Disarmament Insight


Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Drawing a circle around cluster munitions

Last Friday, in our last Disarmament Insight post, Patrick Mc Carthy noted the launch of a report by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Handicap International (HI) entitled “Circle of Impact: The Fatal Footprint of Cluster Munitions on People and Communities”. It follows Handicap International’s preliminary report about the socio-economic effects of cluster munitions, “Fatal Footprint: The Global Human Impact of Cluster Munitions,” released in early November 2006.

To briefly recap, “Fatal Footprint” identified 11,044 casualties (3,830 killed, 5,581 injured) directly related to cluster munition use in 23 countries and territories. 98% of these casualties were reportedly civilians. With 91% of such casualties occurring in countries with incomplete or zero data collection, it’s also highly likely that many casualties go unrecorded, HI noted.

Authorities in only three of the 23 countries and territories in HI’s report collected data on casualties while in conflict. Moreover, many victims in high-use areas like Afghanistan and Cambodia go unreported altogether, and many others caused by unexploded submunitions aren’t differentiated from those caused by other explosive remnants of war. A lack of information about specific casualties caused by cluster munitions during or after strikes – like who was involved and what they were doing – is an issue for any comprehensive effort at casualty data collection. HI estimated that only about 10% of casualty information was available in its November 2006 report.

In its more comprehensive “Circle of Impact” report released last week, HI “calls for a ban on cluster munitions and for assistance to civilians”. The total number of casualties it quoted as caused by cluster munitions rose to 13,306 (5,475 killed, 7,246 injured) in 25 countries and territories. The overall focus of the new report is on the civilian victims and the broader socio-economic challenges presented by cluster munition use during, and long after, conflict. Some country-specific recommendations of ways forward were offered, along with extensive data analysis.

HI’s reports are cautious steps toward building a clear picture of what the effects of cluster munitions really are. It builds on useful work already done by other actors like the International Committee of the Red Cross, Landmine Action UK, Human Rights Watch and, indeed, UNIDIR. But as HI would be the first to admit, this picture is still very incomplete.

HI’s press-pack distributed to journalists in Geneva last week to accompany its “Circle of Impact” report noted its launch “just one week before states gather in Lima, Peru (23-25 May), to discuss a draft text of a treaty to ban cluster munitions and create a framework for cooperation and assistance to survivors and communities affected by this weapon by 2008”.

In public, HI and other NGOs are highly optimistic about the progress the Lima meeting will make in negotiating a treaty text to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions. This needs to be taken with a grain of salt: while Peru, as chair of that meeting, has distributed a discussion paper containing a sample text of what a future instrument might look like, it seems unlikely that governments will have time to briefly discuss more than the broad themes of an agreement in just three days. More likely, negotiators won’t get down to textual brass tacks until later this year, either in Oslo in early December as the next chapter in the unfolding story of the “Oslo Process”, or (much less likely) in the context of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in Geneva.

Whatever the caveats necessary on “Circle of Impact” because of the limits of data gathering, the report’s real significance is in its timing. Emerging only days before the Lima meeting, HI’s work reinforces the message about the seriousness of the hazard created by cluster munitions – something that humanitarian practitioners have been trying to get through to the international community for a while.

The “Circle of Impact” press release also notes that already such concerns have “resulted in at least 55 countries… taking initiatives towards a prohibition on cluster munitions.” This strikes me as premature. A lot is going to hinge on negotiators eventually defining what a cluster munition that causes “unacceptable harm” to civilians is in the terminology of the February 2006 Oslo Declaration (see previous posts). That’s ultimately a political question, despite legal and technical dimensions, and will need considerable skill to settle. Meanwhile, as the Lima meeting begins, some states participating recognise humanitarian concerns about cluster munitions and are willing to respond, but nevertheless view them as useful elements of their military arsenals. They don’t seem willing to give up cluster munitions with explosive submunitions entirely, at least not yet.

Watch this space for updates about work in Lima.

Ashley Thornton


The final report, Circle of Impact: The Fatal Footprint of Cluster Munitions on People and Communities, and the HI Press Release are available here.

Photo of a B-1B Lancer unleashing cluster munitions (retrieved from Wikipedia).