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The UK government should abandon its insistence on exempting certain weapons from the new cluster munitions treaty whose text is being finalized next month, Human Rights Watch said today. The government is seeking to weaken the treaty in other ways as well, Human Rights Watch said.

The Cluster Munition Coalition, which Human Rights Watch cofounded in 2003, is holding a Global Day of Action on April 19 to raise awareness about the dangers of the weapon and to mobilize support for a comprehensive ban treaty.

The conference to negotiate the treaty will be held in Dublin on May 19-30, and at least 100 nations are expected to participate. The treaty will ban the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions, and will also require clearance of contaminated areas and assistance to affected communities.

“The UK’s support for this treaty is very significant,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch. “But its efforts to water down some important provisions in the treaty could end up being very harmful.”

Cluster munitions are large weapons that release dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. Air-dropped or ground-launched, they cause two major humanitarian problems. First, their indiscriminant wide-area effect virtually guarantees civilian casualties when they are used in or near populated areas. Second, many of the submunitions do not explode on impact as designed but lie around like landmines, causing civilian casualties for months or years to come.

The UK used 70 air-launched and 2,100 ground-launched cluster munitions, containing 113,190 submunitions, in southern Iraq in March and April 2003. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of civilian casualties caused by UK clusters in and around Basra.

The UK government supports the cluster munitions treaty but is trying to win an exception for its helicopter-launched CRV-7 cluster munition rockets. While the negative humanitarian impact of these weapons is all too easy to predict, the UK has not made a convincing case that these CRV-7 rockets – which have never been used by the UK in combat – are essential to the UK’s future war-fighting capability.

The CRV-7 cluster rocket itself is not guided, nor are the individual submunitions it contains. Moreover, the submunitions do not have any fail-safe mechanisms to lessen dangers to civilians. The UK recently noted that it has already withdrawn two types of cluster munitions from service because “neither system has target discrimination capability nor a self-destruction, self-neutralization or self-deactivation capability.” The same is true of the CRV-7.

“The UK wants a special exception for its pet cluster munition rocket system, but those rockets can be as deadly as anything this treaty seeks to prohibit,” said Goose “By pursuing this exemption, the UK could weaken the treaty substantially.”

UK negotiators are also seeking to delete or severely weaken a provision in the draft treaty text that would prohibit a treaty member from assisting in the use of cluster munitions by other governments during joint military operations. The United States, which has not participated at all in the Oslo Process, has nevertheless aggressively lobbied with many governments for its “interoperability” concerns to be addressed in the treaty, insisting that its ability to use cluster munitions in NATO and other coalition operations not be impeded in any way.

“Nearly all European governments are supporting this treaty because it bans a weapon that creates huge humanitarian suffering,” said Goose. “If they really believe that to be the case, then NATO shouldn’t be using clusters, either. The UK government should not bend to the bullying of Washington.”

The UK has also indicated that it opposes the provisions in the draft treaty text requiring states parties to provide victim assistance and assigning special responsibility for clearing contaminated areas to those who used the weapons.

Just over one year ago in Oslo, Norway, 46 states agreed to conclude a treaty by the end of 2008 that bans cluster munitions “that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” The treaty was then developed and discussed in subsequent international meetings in Peru, Austria, and New Zealand, as well as regional meetings in Cambodia, Costa Rica, Serbia, Belgium, Zambia, and most recently Mexico (April 16-17).

Following the conclusion of the negotiations in Dublin, the treaty will be opened for signature in Oslo on December 2-3, 2008.

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