A decade after the signing of a treaty to eliminate landmines, representatives from more than 100 countries are meeting in Dublin this week to ban an equally indiscriminate killer of innocent people — the cluster bomb.
There are billions of cluster bomblets stockpiled, ready for use by 75 countries. These bombs are responsible for killing or maiming countless civilians as their mini-bombs explode months — or even years — after they are dropped. And here’s another chilling fact: one in four victims of these bombs are children. The British government has widely and loudly proclaimed its leadership in the movement to ban these bombs. But as the Dublin conference unfolds, many of us seriously question that “leadership.”
It is clear that Britain is following the US — which has no intention of signing up — as it works behind the scenes to greatly weaken the treaty. But rather than continue to follow America’s position, the UK should heed the words of its nine former defense chiefs and military commanders who have called upon the Brown government to ban clusters.
One US official recently bragged that the US had “spoken with” more than 110 countries about this treaty. The US has also threatened that it will not remove its cluster munitions stockpiled in countries that do join the treaty — even though in the past it did remove landmines stockpiled in Mine Ban treaty countries. And the US State Department is said to have warned that British troops in Iraq or Afghanistan could face prosecution if they call in artillery or airstrike support from US planes — all of which carry cluster bombs.
In military jargon, such exaggeration could be called “firing for effect.” See if you can terrorize others into doing what you want. A cluster-bomb ban will not mean the end of joint military operations nor make British soldiers automatically liable. Joint military operations with Britain continue despite the fact that the US is not party to the Mine Ban treaty. At least seven other international treaties have similar obligations on prohibiting assistance in use of a banned weapon by a country bound by the treaty.
Along with trying to protect its own cluster munitions, the UK is also trying to remove completely a key provision that prohibits governments from “assisting, inducing, or encouraging” states that do not join the treaty with any act that is prohibited by the treaty.
This would allow solders of countries that are part of the treaty to participate in the planning and execution of joint operations with the US where cluster bombs are used. How can the British government say with a straight face it is banning these munitions while at the same time vigorously promoting language allowing British soldiers to plan and execute operations where, in effect, they would be using US cluster bombs? How can it say it is merely trying to protect British troops and is not really trying to appease the US?
Likewise, a cluster ban treaty will not undermine NATO. In fact, a recently completed internal NATO study found that joint military operations would not be impacted if NATO members sign a cluster munitions treaty with the prohibition on assistance intact.
If the US wants to try to weaken the future cluster munition ban treaty, it should do its own dirty work and not hide behind its allies.
If Britain wishes to continue to paint itself as a leader in the cluster ban movement, it should start listening to its own former military commanders who call for nothing less than a total ban — now.
Jody Williams was the founding coordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and received the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the founding chair of the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
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