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ICBUW Visits the Cluster Munitions Conference

At the end of February, 100 NGOs from 30 countries met in Oslo for the first step towards a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs. The civil society event ran in parallel with the first in a series of high level negotiations between states to propagate a treaty outside the aegis of the Convention on Certain Weapons.
2 March 2007 - Doug Weir


Concerns over the use of cluster munitions (CM) have been increasing since the 70s where they were used in large numbers by the US in South East Asia – in Laos alone more than seven sub-munitions or bomblets were dropped for each member of the population. They are still killing civilians to this day. The US and UK used 2m sub munitions in three weeks in Iraq in 2003, and Israel dropped 4m in the 72 hours leading up to the end of the conflict in Lebanon in 2006. It was this, more than anything else, which sparked sufficient global interest in the problem to trigger the talks in Oslo.

However, unlike land mines but like DU, CMs are not as yet a global problem but have the potential to be. Around two dozen countries have been affected by their use but more than 75 governments have stockpiled them – the treaty aims to prevent a future crisis.

There are some stark parallels between ICBUW's work towards a DU treaty and the work of the Cluster Munition Coalition. Like clusters, DU is a hazardous and indiscriminate remnant of war and while the effects of clusters are more immediate and clear cut, there has still been denial of their effects among user nations.

The Norwegian conference was organised with the support of the Norwegian government and was the first step in a new treaty process. The aim of the first meeting was to consolidate political will, to that end there was no treaty text on the table – merely a declaration stating that there is a problem and that concrete steps should be taken, and taken quickly. The declaration aims to outlaw their production, use, transfer and stockpiling by 2008. There will also be obligations for clearance and victim assistance. The landmine treaty negotiations were completed within one year. If a follow-on meeting were to be agreed, the talks would be deemed a success.

Of fundamental importance is to bypass the CCW. With only 100 members is isn’t representative of the global community, controlled as it is by the powerful western nations - the Security Council Permanent Members - where any single state can block proposals. Of the 47 countries taking part (the first landmine talks had six countries present) it was thought that 10 or 12 didn’t want a treaty and many others such as the UK would demand that the talks were carried out within the CCW. This was seen as a delaying and stalling tactic. Last June in Geneva just an hour and half was set aside for talks on CMs.

Once some supporting nations were found, the plan was to isolate the others. Their process places the onus on foreign ministries to take concrete steps. The CMC and Norwegians felt that the countries attending would be deeply shocked at the level of civil society interest – however it was thought necessary that national delegations should still feel empowered within the process and not overwhelmed. In spite of this the CMC would be the largest delegation in the room with 10 members present.

The Talks

The talks were held over two days in the Soria Moria Hotel near Oslo. National delegations were subject to intense lobbying by NGO members and CMC members made several presentations to delegates within the chamber. Particularly powerful among the NGOs were the victims - amputees from Afghanistan, the Balkans and Lebanon. There were also mine clearance specialists present who had suffered horrific injuries clearing submunitions.

The CMC cleverly released a pre conference declaration, which states would have to opt out of if they didn’t agree with it – a useful tool to isolate difficult countries. There were a lot of private discussions on the declaration’s content, most of which were largely ignored by the CCW.


A group of States, United Nations Organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Cluster Munitions Coalition and other humanitarian organisations met in Oslo on 22 – 23 February 2007 to discuss how to effectively address the humanitarian problems caused by cluster munitions.

Recognising the grave consequences caused by the use of cluster munitions and the need for immediate action, states commit themselves to:

1. Conclude by 2008 a legally binding international instrument that will:

(i) prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster
munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and

(ii) establish a framework for cooperation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk education and destruction of stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions.

2. Consider taking steps at the national level to address these problems.

3. Continue to address the humanitarian challenges posed by cluster munitions within the framework of international humanitarian law and in all relevant fora.

4. Meet again to continue their work, including in Lima in May/June and Vienna in November/December 2007, and in Dublin in early 2008, and welcome the announcement of Belgium to organise a regional meeting.

Of the attendees, 46 nations signed up to the declaration including Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Latvia, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Mozambique, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

Only Japan, Romania and Poland refused to sign up.

Of particular note were:

Angola – supportive of treaty process.

Austria – agreed to moratorium regardless of whether treaty process successful, offered sponsorship of follow-up meeting in Vienna.

Belgium – were desperate to be the first country to ban them nationally (as they were with anti-personnel landmines) and did so in 2007. Made very strong supportive statement. Offered stockpile destruction by 2008. National campaigns have been very effective.

Bosnia – announced that they had stopped use, will destroy remaining stockpiles and will adopt moratorium.

Ireland – very supportive of treaty process, offered to host further talks.

Mozambique - supportive of treaty process.

Norway – sponsored conference, have begun destruction of CMs, government offered military an alternative anti-vehicle sub munition with far fewer bomblets.

Those arguing for a CCW process included:

Germany, France, Italy, UK, Latvia, Egypt, Argentina, Canada, Switzerland and the Netherlands. New Zealand said: “CCW yes or no isn’t for this meeting – it’s for the CCW to decide!”

Those who were positive towards international assistance for clearing CMs included:

Canada, Serbia, Mozambique, Lebanon, Austria and Norway.

Those who were negative towards international assistance for clearing CMs included:

Netherlands, UK, Italy.

Nobody directly attacked the process which was also remarkable – the US had privately said that it was “illegitimate and irresponsible” and, it was whispered, had bought a good deal of pressure to bear on Canada in particular. There was some talk of a synergy between the ‘Oslo’ process and the CCW while some countries wanted to see both fail.

However there was a real sense of purpose to the negotiations and a sense that the political will was there to follow it through.

Next Steps

There was talk of forming regional blocs, an African bloc and Costa Rica had suggested forming a Central American ‘Cluster Free Zone’. There are several national processes in place, including in the UK were bills have been tabled in both houses. Two British Lords attended the Oslo conference and played an active part in the proceedings - a very pleasant surprise.

The Oslo meeting was just the start of what will no doubt be a complex and convoluted process - if individual countries have their way. Once they begin to discuss the treaty language and definitions it is thought that future clashes will occur in the following areas:

Failure rates – there are CMs on the market that claim a 1% failure rate. However this is under ideal test conditions not under battlefield conditions where drop altitude, wind speed, vegetation cover and soil type can all play a part. The CMC argues that any failure is unacceptable because of the volume of CMs used.

Self-destruct mechanisms – this will be another area of discussion; many countries claim to be using CMs with self-destruct mechanisms, however in practice these work poorly. This was highlighted brilliantly during the talks by photographer John Rodtsed: his video showed him walking through a Lebanese field full of unexploded CMs of the sort championed by the UK amongst others.

Definition of CMs – a complex area, in theory any missile or bomb containing separate munitions within it can be classed as a CM – including a Trident nuclear missile.

Unacceptable harm – whether CMs can be used safely in non-civilian areas or whether they can be accurately targeted – something of an impossibility given the asymmetric nature of modern warfare and the inherent behaviour of the weapons.

The next meeting in the new process will take place in Lima, Peru 23 – 25 May 2007. ICBUW wishes all at the CMC well.