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RIGHTS: Grudging Support For New Cluster Munitions Treaty

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Feb 20 2008 (IPS) - Six-year-old Umarvek Pulodov was playing in the dining room of his home in Shul village, Tajikistan, when a cluster bomb pierced through the roof, instantly killing his brother, cousin and another relative and severely injuring him, his sister and two younger brothers.

"I lost my right eye and the bomblet tore a huge chunk of flesh from my hand and back. I can still recall that fateful day of Feb. 23, 1992, when in a fraction of a second our entire lives were changed forever," Umarvek told IPS on the phone from New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.

More than 500 delegates from 120 countries are attending a conference in Wellington to draft an international treaty banning cluster bombs.

Umarvek, who is now studying at the Institute of Foreign Languages in the Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, told IPS: "I want governments to stop using, producing or stockpiling cluster bombs, which have been killing and maiming tens of thousands of civilians and harming children like me."

Housed like peas in a pod, cluster munitions open up mid-air to scatter bomblets over a wide area, sometimes the size of two to four football fields, making it far more lethal than anti-personnel landmines.

About 170 humanitarian and mine clearance specialists have joined government delegations in Wellington for the negotiations, which it’s hoped will result in the drafting of new International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Although IHL provides for the protection of civilians during conflict, the existing IHL is clearly insufficient in the case of cluster bombs.

Since landmines were banned by an international convention in 1997, cluster bombs have become the most dangerous conventional weapon. They were first used in World War II and have since been widely used in at least 24 countries, including Laos in the 1960s, Vietnam and Cambodia, Afghanistan, Africa, Kosovo and Iraq. In 2006 Israel was widely condemned for indiscriminate use of cluster bombs in its 34-day war against the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Even as survivors and the anti-cluster munitions lobby groups plead with the international community to ban these most dangerous weapons, some arms-producing countries are trying to water down the final text of the treaty that would ban cluster bombs.

Absent from the conference are the United States and other major weapon-producing nations, including Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.

Wheelchair bound survivor, Branislav Kapetanovic, has joined a thousand protesters outside the conference, sketching chalk outlines of their bodies to represent the growing human cost of cluster munitions.

The former Serbian deminer is hoping that recounting his experience will convince reluctant governments to sign on. "I lost both my arms and both my legs. Ibecame almost blind, both my ear drums have been pierced and I have blast injuries to my lungs and my head,’’ he was quoted as saying.

Nobel Peace Prize co-Laureate Rae McGrath chided Australia for "hypocrisy of the worst kind", by claiming the moral high ground while trading away the lives of victims.

After four days of negotiations, Australia has been added to a list of the nine worst countries in the process, well behind states like Mozambique, Chad and Sierra Leone.

Australia-based international aid and landmine assistance organisation, Austcare’s Mine Action Advisor James Turton says, "It’s clear that Australia has managed to isolate itself from most other countries involved in this process, we’re hearing from an increasing number of states they’re being very obstructionist."

"The position is very clear, Australia needs to just get onboard or go home basically," Turton adds.

The Cluster Munition Coalition Australia, formed on the eve of the Wellington conference, is an expert group of about 20 organisations that have united to support the Oslo Process.

Following the failure of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) to agree to urgent action to address the humanitarian impact of cluster munitions in November 2006, the Norwegian government announced its intention to establish a new international process to develop a treaty to ban cluster bombs.

Participants in the process cover the five world regions and include 19 producer states, 7 states that have used cluster munitions, 34 stockpilers, and representatives from 11 states affected by the weapons. There are also 20 states not party to the CCW participating in the Oslo process making it a more open and globally representative forum for addressing this issue.

National coordinator of the Australian Network to Ban Landmines, Mark Zirnsak told IPS: "As a developed nation that adheres to International Humanitarian Law, Australia has a responsibility to lead this treaty process."

Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams agrees. "You don’t have a mini George Bush government anymore, you have a new government that has a new position in the world now and you Australian citizens should ask your government to do the right thing in this negotiation."

Austcare’s Daniel Barty told IPS, "Many countries who have not signed the landmine ban treaty refrain from using them because of the stigma attached to landmines. We are hoping that countries like the U.S. and China will not use cluster munitions for the stigma attached and their negative impact on the population."

At least 76 countries have stockpiles of more than 210 different types of cluster bombs. Unexploded cluster sub-munitions pose a grave danger to civilian populations in more than 20 countries. Their failure rate is high, leaving thousands of unexploded bomblets on the ground for years after conflicts have ended, making inquisitive children frequent victims.

As New Zealand Disarmament and Defence Minister Phil Goff says, "The legacy of unexploded cluster munitions endangers civilian lives in the same way that landmines do and the problem needs to be dealt with in a similar manner."

Since February last year governments and NGOs from around the world have been engaged in developing a legally binding international instrument by the end of 2008 that amongst other things will: Prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

The Wellington conference continues until Friday, when each of the government delegations will be asked to sign the final draft of the treaty to be presented at the Dublin meeting scheduled from May 19 – 30.

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