Ban Cluster Bombs: The Pressure Grows...

By René Wadlow | 2007-04-01 12:00:00

On February 21-23, 2007, the Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions was held at the invitation of the government of Norway to discuss the possibility of a ban on cluster bombs through a new treaty. A group of some 50 NGOs met close by to follow the start of the negotiations and to push for rapid action. The Oslo meeting was the second recent step in efforts to stop the use of cluster munitions -- warheads that scatter scores of smaller bombs. Many of these sub-munitions fail to detonate on impact, leaving them scattered on the ground, ready to kill and maim when disturbed or handled. Reports from humanitarian organizations and mine-clearing groups have shown that civilians make up the vast majority of the victims of cluster bombs, especially children attracted by their small size and often bright colors.

The failure rate of cluster munitions is high, ranging from 30 to 80 percent. But "failure" may be the wrong word. They may, in fact, be designed to kill later. The large number of unexploded cluster bombs means that farm lands and forests cannot be used or are used with great danger. Most people killed and wounded by cluster bombs in the 21 conflicts where they have been used are civilians, often young. Such persons often suffer severe injuries such as loss of limbs and loss of sight. It is difficult to resume work or schooling.

In November 2006, near the end of his term as UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan called for action on cluster munitions -- especially when used in populated areas, as happened in the July-August 2006 conflict in Lebanon. The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) working in southern Lebanon reported that their density there is higher than in Kosovo and Iraq, especially in built up areas, threatening hundreds of thousands of people, humanitarian and reconstruction workers as well as UN peacekeepers. An estimated one million cluster bombs were fired on south Lebanon during the 34 days of war, many during the last two days when a ceasefire was a real possibility. The Hezbollah militia also fired rockets with cluster bombs into northern Israel.

Signing for Cluster Bombs

It is thought that the Israeli cluster bombs were US-made while those of Hezbollah came from Iran. Therefore a necessary first step is to ban the transfer of cluster munitions. Annan said, "I also urge you to freeze the transfer of these cluster munitions that are known to be inaccurate and unreliable and to dispose of them." Under the US Arms Export Control Act, when Israel or others buy cluster bombs and other lethal equipment, a written agreement restricting use must be signed. The UNMACC has found evidence that Israel used three types of US-made cluster bombs during the war in Lebanon. Currently, use of cluster bombs against soldiers is not considered against the Geneva Conventions, but use is banned against civilians and in heavily populated areas.

Annan was addressing the start of the "Review Conference on the Convention on Prohibitions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects" -- the "Inhumane Weapons' Convention" to its friends.

The indiscriminate impact of cluster bombs had already been raised by the Quakers and myself with the support of the Swedish government during the 1979-1980 negotiations which led to the CCW. My NGO text of August 1979 on "Anti-Personnel Fragmentation Weapons" to the negotiating Conference called for a ban based on the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration and recommended that "permanent verification and dispute-settlement procedures be established which may investigate all charges of the use of prohibited weapons whether in inter-State or internal conflicts, and that such a permanent body include a consultative committee of experts who could begin their work without a prior resolution of the UN Security Council."

I was thanked for my efforts but left to understand that world citizens are not in the field of real politics and that I would do better to stick to pushing for a ban on napalm -- photos of its use in Vietnam being still in the memory of many delegates. Governments always have difficulty focusing on more than one weapon at a time. Likewise for public pressure to build, there need to be some stark visual reminders to draw attention and evoke compassion.

Although cluster munitions were widely used in the Vietnam-Indochina war, they never received the media and thus the public attention of napalm.1 The United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research recently published a study on the continued destructive impact of cluster bombs in Laos noting that "The Lao People's Democratic Republic has the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the world."2 Cluster-bomb land clearance is still going on while the 1963-1973 war in Laos has largely faded from broader public memory.

The wide use by NATO forces in the Kosovo conflict again drew attention to the use of cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance. The ironic gap between the humanitarian aims given for the war and the continued killing by cluster bombs after the war was too wide not to notice. However, the difficulties of UN administration of Kosovo and of negotiating a "final status" soon overshadowed all other concerns. Cluster weapons remained the concern of a small number of NGOs already active on the landmines effort as well as Human Rights Watch, since 1999, when evidence from its research directly following the bombings in Serbia and Kosovo, with spillover into Albania, highlighted problems with the use of cluster munitions and the uncertainty of international humanitarian law. Likewise the use of cluster bombs in Iraq is overshadowed by the continuing conflict, growing sectarian violence, the role of the US and Iran, and what shape Iraq will take after the withdrawal of US troops.

Thus it was the indiscriminate use of cluster bombs against Lebanon in a particularly senseless and inconclusive war that has finally led to sustained efforts in a four-step sequence:

  1. a freeze on the use of cluster bombs;
  2. a ban on sales and transfers;
  3. a ban on production;
  4. a destruction of stockpiles.

Declined Invitations to be Banned

With 34 countries known to produce cluster weapons and at least 73 states stockpiling them -- for an estimated four billion total -- the ban will require concerted leadership from some states and growing momentum on the part of NGOs. A ban on cluster bombs depends on building public momentum for the ban and on how strongly governments and their military are willing to push back. Currently, the governments most actively engaged in making, selling or transferring cluster weapons such as China, Russia, and the USA and their close friends are just ignoring the effort. They declined the invitation to Oslo. It is too cold there in February. There is not enough momentum for them yet to have to fight back, and with a little luck a new crisis will draw attention to other problems. However, word has gone out to other military that they could have three fall-back positions to prevent a ban on cluster bombs:

The first fall-back position is to insist that existing international humanitarian law is adequate to protect civilians and to prevent use in heavily populated areas. The second fall-back position is to suggest a "technical fix" -- cluster weapons can be improved so that their failure rate is less and they could be better guided so as to be more concentrated on the battlefield.

If these two positions fail, the final fall-back position is to stress that a new treaty is not needed and that a protocol to the existing CCW Treaty could be negotiated. But as experience has shown, the CCW protocol negotiations can be made to drag on eternally, and the CCW has no adequate fact-finding or dispute-settlement procedures in case of violations.

Opposition to a ban is being prepared in the shadows by powerful states, and the military elsewhere are sharpening their arguments to keep cluster bombs as a "military necessity." NGO efforts need to be organized in as many countries as possible and from many different sectors of society to focus opinion. The UN call for a ban is clear. Now it is up to us to build the momentum.3

René Wadlow has been an NGO representative to United Nations agencies and committees in Geneva.


1 See Eric Prokosch, who called attention to the range of weapons used in the Vietnam war, in his Technology of Killing: A Military and Political History of Anti-personnel Weapons (London: Zed Books, 1995)

2 R. Cave, A.Lawson and A. Sherriff Cluster Munitions in Albania and Lao PDR (Geneva: UN Institute for Disarmament Research, 2006)

3 There is a Cluster Munition Coalition of some 200 NGOs. See their website: <>.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2007, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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