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January 26, 2009
The Cluster Bomb Treaty: Can the Cluster Bomb Treaty Work
by Barnaby Pace
Originally Published in Dissident Warwick No.5 26/1/09
Arms get everywhere. There is, at present, one firearm for every 12 people on the planet, and it is the aim of the arms industry to make as much profit possible by arming any other 11 who can pay. The question then posed is that with weapons spreading everywhere, how can the flow of arms be controlled to curb the worst excesses of the trade? Numerous methods have been posited; from international treaties, arms embargoes and national regulation down to activists smashing fighter jets with hammers, all these methods should be examined carefully so that we may find the most effective in stemming the flows of arms and preventing violence.
In December 2008 more than 100 countries signed up to the cluster bomb treaty, including the UK. The treaty is intended to end the manufacture, stockpiling and use of cluster munitions among the signatory states. Cluster munitions work through dispersing hundreds of small explosive devices across large areas; many of the bomblets land unexploded and will remain as de facto landmines, preventing the use of the land and causing a constant hazard, devastating communities for many years after the end of a conflict. The effects of these weapons are felt most heavily by civilians who make up 98% of 13,306 recorded cluster munitions casualties that are registered with Handicap International, while 27% are children.[i] Once 30 countries have ratified their treaty domestically it will become international law.
There are however significant limitations to the potential effectiveness of the cluster bomb treaty. The treaty allows cluster weapons with up to 10 submunitions (the smaller explosive devices that are released), and allows nations to co-operate with militaries that do still use these weapons (notably among NATO states). Both of these measures watering down the treaty were pushed for by the UK. The UK government was torn between the armed forces who opposed the treaty, and wished to continue using Israeli made cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and DFID (The Department For International Development) who along with the foreign office, saw the moral hazards and the pragmatic issues with winning “hearts and minds” while using these weapons.[ii]
The most serious difficulty in making the cluster bomb treaty work is the notable absence of the USA, Russia and China who, between them, have an estimated 1 billion submunitions stockpiled, Israel, who along with the US and UK have been the heaviest users of cluster bombs[iii], India and Pakistan.
The USA, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and Russia did not subscribe to the Ottawa convention in 1997 either. The Ottawa Convention banned the use of land mines and was signed after years of widespread international campaigning. Despite not signing the Ottawa convention due to the international pressure and the growing taboo around the use of landmines, the US has not used, exported, or produced any antipersonnel landmines since the treaty was negotiated 11 years ago. Attempts have been made to circumvent the treaty; since its signing numerous arms dealers have been caught attempting to sell hand grenades with tripwires, attempting claiming that it was a legal grey area[iv]. It is in the interests of arms companies not to comply with any moral or legal code when profit can be made by ignoring them; their motivation as a corporation is one defined by the pursuit of profit. Forcing armed forces (or corporate mercenaries) not controlled by a government or judiciary to forgo the use of a weapon as cheap and deadly as a landmine is nearly impossible, they have no motivation to obey a law that cannot be applied to them. The only method of stopping the use of landmines in this case is to stigmatise them in every culture so that any soldier will see them as morally wrong and refuse to use them.
The question then that should be asked is whether any arms treaties really can work on a global scale? This becomes even more pertinent with the mooted arms trade treaty that groups such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and War on Want have vigorously campaigned for. Although it may prove to be a step in the right direction controlling the rampant flow of arms on the black and grey markets, some fear that the treaty will be watered down, legitimise the legal arms trade, and serve as nothing more than a PR stunt for politicians. The fear of governments weakening an arms trade treaty are not unfounded, considering many governments’ unconditional support for arms companies and the many cases where illegal arms dealers have been paid by governments to secretly smuggle around the world to assist revolutionaries.[v]
It is my belief that the true turning factor in making such treaties work is not just the signed piece of paper but the social and political movement that has forced governments into accepting the treaty in the first place. Groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Campaign Against the Arms Trade have worked constantly on this issue for many years but what is needed is more than the few dedicated campaigners acting on this largely foreign and hidden issue. At one time Princess Diana became the public face of a widespread campaign to ban landmines, but now we can only appeal to her memory as activist did at DSEI (the bi-annual London Arms Fair) by dying the Princess Diana memorial fountain blood red[vi]. We need a new respected public face that can carry the anti-arms trade message around the world. A building of momentum within our communities is essential to work against this vile trade, to oppose the manufacture and sale of these weapons in our areas. SmashEDO have opposed the EDO bomb factory in Brighton, DisarmDSEI have campaigned against the London arms fair and student Campaign Against the Arms Trade groups have protested against arms companies recruiting and researching on their campuses. The work of dedicated experts, journalists and researchers is crucial to expose the facts about the arms trade and work against the secrecy and PR propaganda that arms companies can propagate. The trade in products designed to kill people is one that must be stigmatised just like the slave trade was, the taboo strong enough that the general public and governments cannot legitimise supporting the arms trade. The campaign to control and end the arms trade must not only make weapons illegal but make it unthinkable for any human to participate in the trade, this must be achieved by making people working in the arms trade see the atrocities big and small that are the ultimate end products of their work.
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[ii] Guardian, 28/5/2008, “Cluster bomb treaty follows UK decision to scrap stockpiles”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/may/28/military.defence2
[iii] Guardian, 3/12/2008, “100 countries join clamour for global ban on cluster bombs”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/03/cluster-bomb-international-convention-signing
[iv] Guardian, 10/5/2002, “UK firm accused of selling landmines”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/may/10/armstrade
[v] See work by Global Witness on the case of Victor Bout for example, http://www.globalwitness.org/index.php
[vi] IndymediaUK, 13/9/2007, “Princess of Wales fountain died red for victims of cluster bombs” https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/london/2007/09/381006.html