BRUSSELS -- Stronger regulations are needed to protect civilians from cluster munitions during and following armed conflict, a group of leading human rights groups says.
A consortium of civil society groups, made up of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Belgium-based non-governmental organizations Handicap International and Netwerk Vlaanderen say the international community must halt the production, sale and use of such weapons, which they say harm hundreds of innocent civilians each year.
”The immediate effect and long-term impact of the use of cluster munitions over the past 40 years have demonstrated that cluster munitions pose unacceptable risks to civilians, yet little has been done to reduce the supply of and demand for the weapon, or to regulate its production, trade or use,” the groups said in a statement released during a press conference Thursday (Apr. 7).
An Iraqi man covers his face to protect himself from the smoke as he passes a bomblet from a cluster bomb in the Baladiyat neighborhood in southern Baghdad. (AFP/Karim Sahib)
”There is no transparency requirement in any conventional arms control regime that requires states to declare or notify other states of sales or transfers of cluster munitions,” they added.
Cluster bombs are weapons that contain a number of bomblets which get scattered over a wide area. Cluster munitions include artillery projectiles, aerially delivered bombs, and rockets or missiles that can be delivered by surface or from the air.
Submunitions delivered by cluster munitions are highly explosive and can be delivered in very large numbers from a long distance. However, many fail to explode and become explosive remnants of war (ERW), and these threaten the lives of civilians who come into contact with them.
The non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say that 33 countries, including Britain, the United States, Belgium, Canada, France and Germany have produced more than 210 different types of cluster munitions, while at least 70 countries stockpile the weapons. The United States alone has a stockpile of more than a billion submunitions, they say.
HRW says over 85 companies have produced cluster munitions or their key components, and of these 59 are still producing these weapons. The group says nearly half of these companies are based in Europe, and eight in the United States. Some of the better known producers include BAE Systems, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace and European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS).
The groups also warn that some major European banks are investing in companies that produce cluster munitions.
Last year Netwerk Vlaanderen released a report revealing that the five largest banks in Belgium (AXA, DEXIA, FORTIS, ING and KBC) have a combined investment of 1.5 billion dollars in 11 international weapon producing companies, including producers of cluster munitions.
Since the release of the report and campaigning activities, Netwerk Vlaanderen says there has been a lot of movement to curb such financing in the Belgian bank sector, but insists that more pressure needs to be put on banks elsewhere.
”We are getting some result one year after the report, but we are trying to export our campaign to lobby groups in other countries so they can target banks in their respective countries,” Christophe Scheire from Netwerk Vlaanderen told media representatives.
A report published by the British-based civil society group Landmine Action last month says more than 90 countries or so-called disputed territories have been contaminated by unexploded weapons, and more than 50 by anti-vehicle mines.
In Iraq, more than 2,200 sites contaminated by unexploded cluster bomblets have been identified along the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In Kosovo 75 areas of cluster munitions contamination remain, nearly six years after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign.
Despite opposition to cluster munitions since the 1970s, governments have failed to take any effective measures to stop cluster munitions killing civilians.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations have repeatedly expressed concerns about this weapon, and last year the European Parliament called for a moratorium on the use of cluster munitions.
While the human rights groups welcome such interim efforts, they insist that more needs to be done to curb the supply and demand of the weapon.
”The dangers of continued unrestrained production of cluster munitions demand urgent action to bring the humanitarian threat under control. A first step in this process is to stigmatize the countries and companies that produce and market cluster munitions,” HRW said in a paper prepared for the press conference.
The group also warns that there is a ”real danger” if nothing is done about the weapons.
”There are some weapons that should not be used because of the inherent danger they pose to civilians. Cluster munitions should not be produced, sold or used, and all existing stockpiles of these weapons should be destroyed if we want to avoid a disaster in the future,” Steve Goose from HRW told media representatives.
”There needs to be more transparency and clarity over cluster munitions. We are pushing this message with individual governments and within the international arena, and we are optimistic that civil society can halt the use of these insidious weapons,” Goose added.
Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service