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An Explosive Issue: British Government Must Act

The British government must take this new opportunity to end its shameful opposition to a ban on cluster bombs.

According to the police report, Kamaleddine Mohammad was gathering wood near the Rashidiyeh Palestinian refugee camp outside Tyre in Lebanon last month when he stepped on an unexploded submunition from a cluster bomb. Mohammad was yet another victim of Israel's cluster bombing campaign at the end of last summer's war between Israel and Hizbollah. He is one of the tens of thousands of civilians killed or injured by cluster munitions in war zones throughout the world in recent decades.

This week, Norway is leading an effort to initiate negotiationshref> that would, if successful, lead to an international ban on most, if not all, cluster munitions, thus preventing thousands of further civilian deaths and injuries. The initiative deserves the support of all states that profess to care about the rules of war and the protection of civilians caught up in armed conflict.

Cluster munitions, dropped from aircraft or shot out of artillery and ground rocket systems, explode in mid air and scatter hundreds of submunitions over an area as big as, or even bigger than, a football pitch. When used in populated areas, they are almost certain to cause large numbers of civilian casualties. Furthermore, because many of these submunitions fail to explode on impact but remain volatile, the target area effectively becomes a minefield. Long after hostilities have ended these weapons continue to reap a bitter harvest in civilian deaths and injuries. Children are particularly vulnerable.

In southern Lebanon, which, in the last days of last summer's war, the Israel Defence Forces blanketed with millions of submunitions, 186 people have been injured and 30 killed by unexploded cluster submunitions since the end of the fighting.

The British government is a major producer, user, exporter and stockpiler of cluster munitions. Britain used them in Iraq in 2003, Kosovo in 1999, Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, and the Falkland Islands in 1982. It has sold them to armed forces around the world. And it has been opposing efforts to prohibit the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions through international negotiations such as those which led to the landmark Mine Ban Treaty of 1997.

At a five-year review conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) last November, Britain, standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States, Russia, and China, among others, opposed a proposal to start negotiations on cluster munitions within the framework of the CCW. Instead, the UK offered a weak alternative proposal: to continue talks on explosive remnants of war, but with a focus on cluster munitions. This go-slow approach was readily accepted by those loath to deal with the cluster bomb problem in a serious and urgent fashion.

In response, Norway has invited a progressive coalition of more than 30 countries to Oslohref"> in an effort to begin hammering out an international cluster treaty outside of the CCW. The pro-treaty coalition has been growing rapidly. It is spurred in part by well-informed public opinion in democratic countries which rightly views the use of cluster munitions as unacceptable. But it is also backed up by a strong legal argument: in every conflict where the use of cluster munitions has been well documented, they have been used in ways that violate international humanitarian law. Most notably, cluster munitions used in populated areas cannot be directed at a specific military target, and thus are invariably indiscriminate, striking military targets and civilians without distinction.

This week's meeting in Oslo will get the ball rolling for negotiating an international treaty to ban all 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 avoidable harm to civilians. Non-governmental organisations, led by the Cluster Munition Coalitionhref> (which Human Rights Watch helped found in 2003 and now co-chairs), are calling for the meeting to agree on a declaration committing to the conclusion of a new treaty by 2008, and to develop an action plan for getting there.

One of the surprises of the Oslo meeting is that the UK government is sending a delegation. But it is still not clear what the British government's intentions are. As recently as last December, Foreign Office minister Kim Howells stated that "compelling and legitimate conditions may occur when our armed forces need to use these weapons."

However, the government is divided. Last year, a memo was leaked to the press in which the International Development secretary, Hilary Benn, urged his cabinet colleagues to support an international ban on cluster munitions, arguing that their use was "pushing the boundaries of international humanitarian law". If the British presence at Oslo indicates that such dissident views are prevailing, and that the UK is now serious about an international treaty, then so much the better for the thousands of potential victims of clusters whose lives will be saved by such a treaty.

If, on the other hand, it turns out the British have gone to Oslo to hinder rapid international action, then we can only cry "shame" ... and hope that Tony Blair's successor seizes on this important issue to give the protection of civilians in wartime the priority it deserves.

Tom Porteous is the London director of Human Rights Watch. As a journalist he worked for the Guardian and the BBC World Service. He has written extensively on Africa and the Middle East.

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