Oslo (AFP) Dec 1, 2008
Some 100 countries will ban the use of cluster bombs with the signing of a treaty Wednesday in Oslo but major producers such as China, Russia and the United States are shunning the pact.
The treaty, agreed upon in Dublin in May, outlaws the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions which primarily kill civilians.
"It's only one of the very few times in history that an entire category of weapons has been banned," said Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) umbrella group that comprises some 300 non-governmental organisations.
"It's unlikely now that you're going to see large scale use of cluster bombs," he said.
Dropped from planes or fired from artillery, cluster bombs explode in mid-air to randomly scatter hundreds of bomblets, which can be three inches (eight centimetres) in size.
Many cluster bomblets can fail to explode, often leaving poverty-stricken areas trying to recover from war littered with countless de-facto landmines.
According to Handicap International, about 100,000 people have been maimed or killed by cluster bombs around the world since 1965, 98 percent of them civilians.
More than a quarter of the victims are children who mistake the bomblets for toys or tin cans.
"This is not about disarmament, this is not about arms control. This is a humanitarian issue," said Annette Abelsen, a senior advisor at the foreign ministry in Norway which played a key role in hammering out the international agreement.
In Laos, the most affected country in the world, the US Air Force dropped 260 million cluster bombs between 1964 and 1973, or the equivalent of a fully-loaded B52 bomber's cargo dropped every eight minutes for nine years.
Dispersed in fields and pastures, the weapons make it perilous to cultivate the land and can claim numerous lives for decades after the end of a conflict.
On Wednesday, France and Britain will be represented by their foreign ministers, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband. Japan, Canada, Germany and Australia will also sign the treaty.
But, as was the case with the Ottawa Convention that outlaws landmines, key countries such as the United States, Russia, China and Israel have objected to the ban and will not sign it because they are the biggest producers and users.
The election of Barack Obama as president may however bring about a change in the US position, activists hope.
"Obama has voted for, previously, a national regulation in the US for cluster ammunitions," said Grethe Oestern, a policy advisor at the Norwegian People's Aid organisation and a co-chair of the CMC.
"So that's not just a theoretical possibility at all that we could see the US onboard this treaty sometime in the future," she added.
In 2006, Obama voted in the US Senate to ban the use of cluster munitions in heavily populated areas, but in the end the motion was rejected.
The Oslo Convention is nonetheless expected to stigmatise the use of the weapon even by non-signatory countries, according to activists.
While the United States, Russia and China "seem to have an allergy to international law in general," there are signs that "the stigma against this weapon is already working," Nash said.
NATO's decision not to use cluster bombs, including in Afghanistan, and the lightning-quick denial from Moscow when it was accused of using the munitions against Georgia in the August war shows that these countries also find the weapon "morally unacceptable," Nash said.
"Even big countries like Russia don't want to be associated in the media with having used cluster bombs."
Cluster bombs: long-term killers
But although they kill and maim over long periods, and primarily claim civilian lives, cluster munitions have so far been neither banned nor regulated by an international treaty.
Basic facts about the weapons, ahead of the signature on Wednesday by around 100 countries of an international treaty on banning cluster munitions:
+ What they are:
As many of these devices fail to explode on impact, countries often have a difficult job clearing their territory of what become de facto landmines.
+ Military uses:
The first major use of cluster bombs was during World War II, when they were widely used by both sides.
In recent years the weapons have notably been used by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Israel, which scattered south Lebanon with an estimated four million bomblets during its brief war with the Lebanese group Hezbollah in 2006.
+ Why they are controversial
Groups opposed to cluster bombs say that between five and 40 percent of the bomblets spread by a typical warhead fail to explode on impact, and can remain hidden for years after a conflict has ended.
In such cases, they have the same effect as mines, making farmland unusable and causing long-term danger for civilians.
Furthermore, many bomblets are brightly coloured, attracting children and exploding when they are picked up.
Civilians are still being killed by both landmines and cluster munitions used during the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, as well as those from more recent conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, the former Yugoslavia, central Asia and other regions.
According to the same group at least 440 million bomblets have been dispersed in the world since 1965. The lion's share, around 383 million, were dropped on Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
The organisation believes at least 33 millions bomblets remain undetected, still ready to kill or maim.
The treaty was agreed in Dublin in May, but it was weakened by the absence of the largest producers of the fragmentation bomblets, including the United States, Russia, China and Israel.
The convention outlaws the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions.
Activists say that despite the lack of support from key countries, it is having an effect on limiting the use of the weapon even by non-signatory countries.
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