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Destroying arms stockpiles

June 25, 2009

Delegates from 75 countries pledging to destroy their stockpiles of cluster bombs are meeting in Berlin for a two-day conference to assess progress since a 2008 ban on the weapons.

A cluster bomb used by Israel in its 2006 Lebanon war
Cluster weapons are criticized for carrying a high risk of maiming or killing civilians

The event, which brings together 217 participants from 75 countries, is intended to share know-how on the complicated destruction of cluster munition.

Delegates are also to discuss a destruction verification process and greater transparency by signatories on how many cluster munitions they hold.

Since the Convention on Cluster Munitions was adopted in December 2008 in Oslo, 98 countries have signed the document and 11 have already ratified it.

Signatory states have eight years to destroy military stockpiles of cluster weapons, once the convention comes into effect six months after it has been ratified by thirty states.

Germany to ratify cluster bomb treaty

Opening the conference in Berlin on Thursday, German Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler announced that his country had become the 11th nation to ratify the Convention.

About 10 percent of cluster bomb submunitions do not explode, posing threat to civilians
About 10 percent of cluster bomb submunitions do not explode, posing a threat to civilians

"I’m confident that the 30 countries required for the Convention to come into effect, will be reached in 2010 by the latest", he said.

"Cluster munitions are among the most problematic and vicious types of ammunition used in contemporary warfare. The long-term effects of their use are disastrous," Erler said.

"We see a new momentum in nuclear disarmament, and commend our American partners for their new approach. Let us hope ... that this momentum will also be extended to conventional disarmament," he added.

A number of countries --- including among others the United States, China, Israel, India, Russia, Pakistan and Georgia --- refuse to sign up to the Convention, and have chosen to stay away from the Berlin conference.

"Weapon of cowards"

A cluster bomb is a weapon fired by artillery or dropped by aircraft. It contains multiple, often hundreds, of small explosive submunitions, or bomblets.

Military experts describe cluster munition as "the weapon of cowards" as they can wipe out large numbers of troops without engaging them directly on the ground.

Frequently these bomblets fail to explode immediately and can lie dormant for many years, killing and maiming civilians long after the conflict is over.

Wheelchair-bound cluster bomb survivors protest against the use of the weapons in Dublin in 2008
Wheelchair-bound cluster bomb survivors in Dublin protest against the use of the weaponsImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

According to a 2006 report by human rights group Handicap International, there have been at least 13,000 confirmed post-conflict cluster bomb casualties, but the actual number of unreported deaths may be as high as 100,000.

Rights groups say, cluster munition was most recently deployed in Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008, Israel’s bombardement of southern Lebanon in 2006, as well as by the United States in Iraq 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001.

Hard to destroy

Under the Convention, signatories are requested to destroy their cluster munition arsenals within eight years after the treaty will have come into effect. It also requires clearing areas of unexploded submunitions within 10 years.

From the 98 signatories, only Spain has so far completed the destruction of its cluster munition arsenal.

Erler told the conference that Germany began destroying its cluster bomb stockpile in 2001.

"We’ve since aquired substantial technical know-how, which we are willing to share with others," he added.

Decomissioning a cluster bomb at the Spreewerke Lübben plant in Eastern Germany
A cluster bomb being decomissioned at the Spreewerke Luebben plant in eastern GermanyImage: dpa

But Gert Wickede, CEO of the Spreewerk Lübben company, told Deutsche Welle this week that cluster munition "is just not designed for being decomissioned."

The company, based in eastern Germany, has specialized in the destruction of cluster munitions.

"The fuse of this munition is highly sensitive which is why it's complicate to defuse," Wickede said.

The huge number of submunitions contained in a cluster bomb, would also pose a major challenge, he added.

Call on US, China and Russia

On the eve of the Berlin conference, Human rights groups and German political leaders called on especially the United States, China and Russia to join the Convention.

Claudia Roth, the co-leader of Germany’s opposition Green Party, called for Chancellor Angela Merkel to urge US President Barack Obama to sign the treaty during her trip to Washington starting on Thursday.

Roth told reporters in Berlin that Merkel should seize the "wind of change" President Obama had brought to the White House.

Steve Goose, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, said he hoped the conference would "push foward the momentum," and encourage more nations to join and ratify the treaty.


Editor: Sonia Phalnikar