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DISARMAMENT: New Treaty Bans Weapons Victimising Civilians

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 4 2008 (IPS) - When the United Nations talks of "Israeli-occupied territories", the conventional definition is that these disputed lands include the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – all of them annexed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

PTAB submunitions piled up near Bagram, Afghanistan 2002. Part of a munition dump containing 60,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance. Credit: John Rodsted

PTAB submunitions piled up near Bagram, Afghanistan 2002. Part of a munition dump containing 60,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance. Credit: John Rodsted

But to most Lebanese, there are border villages inside southern Lebanon that are virtually "no-man's land" because of the myriads of cluster bombs air-dropped by Israel during its four-week conflict with the Islamic militant organisation Hezbollah in 2006.

For all intents and purposes, says one Arab diplomat stretching the U.N. definition further, these heavily-mined border villages are also "Israeli-occupied territories".

"The devastating military legacy left behind by Israel lives on in these Lebanese villages, parts of which remain uninhabitable because of cluster munitions and unexploded ordnance," he adds.

But he is not sure how a new treaty banning cluster bombs, which was signed by 94 nations in the Norwegian capital of Oslo on Thursday, will help resolve the problem of "occupied territories" inside Lebanon.

The United Nations says that "millions" of cluster munitions – in which hundreds of small 'bomblets' are packed together – were dropped on more than 48 million square metres of Lebanese territory in July and August 2006, killing and injuring over 300 civilians.

And hundreds of thousands of munitions failed to explode on impact and remained on the ground, on rooftops, and in agricultural areas, killing mostly civilians.

In Laos, clearance operations have been going on for over 30 years after a conflict there left 75 million unexploded cluster bomblets strewn across the country, according to the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that exactly 11 years ago, governments, international organisations, parliamentarians and civil society gathered for the historic signing of the landmine convention which banned those anti-personnel weapons.

"That treaty added a new chapter to international humanitarian law, disarmament and non-proliferation, and is a prime example of how a shared sense of conviction and determination can translate into concrete measures that save lives and livelihoods," he said in a statement read at the signing ceremony by Sergio Duarte, the U.N. High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.

He said the new Convention on Cluster Munitions will not only prohibit the future use and proliferation of cluster weapons but also promote their very obsolescence.

"Moreover, the Convention's far reaching provisions on victim assistance and clearance will improve the lives of survivors, families and communities that have been affected by cluster munitions," he added.

The signing of the CCM is also a historic victory for the progressive governments and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) that made it happen, says William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the Washington-based New America Foundation.

"While there is still much work to do – like getting major players like the United States, Russia and China on board – the treaty sets a norm against selling or using these weapons that will be hard to roll back," he said.

But it is a hopeful sign, Hartung told IPS, "that President-elect Barack Obama has agreed to reconsider current U.S. policy with an eye towards possibly joining the cluster bomb ban."

"And even short of signing on, there is much that the United States can do, from stopping exports, to curbing their use, to spending more to help clean up unexploded 'bomblets' that could approach de facto support for the ban," he said.

The most important thing now is for activists and political leaders to view this as an historic first step that will be followed by vigorous efforts to get the major powers on board, Hartung added.

The CCM was adopted by 107 countries at a conference in Dublin, Ireland, in May this year, and comes into force six months after 30 states ratify it. The legally-binding treaty prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions.

According to the United Nations, at least 15 countries, and a number of non-state actors, mostly military groups, have used cluster munitions in at least 32 countries or territories. A total of 34 countries have produced more than 200 types of cluster munitions while billions of these are said to be stockpiled in 75 countries.

Jayantha Dhanapala, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, told IPS that the signing of the Convention by so many states eliminates an entire category of weapons and "is another major triumph for disarmament achieved through a unique coalition of civil society groups and nation states".

"It is an indictment of the established framework for the negotiation of international disarmament treaties and on the major powers whose obstructionism has failed to stop the powerful groundswell of international public opinion," he added.

"We have more mountains to climb especially with regard to the elimination of nuclear weapons and this victory, which includes victim assistance as an important element, should be an encouragement," added Dhanapala.

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