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DISARMAMENT: Cluster Bombs Used by Russia, Georgia

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Apr 14 2009 (IPS) - The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised Russia and Georgia Tuesday for using cluster bombs during their week-long conflict in August, in a statement apparently also directed at a coalition made up of Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and the United State, which want to continue producing and exporting the lethal weapons.

The new HRW report said cluster bombs killed at least 16 civilians and injured 54 in the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

HRW researcher Bonnie Docherty, the author of the 80-page report “A Dying Practice”, told reporters that cluster bombs, which are air-dropped or ground-launched munitions that release hundreds of bomblets, inevitably injure or kill civilians, either during a conflict or long after it is over due to unexploded submunitions.

The lethal experience of the Russian-Georgian conflict should serve as an impetus for all states to sign and ratify the treaty banning cluster weapons, said Docherty.

Earlier HRW studies have documented cluster bomb victims in the conflicts of Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The treaty, which was signed by 96 states as of March, has so far been ratified by six. It will go into effect six months after it has been ratified by 30 countries.

The release of the report coincided with the start of a four-day meeting in Geneva held by the group of nations interested in continuing to manufacture and sell cluster munitions.

They are discussing an alternative agreement that would limit and regulate, rather than ban, the production and use of the weapons.

Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher in HRW’s arms division, told IPS that “These countries think that there is still a role for cluster munitions to play in the conflicts they foresee fighting. And they feel these munitions give them an advantage in fighting (that entails) numeric smaller forces fighting larger forces.

“The problem,” he said, is that “the wars that each planned never happen. And they end up using munitions in populated areas, to which they really are not suited. But in some cases it may be the only capability they have to use,” he added.

Asked about the possibility of two different coexisting treaties on cluster bombs, Hiznay said “Competition is good, because hopefully there will be humanitarian benefits from that,” such as curbing the widespread use of the weapons.

Citing a case with somewhat similar characteristics, the HRW expert pointed out that the mine ban treaty, which prohibits antipersonnel land mines, “has been in force for 10 years now and (although) Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and the U.S. are not party” to it, “anti personnel mine use is way down.”

“The trade has evaporated. There are a limited number of producers. And the problem that was caused in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by indiscriminate use of land mines is being remedied,” he added.

The HRW report urged Russia and Georgia to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions and ratify it “as soon as possible thereafter.”

The study noted that while Russia produces and exports cluster munitions, has stockpiles of millions of different kinds of submunitions, and has used the bombs in the past, particularly in Chechnya, Georgia is an importer of the weapons and used Israeli-made bombs in last August’s conflict. Its arsenal is also smaller than Russia’s, and HRW researchers found no evidence that it had used cluster munitions in the past.

But Docherty said that “Whoever the user, and whatever the type used, cluster munitions pose unacceptable risks to civilians and need to be eliminated.”

The rights watchdog said cluster bombs manufactured in Russia or by the former Soviet Union are currently stockpiled in at least 29 countries, including Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cuba, Egypt, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, India, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Libya, Moldova, Mongolia, North Korea, Peru, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, Ukraine and Yemen.

“The international community should strive to make the Georgian conflict the last in which civilians lose both lives and livelihoods to this pernicious weapon,” the HRW report concludes.

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