Final Talks on Cluster Munition Ban Treaty

The more than 100 countries that will gather in Dublin, Ireland on May 19 to negotiate a new international treaty aimed at banning cluster munitions should reject attempts to weaken the treaty, Human Rights Watch said. Participating countries are scheduled to adopt the final text of the treaty on May 30.

Some countries will likely lobby to exempt certain weapons from the treaty, to insert a transition period postponing the ban for several years, or to secure the ability to assist others using cluster munitions in joint military operations.

"As it stands, the draft treaty is a strong, comprehensive ban on cluster munitions. Any attempts to water it down should be rejected completely," said Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the international Cluster Munition Coalition. "Those kinds of revisions will only undermine the intended purpose of the ban, which is to save lives."

Cluster munitions are large weapons that open in mid-air and randomly scatter dozens or hundreds of individual submunitions (or "bomblets") over a large area. Countries are agreeing to ban them because they kill and injure too many civilians during combat due to their wide area effect, and continue to pose a threat long after an attack because so many fail to explode on impact but remain dangerous, functioning like antipersonnel mines.

The draft treaty prohibits the use, production, and trade of cluster munitions, and establishes a six-year deadline for the destruction of all existing stocks of the weapon. But it also goes far beyond the ban by requiring the clearance of contaminated areas - with a deadline - as well as assistance to victims and affected communities.

"The treaty is a powerful mix of disarmament and humanitarian law, with specific requirements for on-the-ground humanitarian actions," said Goose. "It has the potential to save countless lives now and for generations to come."

The treaty process was launched in Oslo, Norway in February 2007 when 46 nations agreed to conclude by the end of 2008 an agreement prohibiting cluster munitions "that cause unacceptable harm to civilians." The treaty text was developed during international meetings in Peru, Austria, and New Zealand, with more than 140 countries participating in at least part of the process.

There will likely be three main areas of contention during the two-week negotiations. First, some states - most notably Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom - are seeking exceptions from the ban for certain weapons in their own arsenals, claiming they are still needed militarily and that they will not cause as much harm as other cluster munitions.

Second, some countries are seeking a "transition period" of more than seven years during which they would still be able to use banned cluster munitions, claiming that they cannot give up the weapons until they have developed military alternatives. The strongest calls for a transition period are likely to come from France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, all of whom acknowledge that the weapons cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Third, some states are seeking to delete or gut a provision in the treaty that prohibits states parties from assisting others firing cluster munitions during joint military operations. Those most vocal on the "interoperability" issue include Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The United States has been pressuring many of its allies on this matter behind the scenes.

The negotiating countries include most of the world's users, producers, and stockpilers of cluster munitions. Among the notable no-shows are the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Israel, all of which are major producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions.

"It is regrettable that the US and a handful of other states continue to insist on their need to use a weapon that the rest of world is banning because it causes unacceptable harm to civilians," said Goose. "But we believe that a strong new treaty will stigmatize cluster munitions to such a degree that it will be difficult for any country to use them without international condemnation."

Once the participating states adopt the final text of the treaty on May 30, no further changes can be made. The treaty will then be opened for signature to all countries - even those not present during the negotiations - in Oslo, Norway on December 2-3, 2008. After signing the treaty, countries still need to ratify it, usually through legislative approval, before it becomes legally binding.

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