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The US government is trying to win dangerous loopholes in a new treaty on cluster munitions even though it is not participating in the international conference to hammer out a final text, Human Rights Watch said today.

US allies at the conference in Dublin to negotiate a global banhref> are proposing that the treaty allow parties to assist other countries using cluster munitions during joint military operations. American diplomats have lobbied hard for this provision in world capitals, although they are not present in Dublin.

“We are here to ban cluster munitions, not to create loopholes that would make it easier for the United States to use them,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch. “US allies in Dublin must resist the pressure from Washington.”

The current draft treaty text includes a provision that obliges states parties to the treaty not to assist non-states parties with acts that are prohibited by the treaty, such as cluster munition use. The provision will help stigmatize cluster munitions, as well as deter states that are not party to the treaty from using them.

Opponents of the provision argue that it will interfere with joint military operations. They fear that their soldiers will be held criminally liable for the actions of their allies, but these fears are overstated and are apparently in response to US pressure.

States parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, which uses virtually the same language, have been able to conduct joint operations with their allies who are not states parties, including the US, without incurring liability. The Mine Ban Treaty has been signed and ratified by 156 nations, including most US allies but not including the United States, and includes virtually the same provision as the current draft of the cluster munitions treaty.

The US government is threatening that the ban on clusters would prevent it from undertaking or participating in humanitarian operations. In fact, identical provisions in the treaty banning landmines have had no effect on US humanitarian efforts in the 11 years since the treaty came into force.

On Wednesday, Stephen Mull, acting assistant secretary for political military affairs at the US Department of State, told reporters, “… if the convention passes in its current form, any US military ship would be technically not able to get involved in a peacekeeping operation, in providing disaster relief or humanitarian assistance as we’re doing right now in the aftermath of the earthquake in China and the typhoon in Burma, and not to mention everything that we did in Southeast Asia after the tsunami in December of 2004.”

The US objection is based on its claim that its ships and mobile units would be banned from ports, as they are sometimes equipped with clusters. But no country has ever banned US units on humanitarian mission from ports on the basis of what arms might possibly be on board, despite similar provisions in other weapons treaties. Mull’s claim that relief missions to places like Burma or China would be impeded is particularly disingenuous, as these countries are not taking part in the treaty discussions.

“It is unfortunate that US officials are making such inaccurate statements,” Goose said. “If they really cared about the process and wanted to protect their interests, the US would be in Dublin negotiating. Sadly, it is not.”

States are currently discussing the addition of new text to clarify the prohibition on assistance provision. Human Rights Watch does not view this new text as necessary, but understands states’ desire for more clarification. There are 109 states in Dublin to conduct final negotiations on a cluster munitions convention. The treaty process began in February 2007 in Oslo, and states are expected to adopt a new convention on May 30, 2008.

Cluster munitions are large weapons that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions. They cause unacceptable humanitarian harm in two ways. First, their broad area effect kills and injures civilians during strikes. Second, many submunitions do not explode, becoming de facto landmines that cause civilian casualties for months or years to come.

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