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Convention on Cluster Munitions

Gp. Capt. Ajey Lele (Retd.) is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • August 04, 2010

    An international treaty to ban cluster munitions took effect on August 01, 2010. Now, for the signatory states, it has become legally binding to not use cluster munitions in future and get rid of their exiting stockpiles. This new milestone treaty asks signatory states to stop the use, production and transfer of cluster munitions. The convention sets deadlines for the destruction of stockpiles within eight years and the clearance of contaminated land within 10 years. This Convention on Cluster Munitions has been adopted by 108 states, with 38 states ratifying it.

    Cluster munitions are weapons that set free sub-munitions/shrapnel-filled bomblets over a wide area when dropped from an aircraft or fired from the ground. Cluster bombs are called by some as the ‘worst conventional weapons’ in the world and as per some estimates they have been instrumental in killing almost 98 percent of civilians over their area of usage. These weapons are being used in warfare since World War II.

    The basic problem with cluster bombs is that on occasion some bomblets fail to explode on impact. This usually happens because the dud rate of such bombs is higher. The dud rate could be defined as the “percentage of sub-munitions/bomblets that fail to explode when dropped on the target.” Because of their size and colour they remain mostly undetected. Unfortunately, such small bombs do not become ineffective. They remain active for many years and end up exploding at some point in time.

    Activists who worked tirelessly for the last few years have hailed the treaty as “the most significant disarmament and humanitarian treaty for a decade.” In fact this agreement could be viewed as one of the few agreements in the history of disarmament where success was accomplished in such a record time. The campaign to ban cluster munitions gained fresh impetus after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The convention was adopted in Dublin on May 30, 2008 and opened for signature in Oslo in December 2008.

    As reports suggest, even today hundreds of people die from the explosions of the small bomblets of cluster bombs dating back to the Vietnam War. The major sufferers are states like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Incidentally, Laos would be hosting the first meeting of the convention in November.

    Interestingly, the states which are serious about getting rid of cluster munitions have already started their work without waiting for the law to come into effect. Norway, which has taken a lead towards making this convention a reality, has already destroyed its stockpile and so is the case with Spain and Moldova. Some other countries have already started the process of destruction including Britain. Albania has cleared its contaminated territory of cluster sub-munitions/ bomblets.

    Basically, this treaty appears to be more of a ‘European child’. Out of the 29 NATO member states, 22 are signatory to this convention. Especially, it needs to be noted that states like Britain, Germany, and France have joined this convention. It is estimated that Britain and Germany have 50 million cluster sub-munitions each.

    Over the years, a broad pattern regarding the states’ response to various arms control and disarmament agreements is becoming visible. Particularly, states which do have peaceful borders and do not envisage any military threats to their security are usually found opting for various disarmament ideas. Normally, the notable exceptions are mostly states like US, Russia, China, India, Israel and Pakistan. The same is the case with the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Looking at the defence complexities of these nations, it is unlikely that they would embrace this idea in the near future. In fact, states like the US have already made it clear that these weapons have obvious military usefulness in combat and are lawful weapons. However, in order to ensure that the quality of such munitions improves, research is under way to check the failure rate of such munitions. The US military is known to have invested towards developing new cluster bombs that could have a much lower (less than 1 per cent) dud rate.

    Countries which have opposed the ban of cluster mutations also have similar views on the anti-landmine treaty. Even though such conventions would not change the views of these states, still at times they do have an indirect impact. The US has not signed the landmines treaty, but it has not used them either after this arrangement came into being. In the case of cluster munitions, maybe in future, public pressure may force these states to think differently. It is felt that the global ‘humiliation’ these countries are likely to face by using such munitions particularly from various human rights groups, NGOs, etc. may help in stopping their usage. However, in case of countries like India, Israel, etc. whose security demands are far too complex, only a reduction in threat perception could effect a change in the ground situation.

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