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Disarmament Latin America: Cluster Bomb-Free Region?

by Ángel Páez

LIMA - Peru's proposal to make Latin America the world's first cluster munitions-free region received broad support from the countries that took part in this week's intergovernmental conference on a future global treaty against the weapons in Lima, said local authorities.The Wednesday through Friday meeting was a success, with 22 additional nations joining the process of drafting an international convention to ban cluster bombs, which began in February in Oslo, Norway and is to conclude in late 2008, said Peruvian Deputy Defence Minister Fabián Novak.

That brings the total number of countries involved in the process to 68. The convention would be similar to the Mine Ban Treaty, which bans anti-personnel land mines.

"We have taken sure steps towards a legal instrument aimed at protecting human beings, which would prohibit the use, production and storage of cluster munitions," Novak told IPS. "That is demonstrated by the increase in the number of nations that have adhered to the process that began in Oslo."

"At the next regional meeting, in Costa Rica, a sister country that backs Peru's proposal, we will build a consensus to turn Latin America into the first region free of cluster bombs," he said.

The next international meeting on the draft treaty will be held in December in Vienna, Austria.

The conference in Lima was organised at Peru's initiative, to follow up on the "Oslo process".

However, authorities here failed to mention that the Peruvian air force has fighter planes that carry cluster munitions: 18 Sukhoi-25 with Russian-made RBK-500 cluster bombs and 12 Mirage-2000 with Spanish-made BME-300 bombs.

Military sources said most of the cluster munitions were acquired to destroy air strips, not for use in inhabited areas.

Cluster bombs are dropped in a canister that splits open in mid-air, scattering hundreds of soda-can-size bomblets over wide areas. The bombs can be either air-dropped or ground-launched, and are difficult to target accurately. Between five and 30 percent of the bomblets do not explode on impact, posing a risk to civilians for years to come

According to Handicap International, 400 million people live in affected areas where they are at risk from unexploded cluster bomblets, and 98 percent of victims are civilians, many of whom are children, who sometimes mistake the bomblets for toys.

Eradicating cluster munitions from the region will be an uphill task.

Argentina, one of the Latin American nations that manufactures and stores cluster bombs, backed a proposal by Australia, Finland, France and Poland to include an exception in the international convention for countries that produce bombs with a self-destruct mechanism.

The Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), made up of 200 organisations pushing for a total ban, is vigorously opposed to the proposed exceptions.

Director of the Human Rights Watch Arms Division Steve Goose told IPS that trusting the self-destruct mechanisms of cluster bombs is akin to believing that it makes them less lethal, which he said is absolutely false.

Self-destruct mechanisms do not reduce the risk of mortal harm to civilians, which has been proven by studies in the field, said Goose.

The CMC reports that 34 countries continue to produce cluster munitions, another 25 have used them in armed conflicts, and 75 have stockpiles that pose a threat to humanity.

CMC coordinator Thomas Nash also praised the interest of Latin American nations in freeing the region of cluster bombs, but warned that a major effort would be needed, because a big producer country like Brazil, for example, had disappointedly failed to take part in the conference in Lima.

Nash said activists were shocked by the position taken by Brazil, which initially said it would participate but suddenly backed out. He said the CMC had decided to forge closer relations with Brazilian non-governmental organisations in order to get the Brazilian government to listen to the people's clamour for the need to ban cluster bombs.

This is a question involving millions of human lives, not a business issue, said Grethe Østern of the Norwegian People's Aid organisation.

The Norwegian activist, who is also co-chair of the CMC, said that during the Lima conference, there were attempts to weaken the agreement reached in Oslo, where 46 governments decided to finish drafting the global treaty by the end of 2008.

Although it has been demonstrated that cluster bombs with self-destruct mechanisms did no work in the conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, countries like Argentina, Australia, Finland and Poland have surprisingly proposed exceptions for this kind of explosive, Østern remarked to IPS.

The organisers of the Lima conference also mentioned attempts by Japan and the United Kingdom to create a current of opinion in favour of approving a lengthy transition time before the global convention banning the munitions goes into effect.

A small group of producer countries came to Lima more concerned about finding out about the future of their explosives than about contributing to freeing the world of these weapons, said Simon Conway, director of Landmine Action.

In addition, the United States, which is not taking part in the process, wants cluster bombs to be discussed within the framework of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW). But during the debates in Lima, most of the participating nations rejected that proposition, arguing that the CCW is ineffective and burdened by red tape.

U.S. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jody Williams remarked to IPS that she was not surprised that countries that produce and use cluster bombs are the very countries that are applying pressure for the question to be discussed under the CCW.

Williams, who headed up the movement that led to the signing of the Mine Ban Treaty against land mines, said that in November 2006, the countries that form part of the CCW rejected an initiative to launch negotiations aimed at banning cluster munitions.

So, she asked, "what can we expect" from that forum? Besides, noted the activist, the countries most heavily affected by cluster bombs do not form part of the CCW.

But she added that after the Lima conference she had the conviction that a large number of countries are convinced of the need to eradicate these munitions "from the face of the earth."

Deputy Minister Novak said discrepancies were normal, but that in the end, what prevailed was agreement on the need to eliminate cluster bombs. "We are closer rather than farther from achieving a global treaty," he said.

"Was progress made in Lima?" IPS asked Nash, who responded "yes," but added that this time more pressure from powerful nations was felt. Although the United States was not present, it made its presence felt through other countries, he said.

© 2007 Inter Press Service

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