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States must act now to prevent cruel toll of cluster munitions

19-02-2008 Article, Reuters AlertNet

This article, by Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was first published on 18 February 2008 on the Reuters AlertNet website.

More than 60 years after cluster munitions first claimed civilian lives during the Second World War, there is finally cause for optimism that the year 2008 will signal the demise of these horrific weapons.

There is now growing momentum worldwide towards the conclusion of an international treaty to address the unacceptable toll of civilian casualties exacted by these weapons. States should seize this excellent opportunity to prevent the problem from becoming yet much worse in the coming years and decades.

 
The growing public awareness of the severe humanitarian consequences of cluster munitions and the apparent political will to address this problem offer hope that States will act decisively to adopt a strong treaty in the coming months. Such an opportunity to prevent yet more deaths and suffering must not be lost. 
It took the war in southern Lebanon in 2006 to make the world finally sit up and take notice of the dreadful consequences of cluster munitions. In just one month, an estimated 37 million square metres of land were contaminated with up to one million unexploded cluster submunitions. More than 200 civilians have been killed or injured by them since the fighting ended.

The deadly legacy of cluster munitions, often used in massive numbers, can continue for generations. Laos, for example, the world's worst affected country, is still struggling to deal with the estimated 270 million submunitions dropped there in the 1960s and 1970s. Tens of millions failed to explode and go on killing people today.

The very characteristics of cluster munitions that make them attractive to milit ary forces – attacking multiple targets dispersed over a wide area – are those that make them so dangerous to civilians. Some cluster munitions can scatter as many as 650 explosive submunitions over an area exceeding thirty thousand square metres. They are notoriously inaccurate and often fail to explode on impact as intended.

The vast majority of submunition casualties are civilians killed and injured when they return home after a conflict has ended, or simply while going about their daily activities. In countries from Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzogovina to Tajikistan and Vietnam, civilians have fallen victim to cluster munitions either because they are unaware of the dangers they pose, or because they have no choice but to work on contaminated land. Children playing with these small explosives are also at particular risk.

In more than 20 countries around the world, unexploded cluster submunitions have effectively rendered vast areas of land as hazardous as minefields.

Indeed, without urgent concerted international action, the human toll of cluster munitions could become far worse than that of anti-personnel landmines, which are now banned by three-quarters of the world's States. Billions of cluster submunitions are currently in the stockpiles of States. Many models are aged, inaccurate and unreliable. But unlike landmines, which were in the hands of virtually all armed forces, only about 75 States currently possess cluster munitions. It is therefore not too late to prevent human suffering on a potentially massive scale.

A growing number of governments – including Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Norway – have already taken action at the national level to end the use of cluster munitions by their military forces. Some 130 States have come together under the " Oslo Declaration " of February 2007, which aims at the adoption of a treaty in 2008 prohibiting cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians. The United Nations and other international and non-governmental organisations have also called for the conclusion of a treaty by the end of this year. States that have not joined the " Oslo Process " are also continuing discussions in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons on how to address the humanitarian impact of these weapons.

It is crucial for States to conclude a treaty that will prohibit inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. The treaty should also provide for their clearance and assistance to victims. With work on a treaty set to continue in Wellington, New Zealand, on 18 February and end in Dublin, Ireland in May, it is now time for governments to translate their expressions of humanitarian concern into binding commitments.

The growing public awareness of the severe humanitarian consequences of cluster munitions and the apparent political will to address this problem offer hope that States will act decisively to adopt a strong treaty in the coming months. Such an opportunity to prevent yet more deaths and suffering must not be lost.




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