Negotiators Gather in Dublin to Ban Cluster Bombs, May 19, 2008

Almost 10 years after the Ottawa Treaty banned the use of landmines, more than 100 countries are gathering on Monday to attempt to ban cluster bombs as well. However, the United States and other big producers will not be attending. Washington is arguing that the proposed treaty threatens to undermine the very fabric of NATO.

Envoys are gathering in the Irish capital Dublin for a conference that aims to agree on a convention banning cluster bombs. The states will negotiate the terms of the international treaty that would prohibit the use, production and stockpiling of the cluster munitions by the signatories.

However the biggest producers of the cluster weapons, the United States, China, Israel and Russia, are not attending the 12-day conference and have been lobbying hard to have it watered down. Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the US mission to the United Nations, told Reuters that Washington is opposed to any ban. "We do not believe they are indiscriminate weapons."

Some of those who are attending, particularly the United Kingdom, are hoping to secure exemptions on certain weapons, or have more time to dismantle their arsenal. And there is also a push by allies of the US to scrap or water down a key clause that would prohibit signatories from mounting joint operations with any state that uses cluster bombs, something the US argues would make the alliance almost unworkable.

Humanitarian organizations are pushing for a complete ban, which they argue would be a measure comparable in importance to the ban on the use of land mines agreed in 1999. Groups such as Human Rights Watch emphasize the danger cluster weapons pose to civilians in particular. Dropped from planes or fired from artillery, cluster bombs explode in mid-air, randomly scattering bomblets. Many fail to explode and are scattered across terrain, causing death or injury to civilians -- particularly children who sometimes mistake them for toys.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says it continues to see the consequence of the bombs. "Cluster munitions are weapons that never stop killing," ICRC President Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement last week.

According to the United Nations Development Program, cluster munitions have caused more than 13,000 confirmed injuries and deaths around the world, the vast majority of them in Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. The munitions caused more civilian casualties in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003 than any other weapon system.

Israel's deployment of the weapon in 2006 came in for severe criticism. Its use of cluster bombs in the 2006 war in Lebanon left a deadly legacy. Israel littered the south of the country with more than 4 million cluster bombs during the 34-day conflict. The weapons caused more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ceasefire, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition.

The process leading to the treaty was kicked off by Norway in February 2007. Since then the terms have been thrashed out at meetings in Lima, Vienna, and Wellington. The draft convention as it now stands would oblige signatories to never: "(a) Use cluster munitions; (b) Develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer to anyone, directly or indirectly, cluster munitions; (c) Assist, encourage, or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a state party under this convention." If agreed, the treaty would be signed in Oslo in December. The signatories would then need to ratify it.

It is the last clause in particular which is worrying Washington. According to Richard Kidd, director of the US State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, "US forces simply cannot fight by design or doctrine without holding out at least the possibility of using cluster munitions." Speaking to the International Herald Tribune, he said that the provisions on assisting countries that use the bombs would reduce or eliminate opportunities for joint training, command logistics and intelligence sharing -- "the very functions that make NATO what it is."

The UK, one of the US most important allies, is reported to be under strong pressure from the Americans to resist signing up to the ban. British officials told the London-based The Independent newspaper that a range of issues is at stake, including munitions stored at US bases in the UK and the legal status of British soldiers serving alongside US forces. British negotiators will be seeking exemptions on particular weapons, such as its M73 and M85 weapons, which they argue self-destruct if they fail to detonate and so do not pose a long-term threat.

A number of senior former British military officers, however, are urging the British Defense Ministry to sign up to the ban. A total of nine retired commanders, including Field Marshal Lord Bramall, a former chief of defense staff of the British Army, have written to the London Times and Defense Secretary Des Browne, demanding that the British armed Forces "move away from the use of indiscriminate weapons which pose a threat to civilians and our troops alike."

Humanitarian organizations want the treaty to be kept intact rather than allow exemptions and loopholes to rob it of its impact.

"As it stands, the draft treaty is a strong, comprehensive ban. Any attempts to water it down should be rejected completely," Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch told the Agence France Press news agency. "Those kinds of revisions will only undermine the intended purpose of the ban, which is to save lives."

On the eve of the conference Pope Benedict XVI expressed his hope that a "strong and credible agreement" would emerge. "It is necessary to heal the errors of the past and avoid them happening again in the future."

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