An unexploded cluster bombin Lao PDR. (Photo: Steve Joyce / MAG)
United Nations - Thirty-eight countries will start observing the Convention on Cluster Munitions this Sunday, Aug. 1, after a rapid entry into force since the treaty was announced two years ago in Oslo.
"This new instrument is a major advance for the global disarmament and humanitarian agendas, and will help us to counter the widespread insecurity and suffering caused by these terrible weapons, particularly among civilians and children," noted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Cluster munitions explode in mid-air to release dozens - sometimes hundreds - of smaller "bomblets" across large areas. Because the final location of these scattered smaller bombs is difficult to control, they can cause large numbers of civilian casualties.
Bomblets that fail to explode immediately may also lay dormant, potentially acting as landmines and killing or maiming civilians long after a conflict is ended. Children are known to be particularly at risk from dud cluster munitions since they are often attracted to the shiny objects and less aware of their dangers.
Since the countdown towards enforcement started in February 2010, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), a civil society campaign, has been raising public awareness and encouraging countries to adhere to the "most significant disarmament and humanitarian treaty in over a decade".
"Our activities more recently have been aimed at trying to get an early entry into force, getting to the 30 ratifications necessary to do this," Stephen Goose, one of the founders and co-chair of the CMC and director of the Arms Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS. "It is quite unusual for so many countries to have already completed their ratification procedures."
After Sunday, more countries are expected to join the current list of 38. "Many of the states who signed but not yet ratified are very close to ratifying it, most of them awaiting completion of their national domestic law procedures," an official with the Office for Disarmament Affaires (ODA) at the United Nations told IPS.
So far, 107 countries have signed. Others remain hesitant.
For example, Thailand, a leader in the adoption of the landmark Mine Ban Treaty in 1997, has not yet become a signatory. The CMC has been lobbying its Foreign Ministry to join the treaty, and called for Thailand to attend the First Meeting of States Parties from Nov. 9-12 in Laos.
"Although Thailand possesses cluster munition stockpiles, this should not be a barrier to joining this important agreement," reads a recent letter sent by the CMC. "Thailand has already announced that it does not intend to use cluster munitions and its stockpiles are outdated. The Convention also contains an eight year period in which States Parties need to complete the destruction of stockpiles."
IPS contacted the Mission of Thailand to the United Nations, but received no answer by press time.
The letter was one of many sent to governments around the world as part of the "Countdown to Entry Into Force" campaign led by the coalition that appealed to governments in Morocco, Slovakia, and Sudan, among others.
"The Convention will have a stigmatising effect even for countries that haven't joined," Conor Fortune, a media officer with the CMC, told IPS. "We've already seen that there was international public condemnation when the weapon was used in recent armed conflicts, by Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008 and by Israel in Lebanon in 2006."
In the West, the United States has also been a focus of the coalition's efforts. "At the moment the [Barack] Obama Administration is engaged in a very in-depth review of their landmine policy to see if they want to join the convention," Goose explained. "The U.S. has already acknowledged that cluster munitions should be banned at some point in the future."
Meanwhile, the Pentagon declared that the U.S. will restrain from using cluster munitions with a failure rate of more than one percent, which would include all but a small fraction, by the end of 2018.
"[The U.S.] should not wait another eight years to stop using cluster munitions; it should ban them now," Goose declared.
Prohibition of cluster munitions, however, is just a part of what the convention stands for. The treaty also requires destruction of stockpiles within eight years and clearance of contaminated land within 10 years. It also recognises the rights of individuals affected by these weapons to receive assistance and compels all countries to support states in fulfilling their obligations.
"Assistance could be provided either bilaterally or through the U.N., international and regional organisations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and NGOs, and could take the form of financial, technical and other assistance," according to ODA.
The primary responsibility to provide assistance lies, however, with state parties and applies to their jurisdiction. If one state lacks resources, other countries or organisations could provide it.
"Nations that remain outside this treaty are missing out on the most significant advance in disarmament of the past decade," Goose said. "If governments care enough about humanitarian law and protecting civilians from the deadly effects of armed conflict, they will join immediately."
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