Unexploded ordnance clearance experts are among the unsung humanitarian heroes. Their work is tricky, often tense and - because rendering unexploded munitions safe is an art rather than a science - also sometimes unavoidably dangerous. Disposing of unexploded submunitions is one of the worst jobs because these weapons are anything but "duds": they're unpredictable, difficult to locate (being small and hard to see), unreliable and yet often deployed in large numbers.
These brave, ordinary people ultimately put themselves at risk to protect civilians. Bad things can and do happen to them.
In 2000, Branislav Kapetanovic, a Serbian UXO clearance expert, was working to render an unexploded submunition safe when it detonated. Branislav was lucky: he lived. But he lost both legs and the ends of his arms and now gets around in a wheelchair. The rehabilitation process has been long and hard, especially in a country in which resources are scarce - as they are in all but the richest nations of the world.
This week, I was fortunate to meet Branislav, who has become a spokesperson for the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) - a network of civil society groups dedicated to banning these weapons - in Serbia at the Belgrade Conference of states affected by cluster munitions. I've just returned from that Conference, and thought I should offer a few impressions.
The idea behind the Belgrade Conference was to allow affected countries to share their experiences and jointly produce some recommendations to feed into international efforts to deal with the humanitarian consequences of cluster munitions. The Conference agenda focused on survivor assistance, explosive ordnance clearance, and international assistance and cooperation.
It was preceded by a half-day civil society forum organized by the CMC on 2 October, in which cluster munition survivors talked about their horrific, real-life experiences - as they were also able to do during the latter Conference.
Well, so what? After all, affected states have long played a major role in the implementation of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and a special emphasis put on ensuring the participation of landmine survivors. Indeed, a slogan of the Landmine Survivors' Network - a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) - is "nothing about us without us".
But, in the disarmament field, the Mine Ban Convention has largely stood alone. Talks on cluster munitions in the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) have, for years, been largely of military, legal and technical nature. They've often felt rather remote from the actual concerns of those living with the effects of this weapon - whether victims like Branislav, relatives of victims, or communities adversely affected by unexploded submunitions.
In February of this year, a new international track emerged, the so-called Oslo Process, with much more ambitious objectives to "address the humanitarian problems caused by cluster munitions". Since February, the number of states associating themselves with the Oslo Process has grown to more than 80 and it prompted the Belgrade Conference.
The Conference was important in several respects:
- It was specifically intended to bring together representatives from affected states (including survivors), interested countries, UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the CMC and others to discuss how a new treaty should effectively address the specific needs of states, communities and individuals affected by this weapon.
- It highlighted the plight of individuals maimed by cluster munitions from places such as Afghanistan, Croatia, Cambodia, Lebanon, Laos, Serbia and Tajikstan and their needs. Hearing their stories, while often painful for them and shocking for all, has helped to humanize the issue. It's one thing to talk about international measures concerning cluster munitions in the abstract - quite another when you've met victims face to face. Medical and ordnance clearance personnel also shared their practical experiences.
- It's added additional impetus to the Oslo Process. Despite many evident political and practical challenges over the year ahead to achieve a treaty, there was much to gain strength from.
- Notably, civil society campaigning on cluster munitions has grown markedly in sophistication and effectiveness over the last 12 months, and this Conference added yet more impetus and energy.
- And, increasingly, affected countries - who are mostly developing countries with scant diplomatic resources and who are usually marginalized in discussions dominated by cluster munition user and producer states in the CCW - are speaking out too.
I was particularly affected by the story of one Serbian cluster munition survivor, a clearance expert like Branislav (I didn't catch his name) who lost an arm and a leg to a submunition. He told the Conference that initially he didn't want to talk about his experiences as a survivor, because he didn't think it could make a difference. Imagine what he must have been through, and yet be made to feel like that? But emerging international efforts, primarily the Oslo Process, had changed his mind, he said.
It's vital that we don't let these people down. As Emil Jeremić, Regional Representative of Norwegian People’s Aid in South East Europe told the Belgrade Conference, “Negotiating a ban treaty is not all about technical issues and military interests. It is first and foremost about protecting human lives”.
Next time you're told something can't be done, be reminded about the real costs of failing.
CMC Press Release, "Contaminated Countries Embrace Ban on Cluster Munitions" (2 October 2007).
Photo by John Borrie.