Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 3 October 2007

When is it acceptable to harm civilians?

My colleague John Borrie is in Belgrade this week participating in a meeting of States against whom cluster munitions have been used (he previewed the meeting in his last posting and will report back to this blog at the end of the week on how things went). The Belgrade meeting forms part of the so-called Olso Process on cluster munitions, which aims, by the end of 2008, to produce a new treaty banning cluster munitions that cause "unacceptable harm" to civilians.

As I suggested in a previous posting entitled, "Facing the facts on cluster munitions," the crux of the Oslo Process negotiations will be defining what "unacceptable harm to civilians" actually means. The fault-lines of this debate are already being drawn.

NGOs in the Cluster Munition Coalition claim that all cluster munitions cause unacceptable harm to civilians due to a combination of their wide-area affects at the time of use and to the fact that they leave behind unexploded duds that continue to kill civilians - a high proportion of them children - for years afterwards. The burden of proving that some cluster munitions do not cause unacceptable harm, argue the NGOs, falls on the governments who wish to continue using such weapons.

As the guardian of International Humanitarian Law - otherwise known as the Law of War - the International Committee of the Red Cross argues that what leads some cluster munitions to cause unacceptable harm to civilians is their inaccuracy and their unreliability. The ICRC suggests that technical solutions could be found to these problems, such as sensor fuzing, for example, or reducing the failure rates of sub-munitions. Harm to civilians could also be reduced by not using cluster munitions in, or even close to, civilian areas. At the core of these arguments is the international humanitarian law rule of proportionality, which balances military advantage against civilian casualties.

As for the States participating in the Oslo Process - now over 80 of them - most have still to declare their hand on this question and are most likely planning not to do so until the hard negotiating begins next year.

That is why the Belgrade meeting is so important. In Belgrade, over 20 States that have had cluster munitions used against them will share their experiences of living with the legacy of the attacks and of the explosive remnants left behind. This will be an important reality check for the Oslo Process; one that should persuade participating States to make up their minds sooner rather than later on the "acceptability" of the civilian harm caused by cluster munitions.

In the words of Branislav Kapetanovic, a Serbian clearance expert who lost both legs and arms in an accident while at work in 2000, "We know what it means to live through cluster bomb attacks and the consequences of unexploded submunitions, we know the painstaking and dangerous work it takes to clear them, and we know the challenges of assisting those who survive an accident caused by cluster bombs."

One may hope that, by the end of this week, this knowledge will be more widespread than it was before.

Patrick Mc Carthy


Cluster Munition Coalition press release on the Belgrade Conference of States Affected by Cluster Munitions, "Contaminated Countries Embrace Ban on Cluster Munitions" (2 October 2007).

Photo Credit: truelovecj on flickr


Anonymous said...

A ban on cluster munitions will not reduce civilian casualties either during a war of after it. In fact, it would likely have the opposite effect. The result would be increased destruction, more refugees for longer periods of time, and increases in the cost and time required for post war reconstruction. Here's why. A vairety of types of cluster munitons (air and artillery delivered) have been used, and are used, by some militaries against concentrations of enemy military forces. They are effective and efficient at destroying these area targets and gaining a tactical and operational military advantages. There are duds - both inert and dangerous. The dangerous ones can still go off and might main or kill anyone in the blast radius - civilian or military. If cluster munitions are not used against concentrations of enemy military targets, other munitions will be. However, the main alternative to cluster munitions for most armies is not precision munitions. It is to use high volumes of artillery in multiple barrages or use many unitary bombs with a higher yield of explosives dropped from sorties of bombers during combat. History has shown many times that the resulting physical destruction in the target area will be much higher than the physical damage from cluster munitions and there will be high civilian casualties as a result of the immediate blast effect and secondary effects. After the conflict, there will still be plenty of unexploded ordnance, there always is, except now it would be in the form of artillery shells and large bombs which require more specialized training to defuse and clear. This ordnance would be mixed in with the remnants of enemy vehicles, rubble, downed trees, destroyed buildings, etc. Civilians would be displaced from this area for longer periods of time because of the extensive damage. Refugees and internally displaced typically have a worse fate than civilians that can return to their homes after a conflict. In short, a ban on cluster munitions is likely to make warfare more destructive and hazardous to civilians. The ICRC approach is much more sound than the CMC approach.