Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions

Last week I went to the Eden Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, to attend a Meeting of Experts organized by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to evaluate military, technical, legal and humanitarian aspects of the use of cluster munitions.

What is a cluster munition, and what’s the problem? While there’s no universally accepted definition, it’s generally accepted that a cluster munition is a container or dispenser from which explosive submunitions (also called bomblets) are scattered. These submunitions are the dangerous parts of a cluster munition because they explode on impact or after time-delay and cause damage through blast and fragmentation – cumulatively over a wide area.

International concern about the humanitarian effects of cluster munitions has grown, especially following their use in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Kosovo and, most recently, in the Lebanon conflict in summer 2006, both in terms of how responsibly these weapons are targeted (experience has shown they're prone to indiscriminate use) and the hazards cluster submunitions pose as unexploded ordnance.

All unexploded ordnance is hazardous, but a growing body of research shows explosive submunitions are particularly nasty for civilians in the conflicts in which they’ve been used. They're usually small (often the size of a D-cell battery), unlike anti-personnel mines they're designed to kill rather than maim, and are often of an appearance that's attractive to children to pick up and play with. And they're used in very large numbers: an estimated 4 million submunitions in last summer's Lebanon conflict, for instance, of which up to 1 million may have failed to function as intended and so have posed continuing risk to people.

Unless something is done about explosive submunitions, this use - and their deadly hazard to civilians - will likely grow, especially as they continue to proliferate. But as might be expected, views among the 90 invited participants from governments (both user and affected states), international organizations and key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participating in the 3-day meeting varied about what to do.

I don’t want to comment on these in detail here because views expressed weren’t directly attributable, and the ICRC will release a summary report of discussions in a few weeks anyway. Suffice to say, some countries would prefer to keep work in the traditional forum for this kind of thing, the rather technical UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) process, or at least to give it one more chance when it meets later this year, rather than through a free-standing humanitarian negotiation.

Nevertheless, something in every participant’s mind was that in February 2007 more than 45 countries announced the Oslo Declaration, which commits them to negotiate a new international treaty before the end of 2008 to address cluster munitions causing unacceptable harm to civilians.

One point confirmed for me at Montreux was that technical solutions of the kind to which the CCW is accustomed for weapons aren’t going to be enough in dealing with all aspects of the hazards for civilians that cluster munitions pose. It’s also likely to require restriction or prohibition of at least some kinds of explosive submunitions.

Some in the CCW, which follows consensus practice, are loath to agree to develop such measures. Certain big military powers like the United States, Russia and China currently oppose even the idea of new humanitarian law on cluster munitions, even while they admit the weapon causes humanitarian problems. It makes a robust treaty outcome in the CCW hard to envisage.

States opposed to an Oslo treaty process claim, in effect, that any work outside the CCW risks burning it to the ground. But I don’t buy it. The CCW has real value in ensuring risks for civilians in conflict are minimized through its other protocols, whether or not new rules on cluster munitions are negotiated there.

And, historically, the CCW was actually most productive in the few years after agreement of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (negotiated outside it), when CCW members settled their differences in order to ensure it remained contemporary and credible. An outside treaty, addressing the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions in a way the CCW can’t, could actually be a very good thing in again compelling it to re-invigorate itself.

The mantra among diplomats is that the Oslo process and the CCW are complementary and mutually reinforcing. It's true, and they should remind themselves of this as the road leads toward Lima in Peru, where Oslo process countries will next meet in late May, and then on to Vienna in December.

John Borrie


The ICRC expects to have its summary report of the Montreux meeting available in early June. It can be downloaded from the ICRC website (www.icrc.org).

For an introduction to the issues, see John Borrie & Rosy Cave, “The humanitarian effects of cluster munitions: why should we worry?” in Disarmament Forum (four, 2006), p. 5-14 at http://www.unidir.ch/html/en/disarmament_forum.php.

Photo courtesy of R. Coupland.