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International conference highlights continuing scourge of cluster bombs

Three months after the landmark Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force, government officials and campaigners are meeting in Laos for talks aimed to add impetus to the global campaign for a ban on cluster bombs.

A cluster bomb used by Israel in Lebanon is marked by red painting on the Lebanon-Israeli border road

Unexploded cluster bomblets can remain hidden for years

More than 1,000 politicians from over 100 states, which have signed up to the convention, join charity workers and survivors in the Laotian capital of Vientiane beginning on Tuesday. The delegates are meeting at the first global conference on cluster bombs since the pact became international law on August 1, 2010.

The conference, which runs through November 12, aims to give impetus to the convention's target of ridding the world of cluster bombs. The meeting is being described as a "defining moment" in the campaign to persuade governments the world over to stop producing and using the weapons which continue to kill and wound tens of thousands of people around the globe long after they have been dropped.

The effect of cluster bombs can be seen and felt for decades after their use in an initial conflict. The land or air deployed munitions, which split open before impact with the ground, scatter multiple bomblets over a wide area, many of which fail to explode.

These unexploded cylindrical bomblets can be mistaken for batteries or balls and have caused horrific injuries and death to children who stumble across them. Over time, the bomblets can become buried, posing an equal risk to farmers and other civilians.

Vietnam War leaves Laos crippled

Unexploded bomblets leak from a crashed cluster bomb

Bomblets have made areas of the world uninhabitable

The Convention on Cluster Munitions hopes to force nations into destroying their existing stockpiles of cluster bombs and prohibiting the creations of new ones. It prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster weapons and places the responsibility of financial support and other assistance to clean up the explosives on its signatories.

A total of 108 nations have signed the convention and more than 40 have ratified it, making them full parties. Of those signatories, 74 still have stockpiles of cluster bombs. But about 20 countries have already destroyed or are eliminating them, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, a non-governmental monitoring project.

"Cluster munitions can no longer be seen as legitimate weapons," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch and co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). "No country, even one that has not yet joined the ban convention, should contemplate using these indiscriminate weapons, and certainly no country that has joined should contemplate helping someone else use them."

Laos was chosen as the location for the conference due to its unwanted title of the most heavily cluster bombed nation on earth per capita. The war in neighboring Vietnam, which expanded to areas of Laos, saw over two million tons of ordnance dropped on the South East Asian nation by US forces between 1964 and 1973.

Cluster bombs were used in the heavy bombing of both countries, with an estimated 270 million cluster bomblets spread across Laos, according to the country's National Regulatory Authority (NRA). The NRA estimates that 30 percent of those bomblets failed to explode, leaving around 25 percent of the entire country contaminated with unexploded ordnance. It claims that one person per day is either killed or injured by Vietnam War-era cluster bombs.

According to data by the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, confirmed deaths and injuries from cluster bombs have also been recorded in high numbers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon - all countries which have in recent years experienced or continue to experience large-scale conflicts.

Major manufacturers refuse to sign

"Fifteen former producers of cluster munitions foreswore production when they joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions," CMC Coordinator Thomas Nash told Deutsche Welle. "Seventeen countries continue production or reserve the right to produce the weapons in the future, including major producers like China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the US, who are all non-signatories."

US CBU-97 cluster bomb

Major nations continue to build and use cluster bombs

Since World War Two, at least 18 government armed forces have used cluster bombs in 39 countries and disputed territories, Nash said.

"The United States, Russia and Israel have been the largest users of the weapons in the past decade," he said.

Israel has used cluster bombs in its wars with militants in Lebanon since 1978, while Russia used them in the second Chechen war in 1999 and is accused of using them in its war with Georgia in 2008.

In addition to the Vietnam War, the US has used cluster bombs in Afghanistan since 2001, in air campaigns in Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1990 and - along with Britain - in NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

The Laos conference organizers do not expect any of the major non-signatory countries to send delegations as observers.

"Although a large number of European countries produced and stockpiled cluster bombs in the past, most have now given up the weapon," Nash added. "A handful of former Soviet bloc nations are the only European countries that continue to produce the weapon including Poland, Romania and Slovakia."

US under pressure to sign

Despite not being a signatory, the US does support a number of non-governmental organizations in their efforts to clean up cluster bombs around the world. Human Rights Watch said that Washington has pumped an estimated $2 million per year into clearing bomblets in Laos, while still continuing to manufacture the weapons.

A US B1 bomber drops cluster bombs in Afghanistan

The US continues to use cluster bombs in its conflicts

However, as a non-signatory country, the US finds itself in a quandary when it comes to dealing with allies who have signed up. The convention forbids any signatory from helping a non-signatory nation transport cluster munitions. This means those European nations who are both convention signatories and NATO partners with the US are legally bound not to refuel trucks or planes carrying these weapons for the US.

"Countries committed to eradicating these brutal weapons need to make clear that no country should be allowed an exception to assist with the use of cluster munitions or other banned activities," said Bonnie Docherty, senior arms division researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.

"Those that support the ban need to interpret it and carry it out in a comprehensive way to end the humanitarian harm caused by cluster munitions," she said. "This means explicitly prohibiting assistance to other countries with activities banned by the convention."

Rapid implementation crucial to saving lives

According to the CMC's Nash, the convention is rapidly having a positive effect. Seven signatories have already destroyed their stockpiles, with another 11 in the process of doing so. Clean up campaigns are gathering pace and donors are injecting increasingly large amounts of cash into countries struggling to rid themselves of the destructive legacy left behind from cluster bombing.

"The convention is emerging as the clear global standard on cluster munitions and we are seeing that even countries that haven't joined the treaty cannot simply carry on using the weapons in armed conflicts, given the weapons' indiscriminate effect and grave humanitarian impact both at the time of use and for years after the armed conflict ends," Nash said. "We believe that as more countries get on board the ban, this stigmatization will increase and the market for exporting cluster munitions will dry up."

Campaigners hope that the Laos conference will speed up the process of destroying munitions and cleaning up territories affected by them while also encouraging new nations to join.

Delegates are expected to hammer out a concrete plan of action to implement the treaty and save lives. Among the tangible outcomes expected from the conference will be a political avowal - the Vientiane Declaration - that reaffirms the global commitment to eradicate cluster bombs and end the harm they have caused.

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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