It is being hailed as the most significant piece of international humanitarian law for a decade, but the ban on cluster bombs to be signed by over 100 nations still lacks a certain sting due to some notable absences.
Around a thousand people, including campaigners and leading politicians, gathered in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Wednesday for the signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions but there will be no representatives from the major producers such as China, Russia and the United States. Still, many hope that the ban will stigmatize the use of the deadly weapons to such a degree that even key non-signatories will think twice before using them.
Norway, which began the drive to ban cluster bombs 18 months ago, was the first to sign, followed by Laos and Lebanon, both hard-hit by the weapons. "Banning cluster bombs took too long. Too many people lost arms and legs," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday as he opened the ceremony.
Since 1965 it is estimated that more than 13,000 people have been killed or wounded by the deadly bomblets. The small munitions are usually packed into artillery shells, bombs or missiles that are scattered over large areas. Many of the unexploded bombs lie dormant for years until they are disturbed, causing horrific injuries. The vast majority of the casualties are civilians and up to a third have been children.
The latest victims include those killed in this year's summer war between Georgia and Russia over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. According to Human Rights Watch, the bombs have killed at least 25 people, including the Dutch journalist Stan Storimans, since the war started on Aug. 7. Although Russia has denied using cluster bombs, human rights groups say both sides unleashed the weapons.
Their lethal legacy will continue for years to come, as proved by the continuing casualties suffered in the South East Asian country of Laos. The United States dropped 260 million cluster bombs there between 1964 and 1973, and since then they have killed an estimated 11,000 people. Children in particular are attracted to the small shiny objects, often assuming they are toys. It was the massive use of cluster bombs during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon that saw the campaign to ban them gather momentum. The United Nations estimated that Israel used up to 4 million of the submunitions in Lebanon against Hezbollah guerrillas, who in their turn fired more than 100 rockets containing cluster bombs into northern Israel.
The major producers and stockpilers are reluctant to forgo this part of their arsenal. Moscow and Washington say that the bombs have legitimate military uses such as repelling advancing troop columns. The US State Department said in a statement released in advance of the Oslo meeting that "a general ban on cluster munitions will put the lives of our military men and women, and those of our coalition partners, at risk."
However, many of Washington's NATO allies, including the United Kingdom and Germany, are signing up to the ban, which was negotiated at a conference in Dublin in May. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his British counterpart David Miliband, in a co-authored article published in their respective countries, hailed the convention as "one of the most significant developments in the area of conventional arms control in the past decade," and said their goal was a "truly global treaty." The ministers note: "By signing the convention, Germany and the UK are sending a visible signal to other countries and we look to encourage them to follow our example."
One of the obstacles during the negotiations in Dublin back in May had been the question of whether troops from signatory countries would be criminally liable if engaged in joint operations with a country that had not signed up. The convention, which will become part of international humanitarian law, does not prohibit military cooperation but would require countries that sign up to discourage their allies from using the weapons. According to British media reports, London is already trying to persuade the US to get rid of stockpiles at its military bases in the UK.
Campaigners hope that the fact that 105 countries have signed up to the treaty, which not only bans stockpiling and producing the weapons but also ensures international cooperation in clearing the cluster bombs, will persuade the other countries to abandon them.
Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munitions Coalition, an umbrella group of 300 organizations, expects the stigma to have its effect. "Even big countries like Russia don't want to be associated in the media with having used cluster bombs," he told Agence France Press and he says that, going forward, "it's unlikely now that you're going to see large scale use of cluster bombs."