Cluster Bomb Ban Talks Open in Vienna

Agence France Presse., December 5, 2007


Representatives from over 130 countries met here Wednesday in an effort to ban cluster bombs, which continue to maim and kill civilians worldwide through scattered bomblets that can explode years after they were dropped.

"The presence today of over two thirds of countries in the world is in itself a strong and encouraging sign. It's a significant push towards awareness" of the problem, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said at the start of the three-day meeting in Vienna.

The conference, organised by the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), is part of a Norwegian initiative launched in February when states agreed to conclude a new international ban treaty to be signed by 2008.

Some 83 nations have voiced their support for the move, but key countries such as China, Russia and the United States -- the main makers of such munitions -- remain opposed to an outright ban.

Plassnik, who received a petition with some 1.5 million signatures calling for the complete ban of cluster bombs, described the document as "a clear and unmistakable message: ban cluster munitions!"

Cluster bombs are especially deadly as they contain smaller bomblets which they scatter over a wide area and which sometimes explode only decades after a conflict has ended.

No figures are available on how many people have been maimed or killed by cluster munitions, but the non-governmental organisation Handicap International estimates about 98 percent of victims are civilians, usually children.

These weapons were used last year during the war in Lebanon and are still being used in Iraq today. They have also made many victims in Laos, where US troops dropped some 208 million cluster bombs between 1969 and 1973, Afghanistan and in the Balkans.

"All kinds of cluster munitions, no matter how sophisticated, are deadly. Everyone can become a victim," said for Sladan Vuckovic, a Serb who lost both his arms and part of one leg while trying to remove the remaining bombs from his land.

He was one of several cluster bomb victims who made it to the conference Wednesday in a wheelchair or with the help of synthetic limbs to testify about the damage done by these weapons.

Austria is due Thursday to become the second country after Belgium to ban cluster munitions, with the adoption by parliament of a law, while Defence Minister Norbert Darabos has promised to destroy some 12,000 bombs stocked on Austrian territory within three years.

Human rights activist and former wife of the Rolling Stones' lead singer Bianca Jagger praised Austria's move and said she hoped "that other countries will follow this example."

CMC, which consists of about 200 civil society organisations, estimates that at least 34 countries continue to produce cluster munitions, while 75 states have a significant stock in their possession.

Among the topics on the agenda at the Vienna conference are a definition of cluster munitions, the need to destroy stockpiles and aid to victims.

But France and Germany want to include exemptions in a draft treaty that was drawn up in Lima in May and is to be finalised in Vienna.

Another conference is planned in Wellington, in New Zealand in February, followed by a final one in Dublin in May, ahead of the planned signature of the treaty at the end of the year.

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