Governments meeting in Oslo to launch a historic initiative to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians should agree to conclude a new treaty by 2008, Human Rights Watch said today. More than 40 countries are expected to attend the Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions on February 22-23.
“No conventional weapon poses greater danger to civilians today than cluster munitions,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch. “Governments should act with an urgency that matches this threat and conclude a new treaty restricting cluster munitions by next year.”
In November 2006, the Norwegian government announced that it would facilitate a process aimed at concluding a new international treaty to prohibit cluster munitions that have unacceptable humanitarian consequences. The Oslo conference will be the first meeting in the process, which comes after the failure of governments to agree to start negotiations on cluster munitions in the framework of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).
Nongovernmental organizations – led by the Cluster Munition Coalition that Human Rights Watch helped found in 2003 and now co-chairs – are calling for governments to commit to concluding a new treaty by 2008, and to develop an action plan for getting there. The Cluster Munition Coalition and Norwegian People’s Aid are hosting a Civil Society Forum on Cluster Munitions in Oslo on February 21. Representatives of more than 100 nongovernmental organizations from at least 30 countries, many of them veterans of the successful campaign to ban landmines, are expected to participate in the conference.
“The Oslo initiative on cluster munitions follows in the footsteps of the Ottawa process that led to the international ban on landmines,” said Goose, who represented Human Rights Watch in the 1997 negotiations on antipersonnel mines. “By working together to develop a new treaty, governments and civil society have a chance to save countless lives from the terror of cluster munitions.”
In recent months, some three dozen countries have formally declared their support for a new treaty on cluster munitions, as have the International Committee of the Red Cross and many United Nations agencies. There are parliamentary initiatives to regulate or prohibit cluster munitions in about a dozen countries, including the United States and United Kingdom, two of the biggest users of cluster munitions.
“A new treaty on cluster munitions is urgently needed to protect civilians both during and after armed conflict,” said Goose. “Cluster munitions pose a double threat. If they don’t kill or injure you during an indiscriminate attack, they can still get you later with their landmine effect.”
Cluster munitions endanger civilians because each bomb, rocket or shell spreads hundreds of 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 effectively become landmines, killing or maiming people who come into contact with them long after the conflict has ended.
Norway has proposed a prohibition on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm. What weapons fall inside or outside the prohibition will be determined during the negotiations, but governments will have to demonstrate conclusively that any particular cluster munition does not cause excessive harm to civilians.
A new treaty could stave off a potential humanitarian disaster even worse than the global landmine crisis. There are billions of submunitions in the arsenals of more than 70 countries. If those weapons get used, they will claim untold numbers of civilian casualties during conflict, and leave behind tens of millions – or even hundreds of millions – of duds as deadly as antipersonnel mines.
Some states, including the United States and United Kingdom, have expressed opposition to a process outside the CCW to deal with cluster munitions. Those countries are instead insisting that a British proposal to continue discussions within the CCW on “explosive remnants of war, with a particular focus on cluster munitions” is the way forward on cluster munitions.
Human Rights Watch said the proposal for mere discussions in the CCW is at best a go-slow approach to a looming humanitarian disaster, and at worst a deliberate formula for another failure of the CCW to deal with the threat posed by cluster munitions.
“It’s not surprising that the biggest users of cluster munitions are reluctant to embrace a process aimed at banning such weapons,” said Goose. “The Norwegian initiative is the only credible process for alleviating the suffering caused by cluster munitions, and countries serious about protecting civilians will join it right away.”
The tentative list of participants to the conference includes: Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Holy See, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
This list notably includes several states that are not party to the CCW, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Indonesia, Lebanon and Mozambique, as well as a significant number of countries that produce or stockpile cluster munitions.
Some of the governments expected to attend the conference have not yet expressed their support for a new treaty on cluster munitions, including Egypt, Finland, France, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Among those not expected to attend the Oslo meeting are Australia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States.
Cluster munitions are stockpiled by at least 75 states and have been used in at least 23 countries. Existing cluster munitions worldwide contain billions of individual submunitions. Globally, 34 countries are known to have produced over 210 different types of air-dropped and surface-launched cluster munitions including projectiles, bombs, rockets, missiles, and dispensers. At least 13 countries have transferred more than 50 types of cluster munitions to at least 60 other countries.
With very few exceptions, existing cluster munitions are not sophisticated weapons, because neither the cluster munition nor its submunitions are guided, and very few have self-destruct or other devices to reduce the failure rate.