(Oslo, December 4, 2008) - The new international treaty banning cluster munitions, which opened for signing on December 3 and 4, 2008, is one of the most important measures that nations have taken to protect civilians from the deadly effects of armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. By the close of the signing conference in Oslo, 94 nations had signed the treaty, which bans cluster munitions outright and provides strong humanitarian provisions for their cleanup and assistance to victims.
"This treaty is a major advance in international humanitarian law that will strengthen protection for civilians both during and after armed conflict," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch. "Clusters have been one of the most ubiquitously used weapons and also one of the most harmful to civilians."
The convention prohibits the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions. It commits participating nations to clear affected areas within 10 years, declare and destroy stockpiled cluster munitions within eight years, help affected nations with clearance, and provide comprehensive assistance to victims of the weapon.
"Nations such as the United States will find it difficult to use this weapon when its closest military allies have given it up," said Goose. "The stigma created by this convention will have a powerful effect even on those who have not joined."
The new treaty has a groundbreaking provision requiring states that join it actively to discourage other nations from using cluster munitions in joint military operations.
Signatories include dozens of stockpilers and former producers and users of the weapon. Eighteen of 26 NATO nations, including the UK, France, and Germany, signed the agreement. Those signing included some of the most severely affected states, such as Laos, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, which made a surprise announcement that it was signing after a change of heart by President Hamid Karzai.
The number of signatories is expected to increase quickly. Several states that were expected to sign in Oslo did not have the correct paperwork, while they and others indicated their strong desire to join in the near future.
The agreement will become binding international law six months after 30 signatories have ratified it. Four ratified in Oslo: Holy See; Ireland; Norway and Sierra Leone.
"There's a healthy competition now under way to be among the first 30 to ratify," said Goose.
Many states announced early steps toward carrying out the treaty's provisions. Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, South Africa, and the UK are already destroying their stockpiles of cluster weapons. Spain said it would destroy its stockpile within the next seven months.
Cluster munitions can be fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft, and typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of tiny bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Used in urban areas, they invariably kill and wound civilians. Used in any circumstance, they can harm civilians decades after the war is over, as "duds" on the ground act like landmines, exploding when touched by unwitting civilians.
The treaty will now be available for signing at the United Nations in New York and will remain open for signature until it enters into force, after which states must join directly through a process known as accession (a one-step process for signing and ratifying).
Human Rights Watch co-chairs the Cluster Munition Coalition, which it helped found in November 2003.