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Some 100 States Signing Cluster-Bomb Ban, But Big Powers Absent

  • Breffni O'Rourke

A boy holds an unexploded cluster bomb in the southern Lebanese village of Kunin near the border with Israel in October 2006.

A boy holds an unexploded cluster bomb in the southern Lebanese village of Kunin near the border with Israel in October 2006.

Representatives from more than 100 governments have begun signing a document binding their countries not to make, stockpile, or use cluster bombs.

The two-day signing ceremony in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, is being hailed as one of the very few occasions on which an entire category of weapons has been banned.

Cluster munitions are dropped from planes or fired from artillery, exploding in midair to randomly scatter hundreds of small explosives or "bomblets." Many of these fail to explode and can years later kill civilians.

Impressive as the total number of signatories to the ban is, the list includes a number of "makeweights," meaning countries or states which would never dream of using such munitions in the first place. They include the Cook Islands in the Pacific, the Vatican's Holy See, the Republic of San Marino, the Seychelles, and Papua-New Guinea.

Useful inclusions, however, are other larger countries with actually or potentially unstable internal or external situations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Sudan, Timor, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Kyrgyzstan is the lone signatory among the Central Asian states.

Moving to the more weighty signatories in military terms, there's France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada.

But the big military powers, most, or all, of which are also nuclear-capable -- namely the United States, Russia, China, Israel, India, and Pakistan -- have declined to sign the cluster-bomb ban.

Of Any Value?

Is the treaty, therefore, of any value, given that the nonsignatories are the ones most likely to be involved in conflicts of various sorts?

The question is highly relevant, in that cluster munitions have been used in all the most recent wars, including the Russia-Georgia conflict this year, the Lebanon-Israeli war of 2006, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo.

The main umbrella organization pushing for the ban is the London-based Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), which comprises a global network of civil society organizations. The CMC believes the effort is certainly worthwhile.

Coordinator Thomas Nash says he expects the treaty to have a potent deterrent effect even on those countries which have not signed it. That's because use of these munitions has now become stigmatized.

But why do the big powers want to keep on with such weapons? About 100,000 people are estimated to have been maimed or killed by cluster bombs in the last 40 years.

Lack of territorial depth is cited as one reason. For instance, the United States is committed to defending South Korea, and feels cluster munitions would be valuable in blunting a possible crossborder mass attack from the communist North. Similarly, Georgia has not signed the treaty because of the extreme shallowness of its territory vis-a-vis its huge antagonist Russia.

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