Disarmament Insight


Friday, 28 September 2007

Cluster munitions: hearing the voices of the affected

Some years ago, in 2003, I wrote a global survey of explosive remnants of war for the British non-governmental organization (NGO), Landmine Action, to feed into work in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The survey was a fairly preliminary piece of desk-research. It simply aimed at pulling together existing bits of information about explosive munitions (apart from landmines) that had been abandoned or failed to function as intended, in order to produce a 'snapshot' of the ERW problem around the world for the year 2001.

One of the survey's conclusions was that:

"cluster submunitions appear to pose an especially severe risk to civilians in the limited set of conflicts in which they have been used. This trend, associated with the face that cluster munitions are being procured or manufactured by an increasing number of countries, means that their post-conflict threat to civilians can be expected to further increase given the high failure rates and high lethality of this weapon type."

A great deal of research has been carried out since, and a wide range of sources only strengthen this finding. Although there's more research to be done, the reports that have been produced offer enough information to underline the problematic nature of cluster munition use, the most comprehensive recent report being Handicap International's 'Circle of Impact'. Moreover, the conflict in Southern Lebanon in 2006 underlined the humanitarian problems that cluster munitions create, whether used by professional military forces or armed non-state groups.

Unlike the anti-personnel mine ban campaign in the 1990s, the world - fortunately - doesn't yet face a cluster munition 'epidemic', although current trends being what they are this may well change. And, unlike anti-personnel mines, explosive submunitions are designed to kill rather than maim. So images of victims haven't been so prominent yet in international efforts to address the humanitarian impacts of cluster munitions through a new treaty for at least two reasons: because there is a smaller pool of victims - for now, and so far as we know - and because more of that total pool of victims of cluster munitions are dead rather than injured. The dead simply don't tell their tales so emphatically.

A third reason is that, until now, there hasn't been an opportunity for states affected by cluster munitions to gather specifically in order to assess the human costs of cluster munitions around civilians.

Next week that will change. The government of Serbia is convening an international conference in Belgrade of states affected by cluster munitions, in which international organizations including the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross, and NGOs (many of whom are member of the Cluster Munition Coalition) will also play a part.

The topics to be discussed at the Belgrade Conference will focus on three main elements:

- survivor assistance;

- explosive ordnance clearance; and

- international assistance and cooperation.

The aim is to allow affected countries to share experiences and jointly produce some recommendations - recommendations which are likely to be incorporated into the Oslo process, if not the CCW's work.

As Serbia itself has pointed out:

"The input of countries affected by cluster munitions is crucial in establishing a treaty that addresses the needs of cluster munition survivors. A future treaty must take into account the experiences, challenges and concerns faced by people who live with the everyday consequence of cluster munition attacks."

It sounds to me like disarmament as humanitarian action in practice. I'll be attending and will report back to you about it on this blog.

John Borrie