United States Seeks New Agreement on Cluster Munitions
Innovation can decrease harm to civilians, experts agree
By Samantha Berk
Staff Writer (America.gov)
Washington — The United States is pushing for a new legally binding protocol under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) that would reduce the potential humanitarian impact of cluster munitions while preserving legitimate strategic options.
Stephen Mathias, head of the U.S. delegation joining over 100 other countries in Geneva July 7-25, said the United States shares other countries’ concerns about the unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure caused by the use of cluster munitions — explosives launched by aircraft or ground-based artillery that discharge smaller bombs over an area. Such munitions can have a devastating effect on civilians who come in contact with bombs that fail to explode upon impact.
CCW stems from a 1980 U.N. Convention regulating the uses of specific types of conventional arms deemed to cause excessive suffering to combatants or indiscriminate harm to civilian populations. Over the past several years, the United States and like-minded nations have been actively seeking progress within the CCW framework to reduce the humanitarian impact of a broad range of weaponry used in armed conflicts.
The CCW negotiations in Geneva follow a sweeping ban on cluster munitions concluded in May by 100 countries in Dublin, Ireland, as the outcome of the Oslo Process, which will be opened for signature and ratification in December 2008.
The CCW protocol is a different process, involving different participants, Mathias said, and one that the United States believes would not only lessen the effect of cluster munitions on civilian populations through a broad international agreement, but also has the potential to bring on board major military powers that rely on cluster munitions.
“As everyone probably knows, we chose not to participate in [the Oslo] process because we do not support a sweeping ban on cluster munitions,” Mathias told CCW delegates in an opening statement July 7. “Nor do we view the text negotiated in Dublin as establishing a new, general legal norm concerning the use of cluster munitions. They remain in our view a legitimate weapon when used appropriately.”
INNOVATION CAN ENHANCE SAFETY, EXPERTS SAY
The United States is committed to improving the safety and well-being of noncombatants, but rather than agree to a blanket ban on the munitions, officials are pursuing technological improvements for the weaponry so countries will not have to sacrifice security for humanitarian concerns.
“Cluster munitions have an important and legitimate military function,” said Katherine Baker, a member of the U.S. delegation to the CCW. “The United States and other countries require these munitions in order to meet our commitments around the globe.”
Cluster munitions are still the best option for engaging targets that are moving or dispersed over a wide area, Baker said. Cluster munitions use less force than single-piece weapons, which can damage or destroy entire buildings around a target, and that poses a greater danger to civilians. As a result, cluster munitions may cause less collateral damage than alternatives.
“We believe that technical improvements are an important aspect of an overall approach to addressing the humanitarian concerns associated with the use of cluster munitions,” Mathias told the CCW delegations.
The United States already has taken strides to enhance safety, according to Richard Kidd, director of the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. This year, the U.S. Department of Defense adopted a requirement that no more than 1 percent of a cluster munition’s smaller bombs can be left unexploded, he said April 28 at a meeting sponsored by the Connect U.S. Fund at the Aspen Institute.
New munitions like sensor-fused weapons have improved guidance systems to enhance accuracy, Baker said, as well as the backup ability to self-destruct or self-neutralize if they are unsuccessful at locating a target.
Going into the CCW negotiations, American representatives support the prospect of building a strong foundation for a solid international agreement by the end of the year — one that does not jeopardize security.
“The most vocal proponents of a ban on cluster munitions fail to mention the very real costs and trade-offs that will be incurred in other areas if such a total ban were to come into effect,” Kidd said. “Strains within alliance structures, impediments to the formation of peacekeeping operations [and] the diversion of humanitarian assistance streams” are all likely consequences of such a policy.
With years of experience in humanitarian assistance under its belt, the U.S. delegation is prepared to work for a solution that means noncombatants won’t have to suffer from the leftovers of war, Baker said. “Reducing explosive remnants of war will reduce the humanitarian problem.”