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Cluster munitions: ICRC calls for urgent action

05-11-2006 Interview

The head of the ICRC's Mines-Arms Unit, Peter Herby, explains why the ICRC is calling for national and international action to address the devastating consequences these weapons have on civilian populations.

 Why are cluster munitions of such concern from a humanitarian perspective?  

    

Cluster munitions are area weapons. Each one can contain up to 644 individual sub-munitions or " bomblets " that are generally designed to explode on impact. In reality, a high percentage fail to explode as intended. Credible estimates of failure rates of cluster munitions in recent conflicts have varied from ten to forty percent. The result is that affected countries or regions are infested with tens of thousands or sometimes millions of unexploded sub-munitions for years or decades. These " duds " pose a significant danger to civilians and to the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The clearance and destruction of cluster munitions is even more dangerous than mine clearance.

The ICRC is also concerned about the use of cluster munitions in populated areas. They are " area weapons " which can spread destruction over several thousand square metres. As most fall freely or on parachutes their accuracy depends on a range of factors, including wind and weather conditions, often landing in places other than the intended military target. Their inaccuracy and unreliability raise serious questions as to whether such weapons can be used in populated areas in accordance with the general rules of international humanitarian law, particularly the rule of distinction and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.

    

 Could you give examples of the impact cluster munitions have on civilian populations?  

    

Laos is a country struggling to deal with the long-term consequences of severe contamination with cluster munitions used in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is estimated that up to 27 million bomblets failed to explode and these have been responsible for around half of the 11,000 deaths and injuries caused by unexploded ordnance in Laos since 1975. In the year following the Kosovo conflict the ICRC documented some 150 casualties due to unexploded cluster munitions. Since the cease fire in Lebanon nearly three months ago there have already been some 20 people killed and 120 injured by unexploded munitions. Nearly all of these casualties were caused by cluster munitions. In addition to the direct casualties the presence of unexploded cluster munitions also delays humanitarian assistance, impedes reconstruction and makes the use of agricultural areas extremely dangerous. So the cumulative effects of all of these factors are severe. Civilians suffer enough during conflicts. It is unacceptable that they should continue to suffer for years afterwards because of the use of such weapons.

 Why has the ICRC decided to call for action now?  

    

Since the ICRC first proposed the regulation of cluster munitions in the framework of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) in 2000, States Parties have discussed cluster munitions regularly but have taken little meaningful action. The ICRC now wants States to take decisive national action and to begin addressing this matter seriously at the third Review Confere nce of the CCW Convention in Geneva between 7 and 17 November. This meeting will involve all major States which produce, stockpile or use cluster munitions so it is the appropriate place to launch such an appeal.

In addition, civilians have paid a heavy price as a result of the massive use of cluster munitions in this year's conflict in Lebanon. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that the density of cluster munition contamination in southern Lebanon may be unprecedented. This has again turned the spotlight on the problems with these weapons and the need to take urgent action.

 According to the ICRC, what steps should be taken to minimize such civilian suffering?  

    

The ICRC has called on States to implement three measures at national level. Firstly, to immediately end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions; secondly, to prohibit the targeting of cluster munitions against any military objective located in a populated area; thirdly, to eliminate stocks of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and, pending their destruction, not to transfer such weapons to other countries.

The ICRC also believes that a new international humanitarian law agreement is needed to specifically regulate cluster munitions. To make progress towards this goal, it will host an international expert meeting in early 2007 to consider elements of a possible future regulation of these weapons.

 Why hasn't the ICRC called for a complete ban on cluster munitions?  

The tragic impact of cluster munitions on civilians is a result of the use of an inaccurate area weapon in populated areas and from the contamination caused by submunitions that do not explode as intended. If their use in populated areas is prohibited and their post-use effects eliminated the problem we describe will have been addressed. It is the effects and not the labelling that we are concerned about. Some cluster munitions may exist or be developed that do not have the same problems of inaccuracy and unreliability. If States can ensure this, these weapons may not pose the same humanitarian concerns.

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