The Shadow Campaign: Cluster Bombs and Explosive Remnants of War

Victims of cluster bombs equal or outnumber those of landmines

By Robin Collins | 2002-07-01 12:00:00

A year in advance of the 1997 treaty which banned anti-personnel mines, Peter Herby, a legal specialist with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), was arguing at a workshop in Ottawa that it might be more useful to prohibit a weapon's "effects" than a narrowly defined weapon itself. We might not be able to keep pace with constantly evolving technologies that continue to reclassify the problem. Should there have to be a new campaign every time a "new" weapon is introduced, he asked?

When the Ottawa APM Treaty was signed and delivered, there was some debate whether an "effects-based" definition had been successfully achieved. There is still contention over this, but for the most part, a class of weapon defined both by its design and by how it is detonated, has been outlawed by a majority of countries

But what about those other weapons that explode unintentionally - just like landmines - in a farmer's field, near a schoolyard, or beside the path to the village water supply? Cluster bomblets that "didn't go off" fit this bill.


There was apparent consensus among both governments who signed onto the Ottawa Treaty and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (the Nobel Prize-winning ICBL) that faulty cluster bombs were "not covered by Ottawa." However, an interesting process has begun to take shape over the last couple of years, and one that harkens back to some of those concerns expressed by Peter Herby in 1996.

Cluster bombs (CBs) have been used in war since the 1960s, and particularly by the US military. According to Mennonite Central Committee, "the US flew more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos [during the conflict in Indochina]. This is equal to one bombing mission every eight minutes around the clock for nine full years." Three hundred million cluster "bombies" were released from their bomb casings when dropped over Indochina - 90 million over Laos alone. Victims of CBs started to mount from that point and can equal or outnumber landmine victims in parts of that region. Mine clearance agencies, such as Mines Advisory Group, and humanitarian organizations such as the Mennonite Central Committee have always made it known that unexploded ordnance disposal is about landmines, yes, but also a range of other weapons left dangerously explosive long after war's end.

The international campaign that was formed to ban anti-personnel (AP) mines focused on one class of weapons primarily because these were among the most onerous and overall claimed the most victims. The victims were usually civilians, often children who unintentionally triggered the explosion themselves.

Cluster bomblets tended to kill rather than maim their victims, but they were used in fewer conflicts. They were dropped from the air, and so were dependent on elite militaries which were equipped with an air force.

Very recently a new approach to the problem of persistent weapons was proposed. The Red Cross suggested that any weapon left unexploded and threatening in post-conflict environments could be captured by the phrase "explosive remnants of war" (ERW). They would comprise a broad category of weapons, including artillery shells, mortars, hand grenades, landmines, submunitions and other ordnance. Might it be possible to build into the Convention on Conventional Weapons (the "CCW") a new protocol restricting or banning - and clearing - anything whose lingering "effects" put civilians and communities at risk?


Some activists see this approach as a victory of humanitarianism over military utility - the primacy, not the substitution, of one over the other. This is about constraining the boundaries of war according to internationally-sanctioned principles of proportionality. It does not delegitimize the use of armed force itself, an important distinction.

A small number of nongovernmental organizations found this approach attractive and are supporting those governments pressing for this additional protocol to the CCW. The activist governments include the Netherlands, Canada, and others, many of which were leaders in the campaign to ban anti-personnel mines.

Late in 2001, and at the request of member campaigns, including Canada's, the ICBL itself declared official support for a cluster bomb moratorium and in favor of a new protocol on explosive remnants of war. The Parliament of the European Union, approached by NGOs, similarly supported these efforts. At the CCW conference in December last year, a nongovernmental statement, authored by Celina Tuttle of Mines Action Canada (MAC) laid out some of the ground rules, while back here at home, MAC's member organizations pressed the Canadian government to declare a national moratorium on the use of any cluster bombs still held in Canadian inventories. The Canadian government did not comply, although there was fresh debate among parliamentarians


The success of this process, while showing momentum, is far from certain. However it plays out, most interesting is why the landmine ban campaign unexpectedly "spilled over" and triggered a broader humanitarian debate and an obligation to address other explosive remnants of war.

The players were the same - the International Committee of the Red Cross, a small number of committed NGOs and a few enlightened governments. But until very recently cluster bombs had been "uncontroversial," avoided even by the ICBL and most of its member groups. Throughout the Indochina conflict (and in the decades since when the victim count started to accumulate), they were but one weapon among many with known but hushed up post-conflict consequences. Thirty million cluster bomblets were dropped on Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War, resulting in thousands of untargeted casualties, but there was no significant public outcry. Suddenly they became humanitarian abominations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. International humanitarian law has always prohibited the kind of effects on civilians meted out by mines and failed cluster bomblets. To that extent both the Ottawa Treaty and any new CCW treaty protocols only reiterate what international standards already oblige of a country's armed forces.

Why, then, such a dramatic change in attitude? The world has changed. It is now much harder to portray civilian casualties as collateral damage without a public relations penalty. (The phrase itself only entered the popular lexicon a dozen years ago.) Heightened, humanitarian expectations added to the new crucible of civil society and civil governments which emerged from the ban on anti-personnel landmines. Consequently, failed cluster bombs and a whole range of other battlefield detritus are newly unacceptable. In the shadow of a ban on one outdated weapon said by some to have dubious military utility at best, scrutiny was brought to bear on how war is being prosecuted more generally. And that is very good news.

Robin Collins is Chair of Mines Action Canada, and a volunteer with the United Nations Association in Canada. These views are his own.

For more information on the cluster bomb moratorium and ERW campaign in Canada, contact: Mines Action Canada:

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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