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Norway’s decision to start a process on a treaty to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians deserves immediate support, Human Rights Watch said today. Norway will invite states prepared to take urgent steps to address the humanitarian concerns posed by cluster munitions to a meeting in early 2007 to begin developing a new treaty.

“This is a watershed moment in the international effort to combat cluster munitions,” said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. “Any country serious about protecting civilians from the horrible effects of cluster munitions will join the Norwegian-led initiative right away.”

Norway’s announcement was prompted by the failure of states parties to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) to agree to begin negotiations on cluster munitions in the convention. The Third Review Conference of the CCW ends today in Geneva. Those who rejected the cluster munition negotiation proposal included Australia, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Most of those countries have instead rallied around an alternative proposal by the United Kingdom to continue discussions within the CCW next year on “explosive remnants of war, with a particular focus on cluster munitions.” The proposal was still under consideration this morning.

“The proposal for mere discussions in the CCW is at best a go-slow approach to a looming humanitarian disaster, and at worst a formula for future failure of the CCW to adequately deal with the threat posed by cluster munitions,” said Goose.

Cluster munitions endanger civilians because they spread submunitions over a broad area, virtually guaranteeing civilian casualties when fired into populated areas. Also, cluster munitions leave a large number of unexploded submunitions, or “duds,” that become de facto landmines, killing or maiming people well after the conflict.

During the two weeks of the review conference, 30 countries expressed their support for international negotiations on cluster munitions: Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Guatemala, Holy See, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. Other states have indicated that they will be prepared to officially express support for negotiations soon.

“There is already a solid core of governments prepared to negotiate seriously on cluster munitions,” said Goose. “Many more will join as they see this is the only credible process for alleviating the suffering caused by cluster munitions.”

During the conference, both UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on states to prohibit inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. The ICRC also intends to hold a meeting in early 2007 aimed at identifying the elements of a cluster munition treaty.

Norway announced a moratorium on the use of cluster munitions in June 2006. Belgium was the first country to ban cluster munitions in February 2006.

In 1999, Human Rights Watch was the first nongovernmental organization to call for a stop to the use of cluster munitions until the humanitarian problems had been addressed. It was a founder of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC)href> in November 2003, a global coalition of nongovernmental organizations aimed at a prohibition of cluster munitions causing unacceptable harm to civilian populations.

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