Many nations are pledging to stop the use, production and support of cluster bombs. But change can come only when key players including Russia carry the same intent
US president Barack Obama’s announcement of an additional $90 million for clearing unexploded bombs in Laos, almost half a century after they were dropped during the Vietnam War, has brought the spotlight back on cluster munitions. At the time Obama made the announcement, the UN was holding its sixth meeting of the state parties (6MSP) to the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in Geneva.
Cluster munitions cause widespread civilian casualties. They can be fired through artilleries, rockets or dropped from a plane after which thousands of bomblets spread over a large area, sometimes the size of several football fields to kill and maim. Given the wide area of impact, it is virtually impossible to limit civilian casualties – something that is strictly prescribed by international humanitarian law. Moreover, unexploded submunitions remain for decades and act as landmines, killing and maiming civilians, especially children, who get drawn to the sometimes attractive colours of these bomblets. It is estimated that children accounted for over half of the 417 victims claimed by cluster munitions worldwide last year. Many such cases have tragically been registered in Laos and Iraq and it is estimated that de-contaminating the countries will require work till 2030. Currently, cluster bombs are being rampantly used in Syria and Yemen and civilians of both countries will unfortunately bear the brunt of such use for decades to come.
Status of CCM
In December 2008, 94 states signed the CCM in Oslo – which took effect from August 2010 as a legally binding treaty that bans all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of these dangerous weapons.
To date, 119 states have joined the Convention – 100 state parties and 19 signatories. The September 5-7, 2016 UN meeting was the first diplomatic meeting of all the state parties and signatories after the Dubrovnik Action Plan – that guides the treaty’s implementation till 2020 – was adopted. The Dubrovnik Action Plan also encourages states to enact legislative measures to prohibit investments in cluster munitions producers and ensure that no money flows to companies that produce these prohibited weapons.
As of last month, 24 countries and three other areas, including Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chad, Chile, Croatia, Germany, Iraq, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Lebanon, Montenegro and Mozambique, remained contaminated by cluster munitions, with Iraq and Laos particularly affected.
Since its entry into force, 39 state parties had stockpiles of these bombs of which 29 parties have fulfilled their destruction commitments. Italy and Germany fulfilled their commitments years before their deadline while France met its obligation as recently as June 30, 2016.
The 6MSP concluded with 100 countries pledging to clean up unexploded cluster munitions used in conflict zones globally by 2030. After a three-day meeting in Geneva, Convention president Henk Cor van der Kwast said that the 2030 target year will help “the international community to strive to make the world free of cluster munitions” that have killed or maimed at least 50,000 people world over in the past 50 years. “No state should use these indiscriminate weapons. We call upon states not party using this banned weapon, to cease further use and abide by the provisions set by this Convention,” said Dutch ambassador van der Kwast.
It was also declared that by the end of 2020 the Convention should have at least 130 state parties – an ambitious target of 74 more countries pledging to end the use of cluster munitions.
Binding legal treaty – a distant dream?
Notwithstanding these positive developments, there are major challenges before the use of cluster bombs could be effectively ended in war zones. For one, many of the countries that have used cluster bombs or are host to companies that produce them are not signatories to the CCM, including the US, Russia and China. There are yet other countries, like India, that have state-run institutions that have financial dealings with cluster bomb-making companies or have defence dealings with such outfits which produce cluster bombs.
Additionally, there are no legislations in most countries to prohibit the use and transfer of these bombs. At present, only ten states in total have adopted legislation that prohibits (various forms of) investments in cluster munitions: Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Samoa, Spain and Switzerland.
PAX, a Dutch civil society organisation monitoring the progress on international ban on cluster munitions, produces an annual report called ‘Worldwide Investments in Cluster Munitions’ where it tracks all financial institutions that still invest in cluster munitions producers. Under CCM guidelines, it is prohibited to “assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a state party under this Convention” including financing of cluster bomb-making companies. However, PAX in its 2016 ‘Hall of Shame’ lists 112 financial institutions that are still such financiers and include big names like Bank of America, Bank of China, Bank of Beijing, the Barclays, Carlyle group, Citigroup, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs. Though 34 companies have been removed from the 2014 list, 44 new ones have made their way into the so-called Hall of Shame.
