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The ICRC's position on cluster munitions and the need for urgent action

25-10-2007 Statement

Statement to Geneva Diplomatic Missions by Dr Jakob Kellenberger, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 25 October 2007

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has invited you here today to urge the States you represent to support the adoption of a new international humanitarian law treaty which will address the tragic impacts of cluster munition use on civilians and their communities. The ICRC has, since the 1970s, expressed its deep concern about these weapons which have had a severe and disproportionate impact on civilian populations in nearly all of the conflicts in which they have been used on a large scale. We take this opportunity shortly before meetings of States Parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and of States which have adhered to the Oslo Declaration to stress the importance the ICRC attaches to this issue and to present the views of the ICRC on the type of instrument which is needed to effectively address this problem. We thank you for responding to this invitation.

Last November many of your missions attended a briefing here by the ICRC's Director for International Law and Cooperation within the Movement, Mr Philip Spoerri. At that time the international community was beginning to understand the severe and widespread impact on civilians of cluster munitions used in the conflict in southern Lebanon a few months earlier. This conflict of only one month left a land area estimated at 37 million square metres contaminated with close to one million unexploded submunitions. These have caused 206 civilian casualties and 42 casualties among clearance personnel since the fighting stopped. The conflict once again demonstrated how easy it is to use these weapons in massive numbers and how even wars of a short duration can leave a tragic humanitarian legacy. As we know Lebanon is but the latest e xample of conflicts in which cluster munitions have had severe long term effects. Others contexts include Laos, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Kosovo and the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict.

The Lebanon conflict also vindicated concerns about the proliferation of cluster munitions. It confirmed that non-State armed groups have begun to obtain and use these weapons. Billions of submunitions are currently in the stockpiles of States. Many models are aged, inaccurate and unreliable. Without concerted 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. But unlike landmines, which were in the hands of virtually all armed forces, relatively few States currently possess cluster munitions. Tremendous human suffering can be prevented through concerted international action now. 

In an effort to advance work on this issue, the ICRC hosted an international expert meeting in April of this year to examine the humanitarian, military, technical and legal challenges of cluster munitions. The Montreux Expert Meeting permitted governments, UN agencies, weapon designers, clearance organizations, expert NGOs and the ICRC to gain important insights into central features of the cluster munitions problem and potential solutions. The ICRC took away a number of important observations from the meeting, including the following: 

  • To date, the armed forces of the main users of cluster munitions have not, in our view, presented concrete historical evidence that these weapons have achieved specific military results which outweigh their well documented humanitarian problems. Such a case may be possible but has not yet been made despite numerous expert meetings to discuss the relevant issues.

  • There is no basis for believing that im proving the reliability of cluster munition fuses or adding self-destruct features can be the sole or primary solution to the cluster munitions problem. Such technological approaches may be part of a response, but they cannot be relied upon alone to function correctly under a range of circumstances so as to provide adequate protection for civilian populations.

Today, the ICRC is more certain than ever that a new international treaty is essential to prohibit those cluster munitions which have such high costs for civilian populations and to prevent their continued proliferation. The ICRC calls upon all States to conclude urgently a new treaty of international humanitarian law which will:

  • Prohibit the use, development, production, stockpiling and transfer of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions;

  • Require the elimination of current stocks of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions;

  • Provide for victim assistance, the clearance of cluster munitions and activities to minimize the impact of these weapons on civilian populations.

Until such a treaty is adopted, the ICRC repeats its call to States, to immediately end the use of such weapons on a national basis, not to transfer them to anyone and to destroy existing stocks. We welcome the fact that such actions have already been undertaken by Austria, Belgium, Hungary and Norway and that many other States have undertaken not to use and to destroy some types of cluster munitions.

If, during negotiations, States request a transition period in a new instrument during which the continued use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions would be permitted the ICRC will call for a specific prohibition of their use during that period against any military objective located in a concentration of civilians .

We would also like to take this opportunity to share some observations on the important relationship between the process used to develop a new international humanitarian law instrument and the achievement of results which are easily understood and implemented and which will make a real difference on the ground. While we fully recognise that it is for States to decide where and how to negotiate, the ICRC believes it is essential to avoid, in relation to cluster munitions, a repetition of the disappointing efforts over recent years to develop new rules on anti-vehicle mines. For the ICRC this means that a negotiating process needs to be based on clearly established and agreed parameters. These include a clear commitment to the objective of adopting a legally binding instrument, a specification that the instrument should completely prohibit those cluster munitions which cause the humanitarian problem and a time frame for the completion of negotiations.

The ICRC is also concerned about the implications for international humanitarian law of decision making processes which exist in the field of arms which not only seek, but in practice require, consensus before any results can be achieved. Although the Geneva Conventions and two of their Additional Protocols were finally adopted by consensus the rules did not require it, some elements resulted from votes and some compromises were facilitated by the possibility of voting. Achieving the broadest possible support for international humanitarian law norms is an important objective and one with which the ICRC is constantly engaged. But historically the highest levels of State participation have been achieved by the adoption of clear and morally compelling agreements. We urge States to reflect carefully on these procedural issues which are an integral element of ensuring the effectiveness and credibility of international humanitarian law agreements in the field of arms.

States now fac e an important choice. Those which have not already done so can commit themselves to the urgent negotiation of a legally binding instrument which will prevent the endless repetition of the familiar pattern of civilian casualties and the slow, dangerous and often under-funded clearance efforts which occurs when inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions are used. The growing awareness of the urgency of this issue and the many new commitments made by States in this field over the past year provide hope that an increasingly severe humanitarian problem in the coming years and decades can be prevented. Such opportunities to prevent untold human suffering do not occur often. The ICRC calls on political leaders and decision makers in all States to make the choices which will provide the strongest possible protection to civilian populations.