By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Nov 2, 2010 (IPS) – A campaign to rid the world of cluster munitions has still to rope in the U.S. government, a major producer and stockpiler of the deadly payload, on the eve of a key global conference in Laos to ban its production and use.
The mixed messages that Washington has been sending are expected to hover over the historic cluster munitions conference to be held Nov. 9-12 in Laos, a poverty-stricken South-east Asian country still grappling with the legacy of the bombs dropped by U.S. warplanes four decades ago.
Thus far, there are little signs that a U.S. government delegation will be attending the meeting as observers.
“We are hoping they (the U.S. government) will send a delegation even at the last moment,” says Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), a global network of civil society groups that have thrown their weight behind the world’s newest disarmament treaty, the Cluster Munitions Convention.
“The U.S. government is well aware of the problem in Laos,” Nash told IPS ahead of the first international conference that follows the U.N. disarmament treaty’s coming into force in August 2010.
The inaugural meeting of the state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, as it is formally known, is expected to bring delegates from over 100 countries and activists from nearly 400 non-governmental organisations to the Lao capital, Vientiane.
Washington’s absence is of little surprise in light of the distance that the U.S. government has put between itself and this latest international law, which is meant to save lives that continue to be lost long after cluster munitions have been dropped.
“The U.S. did not directly participate, even as an observer, in the diplomatic Oslo Process in 2007 and 2008 that resulted in the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” reveals the ‘Cluster Munition Monitor 2010’, a report released in the Thai capital on the eve of next week’s meeting.
“The U.S. did not engage in the work of the convention in 2009 and 2010 … (nor did it) attend the Berlin Conference on the Destruction of Cluster Munitions in June 2009,” added the 286-page report, which seeks to monitor the ban on the production, trade, stockpiling, use, as well as the impact of the cluster munitions.
Yet even though it is not a signatory to this disarmament treaty, Washington supports a range of humanitarian programmes coping with the legacy of cluster munitions in concert with NGOs. Landlocked Laos itself has been receiving such assistance since the mid-1990s, with the U.S. reportedly pumping in two million dollars annually for initiatives to clear cluster bombs.
“The United States has been the largest contributor to clear cluster munitions in Laos,” says Stephen Goose, executive director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “The U.S. insists on using the weapons but also spends money to clear up the mess afterwards.”
But this paradox in U.S. government policy toward cluster munitions also cuts the other way, reveals Goose, who is also the editor of the ‘Cluster Munition Monitor 2010’. “Most of Washington’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) allies have joined the convention and they are bound not to help the U.S.” in keeping or transporting these weapons, he adds.
This means that Washington’s European military allies “cannot help refuel trucks or planes carrying these weapons for the U.S.,” Goose says.
Washington, however, is not alone among the world’s producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions that have not signed the disarmament convention, which was opened for signature in December 2008 and has secured endorsements from 108 countries.
China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and Russia are among the biggest producers of cluster munitions that have given the new convention the cold shoulder.
Laos has been at the vanguard of this campaign to give the international treaty more teeth in Asia, becoming the first in the continent to ratify the convention. But only four other countries in the region have signed and ratified the treaty – Fiji, Japan, Samoa and New Zealand.
Lao government officials are hoping the November event will help secure more ratifications from South-east Asia, which is among the regions most affected by cluster munitions decades after U.S. military intervention there.
Apart from Laos, neighbouring Vietnam and Cambodia were targets of cluster munitions during the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam, which Washington lost in 1975.
During that conflict, U.S. warplanes dropped more than two million tonnes of bombs over Laos, an amount that according to U.N. data exceeds the explosives dropped in Europe during World War II.
These air strikes, involving close to half a million bombing missions from 1964 to 1973, were meant to destroy the North Vietnamese supply route, called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that passed through eastern Laos.
An estimated 270 million of these explosives were cluster munitions, called ‘bombies’ in Laos. After being dropped from larger bombs that contained 300 to 600 cluster bombs, the bombies spread across a large terrain and caused damage there.
But there were also millions of bombies that did not explode after they were dropped, and these continue to exact a heavy toll today. More than 50,000 people were killed or injured in unexploded ordnance (UXO) accidents between 1968 and 2008, states a UXO regulatory body in Laos.
“Laos topped the list of cluster munition casualties in 2009,” says Goose. “It accounted for a third of the casualties that year.” (END)
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By Zulfikar Abbany for Radio Australia
Posted Thu Nov 4, 2010 11:56pm AEDT
Australia has been accused of trying to work around an international treaty banning the use of cluster bombs in conflict.
