Disarmament Insight

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Friday, March 20, 2009

CCM: Positive developments

Earlier this week, the Lao People's Democratic Republic ratified the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) at a special event in New York at United Nations Headquarters.

Lao PDR’s accession to the CCM is significant not least because this South East Asian nation is the most heavily affected country in the world from unexploded submunitions due to a secret American bombing campaign in the 1960s and 1970s that pulverised entire areas of the country such as the Plain of Jars. A generation on, and Lao PDR’s people – the majority of them not even born during the bombing period – are saddled with a deadly legacy of unexploded ‘bombies’ (submunitions) in their fields, rivers and woods that threaten livelihoods and their very lives.

The figures are staggering. Lao PDR’s National Unexploded Ordnance Programme believes that, even under ideal firing conditions, at least 30 percent of the more than 260 million submunitions dropped on the country during the Indochina War would have failed to function as intended, leaving an estimated 78 million bombies to pose hazard to people going about their daily lives. Fifteen of Lao’s seventeen provinces were left affected by cluster munitions and other unexploded ordnance, and today ten provinces are still severely infested – with an estimated 300 people injured or killed per year.

As such, Lao PDR is always going to be a special case for the new treaty. It is generally (if tacitly) recognised by others involved in the Oslo process that – even with the international assistance promised by other members of the CCM – Lao PDR is unlikely to achieve the treaty’s ten-year deadline for clearance and will eventually require an extension (as has just occurred in the Mine Ban Treaty context, for example, for certain countries that have not completed anti-personnel mine clearance activities for various reasons). But, hopefully, membership of the CCM will be a means to continually draw attention to and resources for post-conflict activities to reduce the hazards of unexploded submunitions and other ordnance on Laotian civilians.

At the same ceremony, the Democratic Republic of the Congo – another cluster munition-affected country – signed the CCM, which makes it the 96th to do so. And Iraq made a statement indicating its intent to join the CCM once domestic steps have been completed. Also, a week earlier, on 11 March, the Mexican Senate approved that country’s ratification of the CCM.

Although a country can provisionally apply the CCM at any time, to enter into force internationally the CCM needs to be ratified by 30 states. Less than five months after the CCM’s signing ceremony in Oslo last December, the treaty can already count on 6, and more will surely follow as 35 other states have publicly committed to ratify as soon as possible. As Iraq’s statement indicated, the number of signatories, which presently stands at 96, is also certain to increase soon.

So far many of the world’s largest producers and users of cluster munitions remain outside of the treaty. But there were encouraging developments last week in the US. On 11 March, President Obama signed the Omnibus Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2009, already passed by Congress. It enacts a ban on American exports of most cluster munitions, and has been described as a “qualified ban”.

Meanwhile, many members of both chambers of Congress have apparently cosponsored legislation to enact a ban on most cluster bombs – galvanised by Senators Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein. And President Obama’s transition team are apparently studying the issue of whether the US should go the whole hog and join the CCM.

We’ll seek to provide more analysis in coming weeks.

John Borrie

Photo credit: Mary Wareham. Ambassador Kanika Phommachanh, Permanent Representative of the Lao PDR to the UN in New York, depositing her government's ratification of the Convention on Cluster Munitions with the UN's Office of Legal Affairs represented by Treaty Section Chief Annebeth Rosenboom. Laos became the fifth state to ratify - a total of 30 are required for the treaty to enter into force.

Lao reference: Lao PDR National Regulatory Authority, Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme and UNDP, Hazardous Ground: Cluster Munitions and UXO in the Lao PDR (2008).

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