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DISARMAMENT: France Urged to Ban Cluster Bomb Funding

A. D. McKenzie

PARIS, Apr 22 2010 (IPS) - Human rights groups are urging the French government to adopt a law that would ban the financing of companies that produce cluster munitions, the deadly bombs that have killed or maimed thousands of civilians in the past 40 years.

A child victim of cluster munitions. Credit: A. Carle - Handicap International

A child victim of cluster munitions. Credit: A. Carle - Handicap International

France is among the 106 countries that have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which will enter into force Aug. 1. The convention has been ratified by 30 states and outlaws the production, stockpiling, use and export of cluster bombs.

But human rights campaigners say that the treaty will have limited effect if national laws do not forbid banks and other financial institutions from funding companies that manufacture the arms.

“There is ambiguity and contradiction here in France because the country has ratified the convention and actively promotes it, but the government does not state that financing must be forbidden,” Thierry Philipponnat, a member of the executive board of Amnesty International France (AI), told IPS.

“It’s a strange situation where an activity has been made illegal yet is still being financed,” he added.

Amnesty and other groups say that while most French banking and insurance firms have clearly stated their policy of non-investment in cluster-bomb producers, some are not being transparent.

“They won’t say where their funding goes,” said Philipponnat. “But by definition, munitions producers are being financed, and someone must be doing the financing. It is funding that makes the production possible.”

Globally, financial institutions have continued to invest more than 43 billion US dollars in producers of cluster munitions despite the convention, campaigners say.

AI and several other organisations held a press conference this week to highlight the issue and to put pressure on lawmakers ahead of a Senate discussion on the convention scheduled for May 6.

The Senate, the upper house of the French Parliament, will debate how the treaty should be translated into national law and will adopt a draft bill. The bill will then go to the National Assembly, the lower house, and a “loi d’adaptation” (adaptation law) is expected to be passed before summer.

Cluster munitions are weapons that comprise multiple ‘bomblets’, or sub-arms. They can be dropped from aircraft or fired by artillery, exploding in mid-air and scattering bomblets over a wide area, injuring civilians.

Some of the sub-munitions do not explode, and their appearance and size make them look interesting and toy-like to children, says AI. The group and other observers estimate that 60 percent of civilian casualties are youngsters.

According to Handicap International, a non-governmental organisation, the bombs caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapons system. The organisation says that Israel’s “massive use” of the weapon in Lebanon in August 2006 resulted in more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ceasefire.

“For more than 40 years, cluster bombs have killed and wounded innocent people, causing untold suffering, loss and hardship for thousands in more than 20 countries,” the group said in a statement. “These weapons cause death and injury to civilians during attacks and for years afterwards because of the lethal contamination that they cause when they fail to detonate on impact.”

The treaty to ban the munitions was a victory for human rights campaigners when it was negotiated in Dublin in May 2008 and later adopted at a ceremony in Oslo in December. But activists would like to see governments take further steps to ensure that cluster bombs are “totally eradicated”.

Countries that have not signed the convention are the United States, China, Russia, Brazil, Israel, Pakistan and India, among others, some of whom still produce cluster munitions.

Many Latin American and Asian countries have yet to sign the treaty. The latest country to sign was Mauritania on Apr. 19 at the United Nations in New York, bringing to 40 the number of African countries that have joined the convention.

Jean-Marc Boivin, Handicap International’s head of political action and advocacy, said that while France ratified the treaty last September and was not a producer of cluster bombs, the government’s position was nevertheless not “very encouraging”.

“We need to have a clear mention in the law that funding is forbidden,” he told IPS. “And that must include direct as well as indirect financing.”

He said that the group had already forced one banking firm to change its policy by launching a publicity campaign about its investments.

“They had to revise their position to safeguard their image,” he said.

The government’s apparent reluctance to make funding illegal is an example of France’s tradition of openly distancing itself from certain practices while looking the other way when its companies continue their business, activists say.

Up to 2007, the country had insisted that cluster munitions were indispensable to the French army, but the government changed its position in the face of pressure from the international community and NGOs, according to the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH), a government body that advises legislators.

Pointing out that countries like Belgium, Luxembourg and New Zealand have already banned investment in cluster-bomb makers, CNCDH president Yves Repiquet stressed that France should follow suit.

He said that even if a company partially produces such arms in addition to other weapons, direct or indirect financing of the company should be banned.

At the Dublin negotiations in 2008, France promised to destroy nearly all of its cluster munitions stockpiles.

“France defends a position…without ambiguity: to ban all cluster munitions defined as unacceptable because they cause humanitarian damage,” the country’s foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and defence minister Herve Morin said then in a joint statement.

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