US, Israel, Russia absent at Berlin cluster bomb talks

26th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

The United States has argued that destroying its stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers at risk, and that cluster bombs often result in less collateral damage than bigger bombs or larger artillery.

Berlin -- Over 80 countries pledging to destroy their stockpiles of cluster bombs met in Berlin on Thursday, but several major nations that have spurned an international ban stayed away.

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

A cluster bomb is a weapon fired by artillery or dropped by aircraft that splits open and scatters multiple -- often hundreds -- of smaller submunitions, or bomblets, over a large area.

Often many of the bomblets fail to explode immediately and can lie dormant for many years, killing and maiming civilians -- a quarter of them children, campaigners say -- long after the original conflict is over.

First employed by the German Luftwaffe on the English town of Grimsby in 1943 and by the Red Army the same year, their use took off in the US bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.

More than three decades later, 300 to 400 people are killed in Laos every year by the 80 million submunitions estimated to be still undiscovered, Laotian Deputy Foreign Minister Bounkeut Sangsomsak told AFP in Berlin.

"In the past 20 years we have cleared only 0.02 percent of the contaminated land. It's not going to take centuries, but a thousand years," he said.

Most recently they were deployed by both sides in Georgia's 2008 war with Russia, rights groups say, in Israel's bombardment of southern Lebanon in 2006, and by the United States and its allies in Iraq in 2003 and in Afghanistan in 2001-02.

They were also put to deadly effect by NATO in Serbia in 1999, by the British in the Falkland Islands in 1982, during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, by Ethiopia and Eritrea, and by Morocco and Sudan, campaigners say.

According to a 2006 report by Handicap International, there have been at least 11,000 recorded and confirmed post-conflict casualties and the actual number -- levels of reporting being low -- may be as high as 100,000.

Last year around 100 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan, agreed to ban the use, development, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs, creating the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM).

Ten countries have since ratified the CCM. Once 30 have done so -- as campaigners hope they will by the end of 2009 -- the treaty comes into force, giving the 98 signatories eight years to destroy their stockpiles.

It also requires clearing areas of unexploded submunitions within 10 years, and establishes a framework for assistance to victims. The two-day Berlin conference was aimed at focusing on how countries would destroy their stockpiles.

But the United States, which has as many as one billion cluster munition bomblets, according to campaigners, has not signed up. Nor have China and Russia, which are thought to have around the same amount.

The United States has argued that destroying its stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers at risk, and that cluster bombs often result in less collateral damage than bigger bombs or larger artillery.

Other notable non-signatories absent include Israel, India, Pakistan, South Korea and North Korea, as well as Turkey, Georgia, Iran, Libya, Syria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Sri Lanka.

Norway's deputy defence minister said that the convention creates a stigma that will make non-signatories "think twice" before using the weapons in the future.

"It establishes a norm that goes beyond the limits of the signatory states alone. We have seen that materially already," Espen Barth Eide said. "There are people alive now who would have been killed (without the CCM)."

Simon Sturdee/AFP/Expatica

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