Matthew Berger - IPS

Just over a year after it was opened for signature, an international treaty banning cluster bombs received the final two ratifications it needed to become international law Tuesday [Feb 16, 2010].

Burkina Faso and Moldova ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions to much praise from human rights and victim advocacy groups. The treaty will become international law Aug. 1, when use, production and trade in cluster munitions will be banned and deadlines for stockpile destruction will be set.

States that have used cluster munitions in the past will also be obligated to provide support for communities affected by the use of the munitions and to assist in clearing contaminated land.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed to the quick turnaround between the treaty’s adoption and its ratification as evidence of "the world’s collective revulsion at the impact of these terrible weapons."

The treaty process was started in February 2007 when 46 states agreed to start drawing up a cluster munitions-banning treaty. The eventual convention was available for ratification starting in December 2008 and has now, 15 months later, reached the threshold needed to enter into force.

"The short time it took to reach this milestone shows that governments have a strong desire never to see these terrible weapons used again," said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition.

Cluster munitions explode in mid-air to release dozens – sometimes hundreds – of smaller "bomblets" across large areas. Because the final location of these scattered smaller bombs is difficult to control, they can cause large numbers of civilian casualties.

Bomblets that fail to explode immediately may also lay dormant, potentially acting as landmines and killing or maiming civilians long after a conflict is ended.

Children are known to be particularly at risk from dud cluster munitions since they are often attracted to the shiny objects and less aware of their dangers.

"Cluster munitions are unreliable and inaccurate, said Ban, adding that "they impair post-conflict recovery by making roads and land inaccessible to farmers and aid workers."

The U.S. has historically been one main users of cluster munitions, but it – along with other key powers like China, India, Israel, Russia and Pakistan – has refused to sign on to the treaty.

The George W. Bush administration actively opposed the treaty, saying cluster munitions served an important military role.

It was hoped that the Barack Obama administration would shift this position, and legislation to ban most cluster munitions use by the U.S. military, the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, was introduced in Congress in less than a month after he took office.

But a year later, that legislation has stalled in committee and it is unclear where Obama stands on the issue, though the president did sign a law in March 2009 banning the export of all but a tiny fraction of U.S. cluster munitions.

The most recent large-scale employment of cluster bombs was in the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008, which Human Rights Watch has called the first known use of the controversial munitions since the Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006.

During the last 72 hours of the 2006 conflict, Israel reportedly fired over 1,800 cluster rockets containing 1.2 million submunitions. For the two months after the official cessation of hostilities, casualties were still being recorded at the rate of three or four people killed or maimed per day.

"Every signatory needs to ratify, and those who haven’t signed need to come on board to keep more civilian lives and limbs from being needlessly lost," said Goose, pointing out that over half the world’s states have agreed to seek ratification.

"In light of this new international law, it is especially important for former users of the weapon – such as the United States, Russia and Israel – to re-examine their positions, which put questionable claims of military necessity above the well-documented humanitarian damage cluster munitions cause," he said.

"Cluster munitions are already stigmatised to the point that no nation should ever use them again, even those who have not yet joined the Convention," he added.

Even with over half the world’s countries onboard, without the U.S.’s involvement, the treaty covers less than half of the world’s cluster munitions.

"If the U.S. moved in it would ban more than half of the cluster munitions used in the world," Lora Lumpe, legislative representative at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, which houses the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines, told IPS following the introduction of the legislation a year ago.

Furthermore, she explained, by signing on the U.S. could put pressure on the other large-scale users of cluster bombs which have also not signed onto the treaty, such as Russia and China.

"I’m confident that if there was a policy review that included the full range of U.S. interests at stake, they would see that there is no need to hold on to the threat of these munitions that most of the rest of the world has banned," Lumpe told IPS at the time.



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