US and India Give Momentous Disarmament Treaty the Go-by

25 Dec, 2008    ·   2764

Sonali Huria highlights the monumental humanitarian costs being paid as some of the leading military powers shy away from the Cluster Munitions treaty

The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently played host to the signing of one of the most significant disarmament treaties in over a decade - The International Treaty Banning the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Cluster Munitions, which over a hundred countries gathered to sign in Oslo, between 2-4 December, 2008. The signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) evoked much jubilation, especially within the Cluster Munition Coalition - an international network of a multitude of NGOs and other civil society groups, which worked unstintingly to bring the treaty to fruition.

The Convention, which requires ratification by at least 30 states before it comes into force, has in effect banned an entire category of weapons known to cause immense harm to civilian populations not only during war, but long after a conflict has ended. Under the treaty, signatory countries will be required to clear up munition-affected areas within a decade; declare and destroy their stockpiles within eight years; assist poor states with munitions-clearance; and provide assistance to the survivors of cluster bomb accidents.

Cluster bombs, which can be air-dropped or surface-launched, are weapons that release several hundreds or thousands of smaller munitions over wide areas (sometimes as large as several football fields) which explode at a pre-set altitude or time, releasing lethal metal shrapnel that can kill and maim. Additionally, the several 'dud' bomblets that fail to explode on impact transform the affected areas into de facto minefields and thus, continue to pose a significant threat to civilian populations. According to a Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 1.2 million explosive cluster bomb duds left behind, of a total of 24 to 30 million sub-munitions used during the 1991 Persian Gulf War by the US, had caused the death of 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians and injured another 2,500 until October 2001 alone.

The presence of these dud bomblets also drastically impedes efforts to resettle and rehabilitate refugees and other internally displaced people post-conflict. In South Lebanon for instance, where according to the UN's mine disposal agency, nearly a million unexploded munitions were left behind by Israeli forces during the 2006 conflict; the resettlement of nearly 200,000 displaced people was expected to be delayed by over two years.

Afghanistan, which according to the Landmine Monitor is one of the worst mine- and unexploded ordnance-affected countries in the world, had been under American pressure to abstain from the proceedings of the 'Oslo process' that culminated in the present, legally-binding Convention. Despite its earlier reluctance however, Afghanistan got on board in a last-minute turn around. While twenty of the twenty six NATO member countries, including the UK, France and Germany have become signatories to the treaty, the US has categorically rejected signing the cluster munitions ban. In a press briefing, the spokesperson for the US Department of State said, "although we share the humanitarian concerns of states signing the CCM, we will not be joining them" a general ban on cluster munitions will put the lives of our military men and women, and those of our coalition partners, at risk".

The US, among the largest producers and stockpilers of these weapons, has used them indiscriminately in its military interventions both during and post-Cold War. Its use of these munitions in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the first Gulf War, Kosovo, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, has caused massive civilian deaths and littered large tracts of land, including agricultural, with unexploded munitions; resulting not only in a criminal loss of civilian lives, but also the livelihoods of scores of agriculturists in these conflict zones.

India and Pakistan, the world's other leading producers and stockpilers of the weapon, have also distanced themselves from the present global initiative. According to the Control Arms Foundation of India, India's position on the ban has remained ambiguous, with India's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, Hamid Ali Rao, having stated at a Meeting of the Group of Governmental Experts on Cluster Munitions in Geneva earlier this year, that there was a need instead for the "implementation of the existing (emphasis added) principles of International humanitarian law" to minimize the humanitarian risk of these munitions (from) becoming explosive remnants of war".

Despite the reluctance of key states like the US, India, Russia, China, Israel and Pakistan to sign the convention, what the treaty has managed to achieve, is the stigmatization of what have now become 'illegal' weapons under international law; raising expectations that non-signatory countries will henceforth be far more restrained in the use of these weapons, for fear of international censure. The CCM is a missed opportunity for the US administration which could have used it to at least partially redeem its image internationally, which has taken a severe beating during George Bush's presidency, especially on account of the mounting and unacceptable humanitarian costs of America's 'global war on terror'. With the US president-elect, Barrack Obama's public declaration to 'carefully review' the munitions ban treaty; it seems like there might be hope after all.