Banning Cluster Bombs

Austria is Leading an International Initiative to Reduce Collateral Damage During War Time

News | Tanja Vicas | February 2008

A U.S. Airforce B-1B Lancer drops cluster bombs; these weapons are responsible for inflicting developmental damage on hundreds of civilians and children in war zones (Photo: USAF)

As a leader in the consortium to reduce collateral damage to civilians in war time, Austria played host Dec. 4-7 to an International Parliamentary Forum and Conference for the Ban on Cluster Munitions attended by some 140 representatives from over 50 countries.

With a unanimous vote on Dec. 6, 2007 by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Austrian National Council, Austria enacted a national law banning cluster munitions, making Austria the second country in the world to do so.

Sitting in the plush, wood panelled conference hall under the gold lattice work crowning the granite columns, it was difficult to imagine the vast possibilities for destruction, the scale of human suffering that these bombs are capable of. Cluster bombs contain smaller    bombs or sub-munitions, often tagged with euphemisms like "bomblets" which have indiscriminate, wide-area effects – not only destroying an intended military target, but also killing or injuring hundreds of civilians. They also often leave long-lasting humanitarian and developmental damage due to sub-munitions that, like land mines, remain dormant and explode unpredictably later in the conflict. The "bomblets" often lie hidden in residential areas and in parks, where they are discovered by curious children. It might look like some exotic toy, until it explodes in the horrified face of an 8-year-old, whose body is left mangled and burned.

Hosted by Barbara Prammer, Speaker of the Austrian National Assembly, the Vienna

Conference was part of a worldwide campaign for a ban on cluster munitions that began in Feb. 2007, when the Norwegian Government launched an initiative in Oslo, in which 46 nations committed to a treaty on this ban. Because many of the states have been following up on the resolutions of this meeting, the initiative is now referred to as the "Oslo Process."

A group of states including Norway, Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand and Peru are sharing the responsibility for the continuation of the Oslo Process. Subsequent to the Forum and Conference in Vienna, which is seen as the midpoint, meetings have been scheduled for Wellington, Feb. 18 to 22, 2008 and Dublin, May 19 to 30.

"Austria’s new law banning all cluster munitions, including so-called self-destructing ones, is leading the way," said Judith Majlath, the Austrian representative to the "Cluster Munition Coalition" (CMC). "Cluster munitions are on their way to becoming morally unacceptable around the world."

The treaty not only prohibits further production and use of cluster munitions, but also the financing, transfer and stockpiling of them, as well as the obligation to destroy existing stockpiles within a country’s national borders.

Negotiators also called on states which have used cluster munitions to accept responsibility for the clearing of the remnants as well as to provide assistance to the victims of cluster bombs.

The most contentious discussions revolved around the prohibition and definition of cluster munitions. "There is no viable definition of cluster munitions," said Wolfgang Petritsch, Head of the Austrian Permanent Mission in Geneva.

According to a CMC press release, "The most contentious discussions at the conference will revolve around the prohibition and definition of a cluster munition. Some countries are calling for exemptions for certain weapons such as those with self-destruct mechanisms or for a transition period where the banned weapons could still be used. Most of the countries making such proposals are stockpilers of cluster munitions with self-destruct mechanisms, such as Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Switzerland and the UK."

In his presentation in the second half of the Forum, Lord Alfred Dubs of the British House of Lords went on to explain that the bombs with the self-destruct feature – the so-called "smart" bombs – are considered less dangerous by proponents; however, as Lord Dubs pointed out, "the ‘smart’ ones are also ‘dumb’ in terms of failure rate" (10%).

One should ask the victims of cluster bombs about the difference between the "smart" and "dumb" bombs, suggested Belgian senator Philippe Mahoux, President of the Senate PS-Group and sponsor of the Belgian legislation.  "As a surgeon who has operated on victims of cluster bombs, I can say that all are dangerous," Mahoux said. Belgium was the first country to enact legislation – referred to as the "Mahoux law" – prohibiting the financing, manufacture, use, and holding of cluster munitions, adopted in the spring of 2007.

The International Parliamentary Forum and the International Conference on the Ban of Cluster Munitions in Vienna are seen together as a decisive turning point in negotiations on the international treaty, to be adopted later this year.

"Military solutions have failed to produce desired results," said Wolfgang Petritsch, EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Today’s security challenges stray far from ‘war tactics’ – we require answers that go beyond weapons as a solution."

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