Laos, whose people have long suffered as a result of land mines, next week hosts the first meeting of signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions.
The treaty came into effect just three months ago.
But advocacy network Australian Lawyers for Human Rights accuses Australia of potentially breaching the convention by creating legislation allowing it to help countries which have not signed up.
“If you reserve the right for other countries even to store cluster munitions on your territory… we think that is providing comfort to [those] other countries who want to keep using those munitions,” lawyers’ president Stephen Keim SC told Radio Australia.
The treaty requires signatories to stop the use, production and transfer of the weapons.
More than 30 countries, including Australia, have ratified it.
China, Russia, Israel and the US were among those who refused to sign the treaty.
The four countries are believed to hoard and manufacture the bulk of the crippling munitions.
Critics are unhappy with amendments to the Australian Criminal Code that the Government says will let the country ratify the convention.
The bill contains provisions that allow Australia to continue military cooperation and operations with allies that have not signed.
The lawyers say they are concerned that cluster munitions can still apparently be brought to and stockpiled in Australia.
Mr Keim says the devices are “immoral and quite pernicious”.
He is disappointed with the way Australia seems to have targeted article 21 of the agreement, which provides some exemptions in certain circumstances.
“We think Australia is treating article 21 much more broadly than it was intended,” turning certain exemptions into “much greater exemptions”.
The clause obliges a signatory to encourage a non-signatory to sign up. But the get-out is the Interoperability Clause, which provides that a signatory can engage in military cooperation with others.
But notwithstanding that cooperation, it is still prohibited to be engaged in the development, stockpiling or intended use of cluster bombs, the Brisbane senior counsel said.
“One of the problems with Australia ratifying the treaty in the way that it is doing, is that it really can’t give the high moral and strong influence that it might otherwise be wanting to give,” Mr Keim said.
He says there is a danger other countries may say, “Australia has given itself lots of exemptions. We will ratify in the way Australia has done.”
“At the end of the day, what we all want is that cluster munitions become a thing of the past,” he said.
Monsters and Critics.com
Vientiane, Laos – Switzerland is set to contribute 3 million dollars to Laos’ Cluster Munitions Trust Fund, designed to clear the country of thousands of unexploded bomblets, reports said Wednesday.
Switzerland will soon hand its contribution, and Belgium will give another 150,000 euros (210,000 dollars) to the fund, set up by the government and United Nations to clear Laos of unexploded ordnance dropped on the country by the US military during the Vietnam War, the Vientiane Times reported.
‘The most recent pledges will bring the total amount of the fund, previously subscribed to by Australia, Ireland, Canada and France, to more than 52 billion kip (6,379,508 dollars),’ the state-run newspaper said.
The Swiss and Belgian contributions are expected to be handed over before Laos hosts the first meeting of state parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions to be held in Vientiane on November 9 to 12.
Cluster munitions eject smaller submunitions and are designed to kill, maim and demoralize civilian populations.
To date 38 former users, producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions have joined the treaty, leaving some 73 countries that continue to stockpile the explosives. The US, the world’s largest producer and stockpiler of cluster munitions, has refused to sign the convention.
Laos is the country most heavily contaminated by cluster munitions, the Cluster Munitions Monitor 2010 report said.
From 1964 to 1973 the US military dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos to try to wipe out communist guerrillas and to prevent Vietnamese communist forces from using eastern Laos as a route for supplies into southern Vietnam.
An estimated 30 per cent of the US bombs failed to explode on impact, leaving about 25 per cent of all villages or an estimated 87,231 square kilometres – 40 per cent of the country – affected by unexploded ordnance.
According to the first survey of unexploded ordnance released by the government’s National Regulatory Authority, about 30,000 Lao died or were maimed by bombs and mines from 1964 to 1973 and another 20,000 thereafter with accidents continuing to be reported as late as last year.
Last year, of the 100 confirmed casualties of cluster munitions worldwide, 33 were in Laos, according to the Cluster Munitions Monitor 2010.
The meeting in Vientiane next week will seek to raise more donations from the international community to help Laos and other countries affected by cluster munitions, such as Vietnam, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Cambodia, with clearance and services for victims.
The Laos meeting, the first of its kind, is scheduled to include representatives from 106 countries and more than 400 civil society groups.
‘The objective of the first meeting is to set the framework for putting this treaty in to practice,’ Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition, told a press conference in Bangkok earlier this week