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US Subverts The Cluster Bomb Ban

by Jody Williams

DUBLIN - The diplomatic conference to ban cluster munitions - bomb canisters that open and spew hundreds or thousands of bomblets that harm both civilians and soldiers - is being held in Dublin. The United States is not participating in the deliberations but it is making its presence painfully known.

In the 1997 treaty that banned land mines, the United States was no friend either. The difference is that the United States was openly and actively involved before, until it walked out on the last day, after being unable to force acceptance of its "negotiating package," which would have gutted that treaty.

For too many years, multilateral negotiations - unless related to free trade - have seemed to be anathema to the United States. This time, rather than risk open opposition as it had with the land mine treaty, the United States opted for strong and unrelenting pressure behind the scenes of the cluster treaty negotiations.

The United States is making no secret of its pressure on allies to weaken the treaty to serve its own interests. One official recently bragged that the United States had "spoken with" more than 110 countries about this treaty. It has told allies that it will not alter its military doctrine, structure, or deployments. It has also threatened that it will not remove its cluster munitions stockpiled in countries that do join the treaty - even though it did remove land mines stockpiled in countries that are part of the Mine Ban Treaty.

Much of the US pressure has been to get allies to either remove or seriously weaken a key provision in the draft treaty that prohibits governments from "assisting, inducing, or encouraging" states that do not join the treaty with any act that is prohibited by the treaty. As Tim Shipman wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, "An official from the US State Department warned that under the treaty, British frontline troops who call in artillery support or air strikes [in Afghanistan or Iraq] from an American war plane, all of which carry cluster munitions, could be hauled into court."

In military jargon, such exaggeration could be called "firing for effect." The US official's warning is not accurate. Mere participation in operations where a US plane might carry cluster munitions is not prohibited, it is only deliberately calling in air strikes to use those cluster munitions that would be.

Many weapons treaties prohibit such assistance, including the Mine Ban Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Additionally, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Biological Weapons Convention, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty include similar provisions. The United States is party to most of those treaties. Its efforts in Dublin are really about undermining the treaty itself.

US allegations that the cluster ban treaty would undermine NATO are another obfuscation. The ban on land mines has not affected NATO. Belgium, which unilaterally banned cluster munitions in 2006, said its ban has in no way affected participation in NATO operations. In fact, a government official in Dublin told me a recently completed internal NATO study found that joint operations would not be affected by NATO members signing a cluster munitions treaty with the prohibition on assistance intact.

If the United States wants to try to weaken the future cluster munitions ban treaty it should do its own dirty work and not hide behind its allies.

One commander in the invasion of Baghdad in 2003 refused to order his men to use clusters. He recognized not only that it was unlawful to fire indiscriminate weapons into densely populated civilian areas, but also that he would put his own troops at risk as they later had to move through those clusters. In fact, the United States has not used cluster munitions in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, nor in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2002.

Banning cluster munitions is not antimilitary, it is pro-humanity. Banning cluster munitions protects civilians and US soldiers. The United States should stop bullying its allies and join in the work to ban cluster munitions now.

Jody Williams was the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines for which she and the ICBL received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the founding chair of the Nobel Women's Initiative.

© 2008 The Boston Globe

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