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US/UN: Don't Back Off of Cluster Bomb Ban

Conventional Weapons Review Conference in Geneva

(Geneva) – The United States and other countries that have not banned cluster munitions should stop trying to create a new international law explicitly permitting use of some of the weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. A two-week conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW), at which the weaker law will be discussed, will open on November 14, 2011, in Geneva.

“The world already has a strong international law banning cluster munitions and it doesn’t need a new watered down version,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch and chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition. “This is clearly an attempt by the United States and other countries that have not banned cluster munitions to provide political and legal cover for any future use of the weapons.”

Diplomatic representatives from approximately 100 countries are meeting in Geneva from November 14-25 for the Fourth Review Conference of the Convention on Conventional Weapons. The main order of business is an effort to conclude negotiations on a new CCW protocol on cluster munitions that would allow continued use, production, trade, and stockpiling of the weapon.

Most countries of the world, 111 in all, have already signed or ratified the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively bans the weapon. It prohibits all use, production, and trade, requires destruction of stockpiles within 8 years, clearance of areas contaminated by cluster munitions within 10 years, and assistance to victims of the weapon.

In contrast, the proposed CCW protocol is weak and replete with exceptions, loopholes, and deferral periods, so that little humanitarian impact can be achieved, Human Rights Watch said. The key “humanitarian” provision cited by the US and others is a ban on use of cluster munitions produced before 1980. Yet, these 30-plus-year-old weapons either have already reached or are nearing the end of their shelf-life and would have to be destroyed anyway. Most, if not all, cluster munitions used in the past decade – by Libya, Thailand, the US, Russia, Georgia, Israel, and the United Kingdom – were produced after 1980. Most important, as has been abundantly demonstrated, post-1980 cluster munitions also cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Moreover, the weak CCW protocol on cluster munitions would set a terrible precedent for the development of international humanitarian law. It is unprecedented in international humanitarian law to adopt an instrument with weaker standards after one with stronger standards has already been embraced by most of the world’s nations.

The United States and other nations that have not banned cluster bombs should undertake national measures to stop their use, production, and trade, Human Rights Watch said. They should not pressure states that have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions to help them create a new international law permitting these weapons.

As an alternative to passing a weaker measure, CCW states that have not banned cluster munitions could agree to a political declaration incorporating the positive elements of CCW discussions and providing interim measures toward joining the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Human Rights Watch said.

Two-thirds of CCW states parties have joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions and are thus bound by the higher standards contained in the ban convention. However, some of these countries have been promoting and facilitating the alternative CCW law, such as France, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

“It is wrong for countries that have comprehensively banned cluster munitions to embrace a double standard and work for alternative international law that explicitly permits the use and production of cluster munitions,” Goose said. “These weapons cause unacceptable harm to civilians. They should end these costly and fruitless deliberations.”

Cluster munitions are not the only item on the agenda of the five-year Review Conference. The conference provides an important opportunity for the CCW to look at other problematic weapons such as incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, Human Rights Watch said. The CCW should tackle the serious and ongoing harm caused by incendiary weapons.

Human Rights Watch urged states parties to agree on a mandate to review and amend the 30-year-old provisions of Protocol III on incendiary weapons during the Review Conference.

Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, the civil society campaign behind the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

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