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Home » International & Defence, Policy

A victory for civil society over cluster munitions

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 12:29

By Stephanie Stuart, Director, Handicap International, and Beatrice Cami, Fundraising and Communications Manager

On 3rd December 2008, an international treaty banning the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions was signed in Oslo by 94 countries, including the UK. Achieved in record time, the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force on 1stth March. August this year. The UK government deposited its ratification at the United Nations in May, after the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill received Royal Assent on 25

Cluster munitions are weapons deployed from the air or from the ground, which release a large number of submunitions called bomblets. These bomblets scatter over a wide area and do not discriminate between civilian and military targets. Between 5 and 30% of bomblets fail to explode on impact, remaining active long after a conflict has ended. Like landmines, cluster munitions continue to kill and maim civilians – children who are attracted to these interesting-looking objects and farmers who come across them while working the land.

Yoeun Sam En, from Cambodia, was a farmer. Decades after the Vietnam War, during which at least 26 million bomblets were dropped on Cambodia, an explosion changed his life forever. Yoeun says, “As I farmed, I often came across cluster bombs, and removed them so no harm could come to my children. On that dark day in 2004, I was trying to remove a cluster bomblet. Nobody ever explained to us what we should do with them. I had to take care, by myself, to clear the area. I lost both my eyes and arms. My concern now is how I can feed and care for my children.” This concern has led Yoeun Sam En to become a Ban Advocate, a group of cluster munition survivors supported by Handicap International that campaign for a global ban on these weapons.

Phong, a survivor from Laos, says, “My country joined the ban treaty because our people have suffered the impact of these deadly ‘bombies’ for decades. We’re looking forward to welcoming government representatives and campaigners to show the world the immense and shocking legacy of cluster bombs here.” Laos will host the first Meeting of States Parties to the Convention in November 2010. Laos is one of the countries most heavily affected by cluster munitions, following the 1964 – 1973 war waged by the US during which 270 million submunitions were dropped. As recently as February 2010, five children were killed when a submunition exploded in a village.

Laos is only one of the 36 countries and territories where civilians live with this daily threat. In the last 10 years alone, cluster munitions have been used in Georgia, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and DR Congo.

Faced with this injustice, in 2003 Handicap International, along with other organisations, launched the Cluster Munition Coalition to campaign for a global ban. 700,000 people signed Handicap International’s petition, forcing the debate on to a political level.

Negotiations for a treaty began in February 2007, thanks to the support of states such as Norway. NGOs have played an important role in standing up for the rights of civilians affected by cluster munitions. The voices of victims, heard throughout the process, have reminded decision-makers of the devastating consequences of these weapons.

The convention reflects the importance of dealing with the human consequences and takes into account the needs of past victims, for example in terms of rehabilitation, as well as the need to prevent future injuries and deaths. Rehabilitation and clearance are both intensive, long-term processes requiring specialist operators like Handicap International.

The UK, as a State Party to the convention, has clear commitments because the treaty contains strong provisions on the issue of Victim Assistance (Art. 5) and International Cooperation (Art. 6). In relation to clearance (Art. 4), States Parties are strongly encouraged to provide assistance to clear territories where they have used cluster munitions.

Some states are already well on their way to implement the Convention’s provisions, which shows that they are serious about ending the suffering caused by cluster munitions and helping survivors to enjoy their full human rights. However, only 39 of the 108 states that signed the treaty have ratified it. Marion Libertucci, Advocacy Officer at Handicap International, warns: “We urge them to do so as soon as possible to confirm their commitment. The attention of the international community will also remain focused on non-signatory States, including the United States. We are critical of their position which is no longer tenable either militarily or diplomatically.”

The campaign against cluster munitions will continue in order to persuade every government to accede to the Convention, to prevent future devastating injuries like those suffered by Yoeun Sam En and Phong. Implementing the provisions of the Convention comes at a cost, and the new UK government must allocate dedicated funding to meet its commitments.