Governments from around the world today began signing an international convention banning the production of cluster bombs, millions of which lie unexploded across dozens of countries and have killed and maimed thousands of civilians.
At the Oslo signing ceremony, Norway, which has led the efforts to ban cluster munitions, was the first country to sign. It was followed by Laos, where cluster bombs dropped by US planes more than 30 years ago are still killing civilians; and Lebanon, which was attacked with the weapons by Israel.
By the end of tomorrow, around 100 of the United Nations’ 192 members will have signed up. Once 30 countries have ratified the convention, it will become part of international humanitarian law.
There are a number of notable absentees, including the US, China, Russia, India and Pakistan, as well as Israel, which fired cluster bombs during the 2006 Lebanon war.
Campaigners hope the treaty might help change global attitudes towards the munitions, as a 1997 treaty did on land mines, prompting some nations to sign up later.
Intended primarily as anti-personnel weapons, cluster bombs open up in mid-air to release dozens of individual devices, known as bomblets, which scatter across a wide area.
While the bomblets are intended to explode when they hit the ground, many do not and they can lie dormant for years. Victims often include farmers tilling land and children attracted by the bomblets’ bright colouring.
The US and other nations insist cluster bombs have a legitimate military use. But one group that deals with the issue, Handicap International, says 98% of cluster-bomb victims are civilians and 27% are children.
The convention has been welcomed by the Red Cross, and on guardian.co.uk by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his German counterpart.
The weapons had “rendered huge tracts of land unusable, cutting farmers off from their crops and visiting further suffering on families forced to risk their lives simply to pursue their livelihoods”, said Matthias Schmale, international director of the British Red Cross.
Miliband and Steinmeier said their goal was a “truly global treaty on cluster munitions”, while noting that “many of the major users, producers and stockpilers of cluster munitions” had not yet agreed to sign it.
During the 34-day Lebanon war in 2006, up to a million devices failed to explode. More than 200 civilians died in the year after the Lebanon ceasefire. Cluster bombs caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.
At least 75 countries currently stockpile cluster bombs. More than 30 have produced the weapons. Unexploded cluster bombs have also killed civilians in Afghanistan, Chad, Eritrea, Chechnya, Sierra Leone and Vietnam.
Despite initial misgivings within the military, Britain – which fired Israeli-made cluster bombs in its attack on Basra in 2003 and had been the third biggest user of cluster bombs after the US and Israel – has agreed to get rid of its stockpiles of land-fired and air-launched cluster weapons. British diplomats were trying to persuade the US to get rid of stockpiles at its bases in the UK, officials said yesterday.
Today’s convention excludes weapons that fire fewer than 10 explosive submunitions and are designed to locate a “single target”.