Cluster munitions: a harrowing aspect of modern warfare

Ishrat Saleem

Where advances in technology have unimaginably eased the life of people by providing modern gadgets and means of communications, they have also produced fearful weapons for militaries. Cluster munition is one such kind of weapons, which helps the military to achieve its objectives with precision, but pose a grave danger to the population of the area. Cluster munition has earned this name because each such bomb, artillery shell, or rocket eject a cluster of small bomblets, which are spread over a wide area. However, wherever they have been used, civilian populations have paid a heavy price over many years after the conflict ended. The main threat of cluster bombs does not come from bomblets that exploded. It comes from those that did not explode and, like landmines, pose a long-term danger to unsuspecting civilians, who may hit them unwittingly and cause an explosion. It is extremely expensive to locate and remove unexploded munition left by cluster bombs.


The increasing number of victims and the scale of use of cluster munitions prompted Norway to take initiative to gather support again the use of cluster munitions and start what is now called ‘Oslo process’ a year earlier. This process matured after meetings in Lima, Peru, and Vienna, Austria last year and yielded a draft declaration at a meeting in Wellington, New Zealand in February this year. The draft was again taken up again in Dublin and after 12 days of intense negotiations, members agreed on the final draft. On May 30, 2008, the United Nations approved the draft of a convention to ban on cluster munitions. Delegates of some 111 countries were present in Dublin, Ireland, to approve the draft of Convention on Cluster Munitions (called Wellington Declaration). The convention bans the use of cluster munitions, requires the destruction of stockpiles within eight years and provides for helping victims and clearing contaminated areas within 10 years. This convention will be opened for signature in December. However, like all UN conventions will come into force after a specific number of signatories ratify it. In this case, the number is 30.


Although major cluster bomb stockpilers and producers – United States, China, Russia, Israel, India and Pakistan – did not participate in negotiations, those campaigning for ban on the clumber bombs described the adoption as hugely significant. They hope to stigmatise cluster bombs as much as landmines and shame the non-signatories into not using them. This treaty has been hailed as a real contribution to humanitarian law. Among the supporters are important nations such as Britain, France, Australia, Norway, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, South Africa and Ireland. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has confirmed that Britain would discontinue its use of two cluster munitions: an Israeli-designed artillery shell and a US-made rocket system for use on Apache attack helicopters.


Cluster munitions have been used by as many as 14 nations since the creation of the United Nations. These include former Yugoslavia, Russian, Eritrea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and United States. The nations that have used cluster bombs but now support Convention on Cluster Munitions are France, Netherlands, Sudan, United Kingdom, Monaco, Nigeria, and Tajikistan. About 28 countries, including Pakistan have produced cluster munitions, while about 75 countries have stockpiles of these weapons on their soil.


The United States has refused to be a party to this treaty on the plea that elimination of its stockpiles would endanger the lives of its soldiers and coalition partners. It may be remembered that the US extensively used cluster munitions during attack on Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving hundreds killed or maimed, while unexploded bombs still pose danger to whoever steps upon them. Likewise, Israel rained Lebanon with cluster bombs during the war in 2006. You would wonder why vast tracks in Southern Lebanon had not been sown, as is the centuries-old practice. The reason is that they have been sowed by enough unexploded bomblets that it is extremely dangerous to even walk through the area.

The statistics about unexploded submunitions lying dormant in the fields and roadsides of Southern Lebanon are frightening. About 40 percent of the bomblets dropped on Lebanon did not explode. In early 2007, the United Nations put the number of unexploded bomblets present in Southern Lebanon at about a million – more than the number of people. They lie in tobacco fields, olive groves, on rooftops, in farms, mixed in with rubble. Several people have lost their lives or got injured by these munitions.


It is encouraging that the 111 nations across the globe realise the danger that these weapons poses to the population. The treaty, however, leave the door open for the future production and use of this kind of munition (if the number and weight of submunitions meets the criteria laid out in the treaty and it contains auto-self-destruct mechanism). The Convention allows military cooperation of member countries with non-signatory nations and is silent on the presence of a foreign nation’s stockpile of cluster munitions on a member country’s soil. Despite these drawbacks, the Convention is a significant achievement. Cluster munitions ban campaigners should keep on working to gather more support and also address the loopholes in the treaty to make the world a safer place.


Countries that ratify the convention are obliged “never under any circumstances to”:

(a) Use cluster munitions;
(b) Develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions;
(c) Assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Convention





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