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Six months after the new treaty banning cluster munitions opened for signature, half the world has formally expressed its support.  So far, the Convention on Cluster Munitions has an impressive 98 signatories, 10 of which have ratified.  Those figures are growing, and Albania, Niger, and Spain ratified this month.  The convention will enter into force six months after the thirtieth state ratifies.  Many observers predict that it will actually enter into force in 2010, a remarkably short turnaround for international law.

The groundbreaking convention absolutely bans the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of cluster munitions.  These large weapons carry dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions and are notorious for causing horrible civilian deaths or injuries both during attacks and afterward. 

The Convention on Cluster Munitions also requires countries that are party to destroy their stockpiles within eight years, clear their territory of unexploded submunitions within 10 years, and provide assistance to cluster munition victims.  The convention is already having a positive effect at the national level.  In March, Spain became the first among those that have signed to finish destroying its stockpiles - and Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Norway, and the United Kingdom have started the process.

Countries that have signed the convention are convening in Berlin this week for the first time since the December 2008 signing ceremony in Oslo.  Although the subject of the meeting is stockpile destruction, delegates are certain to gather in the hallways to discuss some outstanding matters of how to interpret the treaty. 

The topic most debated behind the scenes will be what is called interoperability - that is, how the ban on cluster munitions applies during military operations with states that are not party to the treaty.  Human Rights Watch has just released a legal analysis of the issue, and many participating countries are considering how to address it in their implementation legislation. 

Despite the international support for a strong treaty, certain states are proposing a weak interpretation that threatens to undermine the purpose of the convention: to eliminate cluster munitions and their humanitarian harm.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions explicitly prohibits assisting others with activities that it bans.  Several of those that have signed, notably U.S. allies, are saying that the convention waives the prohibition on some forms of assistance during joint operations.  They claim that without this exception the treaty would prevent operations with countries, particularly the United States, that are unlikely to join the treaty in the immediate future.

The interpretation promoted by these states runs counter to the convention's aim to do away with cluster munitions once and for all.  Under their reading, countries that are party to the treaty could conceivably participate in planning an attack in which a country that is not party used cluster munitions, allow foreign stockpiles on their territory, provide security for stores of the weapons, refuel vehicles transporting cluster munitions, provide transportation of cluster munitions to the battlefront, identify the targets for cluster munition attacks, or even call in the strikes.

The convention cannot logically be understood to obligate the countries that are party to work toward eliminating cluster munitions and at the same time permit them to help another country use them.

The international community has demonstrated the political will to rid the world of cluster munitions by signing and ratifying the treaty and starting to destroy stockpiles.  While building support is urgent and critical to the success of the convention, developing strong understandings of its provisions is just as important.  As countries draft legislation to help them carry out the provisions of the treaty, they should read the treaty's prohibition on assistance broadly and absolutely to make certain that the convention lives up to its potential. 

The convention clearly permits joint military operations, but countries that have joined the treaty should prohibit all assistance with using cluster munitions. They should remember the purpose behind the treaty they negotiated and make no exceptions.

Bonnie Docherty, a researcher in the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch, has conducted investigative field missions on cluster munition use in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and Georgia and was actively involved in the negotiations for the new Convention on Convention Munitions. The opinions expressed are her own.

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