Cluster Munitions Ban Treaty: The Challenges Ahead

29 May, 2008    ·   2579

Sonali Huria criticizes the reluctance of key nations such as the US and India to accede to the treaty

Over a hundred nations gathered in Dublin on 19 May for final negotiations on an international treaty to ban the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions. The treaty will also provide for the destruction of stockpiles and the rehabilitation of survivors and their families. The Diplomatic Conference on Cluster Munitions will culminate in the adoption of a final draft of the treaty by 30 May, thereby drawing to a close a process that started in Oslo in February 2007 to adopt a legally binding treaty by 2008, prohibiting the use of weapons that are known to cause immense damage to civilian populations not only during war, but also in peacetime.

Cluster munitions which can be air-dropped or launched from the ground, dispense numerous sub-munitions (or 'bomblets') over a wide area after they open up mid-air, causing widespread injury to and death of civilians during an attack. In addition, virtually thousands of them fail to explode on impact and act as anti-personnel mines that continue to injure, maim, and kill innocent civilians decades after the conflict has ended. According to International Red Cross estimates, these bomblets fail to explode on impact nearly 10 to 40 per cent of the time.

While the world is coming around to recognizing and eliminating the humanitarian horror unleashed by these munitions, the United States, China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India - among the largest producers, users and stockpilers of cluster bombs - have decided to abstain from the conference. Incidentally, these countries are not party to the Ottawa or Mine Ban Treaty either. The US has been opposed to signing the Mine Ban Treaty since the scope of the definition of landmines, outlined in the treaty, is broad enough to cover cluster bombs.

According to the latest reports of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and in The Guardian, however, the US is pressurizing the UK, to push for introducing an exception in the proposed treaty that would allow parties to engage in joint military operations with non-parties, even if they continue to use cluster munitions in such operations. Additionally, the UK is trying to exempt 'cluster rockets', which it argues are 'safer' since they are more accurate with each rocket carrying 'only nine' sub-munitions. However, if the UK has its way, the treaty may be weakened significantly, thereby defeating its very purpose - which is to stigmatize the use of these weapons in the international system.

The US has been far from hesitant in using cluster bombs across the globe - from Vietnam, the First Gulf War, Serbia and Kosovo to, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq, post-9/11. According to a HRW report, the US and UK had used some 13,000 cluster munitions containing an estimated 1.8 to 2 million sub-munitions in the three weeks of "major combat" during 2003 in Iraq.

India is among the largest producers of cluster weapons and anti-personnel landmines, but has never quite stated its position explicitly on this issue, refusing to sign the Mine Ban Treaty on the grounds that land mines are strategically important, especially to thwart infiltration along the Indo-Pak border. Its position on cluster munitions remains ambiguous. A statement made by the Government of India at a Meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts on Cluster Munitions in Geneva on 14 January 2008, declares that India "appreciates the humanitarian concerns arising from the employment of cluster munitions," but is quick to add that these weapons provide "distinct military advantages over other munitions in terms of economy of effort and wider area coverage in combat zone," suggesting that the problem is not the nature of the weapon itself, but its 'indiscriminate use.' It further states that, in the absence of 'economically viable alternatives' to cluster weapons, developing states will have little 'incentive' to do away with them.

The global opposition to cluster munitions is largely two-fold. First, these weapons are inaccurate and fail to distinguish between civilians and combatants. Second, the destruction they cause continues long after the armed conflict has ceased. Cluster munitions, like anti-personnel landmines therefore, violate international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I to the Convention, which prohibit the use of weapons that have indiscriminate effects and/or result in unnecessary suffering. Additionally, these munitions have significant economic fallout. Large tracts of agricultural and grazing land in conflict zones, for instance, seeded with these unexploded munitions have become unusable, seriously disrupting their agricultural economies, which happened in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The present initiative, therefore, is an opportunity to rid the world of one of the most dreadful weapons known to humanity. It is for the US and India to demonstrate their sincerity by moving toward a more peaceful and humane world. Military might and economic strength alone do not make great powers. A commitment to alleviate human suffering is as important.