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POLITICS: Nations Move to Ban Most-Random Bombs

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 2007 (IPS) - When more than 40 government delegations meet in Oslo, Norway later this week to negotiate a treaty banning the use of cluster munitions as early as 2008, some of the main users and manufacturers of these weapons will not be in attendance.

“It’s very distressing that the U.S. in part and China as well are not participating in this conference,” Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch, told IPS. “The U.S. could be taking a lead instead of being pushed in the right direction.”

Although the Pentagon deployed cluster munitions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Garlasco said that the U.S. military has cut back its use of the weapons out of a concern for civilian populations, as well as the danger they pose to U.S. troops passing through areas where cluster munitions have been deployed.

“The (U.S.) military has no desire to kill or injure civilians,” he said. “It seems unconscionable that the U.S. is not keeping pace with actions of world governments and its own military.”

Last November, the Norwegian government said it would facilitate a process aimed at implementing a new international treaty to ban the use of cluster munitions on the grounds that their use has resulted in unacceptable humanitarian consequences.

According to a report released that same month by the non-governmental organisation Handicap International, civilians account for 98 percent of all recorded casualties of these weapons, and 27 percent are children.

“No conventional weapon poses greater danger to civilians today than cluster munitions,” said Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch.

The Feb. 22-23 Oslo Conference on Cluster Munitions will attempt to address the failure of governments to adequately deal with the issue of cluster munitions within the framework of the U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Both the United States and Britain are opposed to a process outside of the CCW to deal with cluster munitions, instead supporting a British proposal to continue discussions within the CCW on “explosive remnants of war.”

Human Rights Watch has claimed that the proposal to continue discussions within the CCW will only lead to greater humanitarian disasters resulting from the continued use of cluster bombs and is, “at worst, a deliberate formula for another failure of the CCW to deal with the threat posed by cluster munitions.”

The upcoming government meetings in Oslo will be held a little less than a month since reports emerged suggesting Israel may have violated United States rules prohibiting the use of U.S.-manufactured cluster bombs against civilian populations, when it fired them into civilian areas of southern Lebanon during last summer’s war.

Following the report, Human Rights Watch urged the United States to discontinue sales of cluster bombs to Israel, on the grounds that Israel’s use of cluster munitions was clearly targeted at civilians.

As much as 40 percent of the bomblets dropped over Lebanon by Israel may not have detonated, reports the U.N.’s mine disposal agency.

The use of cluster bombs, although not prohibited in warfare, is highly controversial because they contain many tiny “bomblets” that explode in different directions and often strike unintended targets.

Cluster bombs also pose a risk after fighting has stopped when unexploded bombs are detonated by civilians who come into contact with them, effectively turning cluster munitions into anti-personnel landmines.

“The Oslo initiative on cluster munitions follows in the footsteps of the Ottawa process that the led to the international ban on landmines,” said Goose, who represented Human Rights Watch in the 1996 negotiations on antipersonnel mines.

Over the past few months, three dozen countries have formally declared support for a treaty on cluster munitions, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and several United Nations agencies.

Norway has already proposed a ban on cluster munitions that cause unacceptable humanitarian harm but what weapons fall inside this prohibition will be determined at the upcoming conference.

A tentative list of conference participants includes Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovenia, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Holy See, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Surprisingly, the list includes several states that are not party to the CCW, such as Afghanistan, Angola, Indonesia, Lebanon, and Mozambique.

Among those not attending the conference are Australia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States.

Cluster munitions are stockpiled in at least 75 countries, have been used in at least 23 countries and over 210 different types of cluster munitions have been produced.

“It is not surprising that the biggest users of cluster munitions are reluctant to embrace a process aimed at banning such weapons,” said Goose.

The upcoming meetings in Oslo are “the only credible process for alleviating the suffering caused by cluster munitions, and countries serious about protecting civilians will join it right away,” he said in a statement.

The consequences of cluster bombing continues to be felt around the world with as many as 300 people reportedly killed per year in Vietnam from unexploded U.S. cluster munitions, and in post-war Kosovo where, in 2000, unexploded U.S. and British cluster munitions made up 40 percent of the unexploded munitions in the province.

There has been some recent action in the U.S. Congress on this issue. On Feb. 14, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Patrick Leahy introduced the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, which would prohibit the use of cluster munitions in populated areas and prohibit the use and transfer of cluster munitions with submunitions that have a failure rate of 1 percent or more.

Human Rights Watch estimates that the total U.S. inventory is about one billion submunitions, a large portion of which are outdated and have high failure rates.

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