Global cluster-bomb ban draws moral line in the sand

Supporters of the treaty, to be unveiled in Dublin Friday, hope that it will pressure nonsignatories – including the US – to stop using the weapons.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Supporters of the treaty, to be formally unveiled today in Ireland, hope it will pressure nonsignatories – including the US – to stop using the weapons. More than 100 nations have agreed to the text.

Diplomats from 111 countries will unveil a treaty on Friday to ban cluster bombs that have left war zones around the world littered with lethal weapons long after hostilities ended.

The pact, to be signed in Oslo in December, requires a signatory to "never under any circumstances ... use cluster munitions," though loopholes don't prohibit possible future designs with self-destruct mechanisms and other restrictions.

Absent from the 10 days of talks in Dublin were some of the top producers and users of cluster bombs: the US, Israel, Russia, China, India, and Pakistan. But experts who worked with diplomats to draft the text say that is less important than codifying the ban in international law.

"In essence, we now have a worldwide ban on the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions," says Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "[It] is really going to stigmatize the weapon and its use in the future."

Negotiations among the roughly 900 delegates received an important boost Wednesday from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said that the weapons caused "unacceptable harm to civilians." Calling the convention a "major breakthrough," Mr. Brown said Britain, the third-largest user of cluster bombs in the past 10 years, would "encourage the widest possible international support" for the treaty.

That step created a "massive seismic movement" in negotiations that caused many undecided nations to join, says Mr. Garlasco.

The US hasn't used the weapons since 2003, and exports have been suspended since Congress passed a law last year banning the foreign sale of cluster munitions with less than a 99 percent reliability rate. But US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the weapons remain important.

"While the United States shares the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin, cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from US stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk," he said.

Salutary lessons of the use of cluster bombs came during the 34-day war in the summer of 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel, when a dud rate of roughly 70 percent left virtual minefields to be navigated by civilians returning home.

In the war's final three days, Israel fired the majority of some 965 strikes that carpeted some 26 percent of arable land in southern Lebanon. United Nations deminers said the result was an "unprecedented" concentration of some 1 million bomblets. Most were from a speeded up US delivery to Israel of 1,300 M-26 rockets.

Despite extensive efforts to clear the area, UN statistics show bomblets have killed 33 and wounded more than 200, the majority of them civilians – a key catalyst for the cluster-bomb treaty.

Activists are hopeful that the treaty will influence nonsignatories, pointing to the 1997 ban on land mines. Of a handful of nations – including the US – that didn't sign it, only Burma still uses land mines, says Simon Conway, co-chair of Cluster Munitions Coalition. "We are trying to create an international norm that would make it extremely difficult for anyone, even countries that don't sign up, to use the weapon."

Thomas Nash, coordinator with Conway's group, agrees. "Russia, the United States, China, and the other countries that have refused to come to Dublin simply won't be able to use the weapons without suffering political opprobrium."

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