These 158 financial institutions (of the 2016 list) invested more than $28 billion in the seven cluster munitions producers included in the report, i.e., China Aerospace Science and Industry (China), China Aerospace Science and Technology (China), Hanwha (South Korea), Norinco (China), Orbital ATK (US), Poongsan (South Korea) and Textron (US). These institutions provided for loans of at least $6.3 billion, banking services of at least $9.1 billion and owned or managed shares and bonds of at least $13 billion. Of the 158 financial institutions, a whopping 74 were American, 29 Chinese, 26 South Korean, one each of India, Israel and Switzerland, among others. State Bank of India is listed here as the only Indian financial institution that has dealings with cluster munitions producers by extending loan facilities to them.
Also, the government of India (GoI) has had long business relations with the American cluster bomb-producing company Textron. In February 2011, Textron officially announced that it had received $126 million in initial funding from GoI to produce sensor-fuzed weapons (SFWs). Textron was awarded a $9 million contract modification in September 2013 for the development of a remote terminal interface control document for the munitions control unit to integrate the SFWs on the Indian Jaguar aircraft. In May 2014, another modification contract was signed with Textron for a sum of $17 million providing for the final phase of integration of the weapon into the aircraft.
Textron announced in August that since there is no more market for cluster munitions, they will cease to produce them by March next year.
Megan Burke, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, speaking to reporters after the 6MSP, called this a very important outcome and added that this shows the growing stigma of the use of all cluster munitions. She said that the impact of this will be huge because this means that the US will no longer be a producer of these bombs and this will strengthen the norm against such use.
Even though there is some optimism from the Textron announcement, rights groups have documented continued and unapologetic use of these controversial weapons. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused a Saudi Arabia-led international coalition of using American- and British-made cluster bombs in civilian areas in Yemen. This is despite the fact that the UK is already a state party to the CCM. The rights group has said that the Saudi Arabia-led coalition is responsible for all or nearly all of the cluster munitions attacks in Yemen. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, as well as their US suppliers, are blatantly disregarding the global standard that says that cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances,” Steve Goose, arms director at HRW and chairman of the International Cluster Munition Coalition, had said earlier this year.
Despite such calls from civil society and rights groups, some world leaders remain adamant on defending arm sales to countries that are blatantly violating international humanitarian law. British prime minister Theresa May on September 8 defended British arms sales to Saudi Arabia arguing that relationship with the kingdom is to “keep people on the streets of Britain safe”. Current British arms sales to Saudi Arabia are worth £3.3 billion in drones, helicopters, bombs, missiles and grenades and an additional half a billion euros in contract for armoured vehicles and tanks.
Similarly, HRW has documented at least 47 cluster munitions attacks carried out by the Syrian-Russian coalition in their recent offensives against three governorates in Syria. Although Russia has denied using cluster munitions in Syria, HRW says there is growing evidence that it has stockpiled cluster munitions, and has used or directly participated in attacks with the weapon.
The US along with China, Russia, Israel, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia is among the 80 countries that have rejected a ban on the sale and use of cluster munitions. These countries remain bound by international humanitarian law that prohibits indiscriminate attacks even though they are not CCM signatories, human rights groups have argued.
“Even if this treaty became a resolution and everybody agreed to it, Russia can stop it [as a permanent member of the UN Security Council],” said Ola Suleiman, a Syrian who lives in Istanbul and works with the Syrian White Helmets who rescue people after airstrikes.
Pledging money to clear unexploded cluster munitions is just the first step. Getting countries to ban the use, transfer or production of these lethal explosives will be the real challenge, especially in countries whose economy benefits much from arms sales.
(The article appears in September 16-30, 2016 edition of Governance Now)