become an annual occurrence, delegates to a meeting of states-parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) agreed in November to continue work on proposals specifically addressing cluster munitions after failing to reach consensus during the past year. Meanwhile, a different treaty on the weapons grew closer to the number of ratifying states needed for its entry into force, drawing into question the role of future CCW efforts on the topic.

Cluster munitions are bombs, rockets, and artillery shells that disperse smaller submunitions over broad areas that sometimes strike civilians or fail to explode initially, later injuring or killing military forces and noncombatants. An international outcry over use of cluster munitions in southern Lebanon in 2006 and the failure of the CCW to adopt new measures related to the weapons helped lead to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which was opened for signature and ratification last year. That treaty bars the use of nearly all cluster munitions and obligates countries to destroy stockpiles, conduct clearance efforts, and take steps to help victims. (See ACT, December 2008.)

Next year’s CCW group of governmental experts meetings are scheduled to take place April 12-16 and Aug. 30- Sept. 3 “to address urgently the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions, while striking a balance between military and humanitarian considerations,” according to the resolution authorizing the group. Those meetings will take into account a draft protocol on cluster munitions prepared by this year’s experts group chairperson, Gustavo Ainchil of Argentina, the resolution said. Ainchil fashioned the draft text after two weeks of group meetings in February and April, as well as a week of informal consultations in August. (See ACT, May 2009.)

That draft prohibits the use of cluster munitions unless they leave behind no more than 1 percent of unexploded ordnance or possess one of a number of safeguards. It includes a provision allowing for an eight-year deferral of this prohibition, with the possibility of an additional four-year extension if requested. These provisions differ from the CCM, as do other aspects of the draft.

Twenty-four countries have ratified the CCM, and 103 have signed it. The CCM will enter into force six months after 30 states ratify it.

Many delegates from countries that have already signed the CCM argued that a CCW protocol must not weaken progress on controlling the weapons. Calling her country a “strong supporter” of the CCM, Australian Ambassador Caroline Millar said in a Nov. 12 statement to the meeting of CCW states-parties that any future protocol “must provide for a strong humanitarian outcome and progress—not hinder—the development of international humanitarian law.” She listed five elements a CCW protocol should have at a minimum, including “definitional consistency” with the CCM.

A number of the world’s major producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions, including Russia and the United States, have opted out of the CCM, insisting that the CCW is the proper place to negotiate an agreement. In a Nov. 9 statement at the CCW meeting, U.S. representative Harold Koh said, “[M]any States, including the United States, have determined that their national security interests cannot be fully ensured consistent with the terms of the CCM. A comprehensive international response to the humanitarian concerns associated with cluster munitions must include action by those States that are not in a position to become parties to the CCM, because those States produce and stockpile the vast majority of the world’s cluster munitions.”

He reiterated U.S. policy set by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2008 that, “by 2018, the U.S. armed forces will not use cluster munitions that, after arming, result in more than 1 percent of unexploded ordnance across the range of intended operational conditions.” Critics of this approach have rejected failure-based criteria, pointing to data showing that failure rates in the field are often higher than in tests.

Koh also argued that the United States needs time to design and replace its existing stockpile, which contains more than 700 million submunitions. Destroying the stockpile, a step required by the CCM, would cost $2.2 billion using current U.S. demilitarization capabilities, he said.