UK backs US bid to overturn ban on cluster bombs

Nov 11, 2011 12:00 AM

by Jerome Taylor

Britain is backing a US-led plan to torpedo the global ban on cluster bombs, in what MPs and arms campaigners fear is an attempt to legitimise the use of weapons that are widely deemed to be inherently indiscriminate.
In recent years, the UK has played a leading role in trying to rid the world of cluster bombs. It is one of 111 countries that have signed up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, is on target to destroy its own stockpile, and has ordered the US military to remove any submunitions it holds on British soil.

But the UK Government is supporting a Washington-led proposal that would permit the use of cluster bombs as long as they were manufactured after 1980 and had a failure rate of less than 1 %. Arms campaigners say the 1980 cut-off point is arbitrary, and that many modern cluster bombs have far higher failure rates on the field of battle than manufacturers claim.
The international community is gathering in Geneva soon to discuss the proposal, which will be tabled as a new protocol for the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons -- a UN treaty from the early 1980s that forbids the use of "excessively injurious" weapons such as mines, booby traps, incendiary devices and blinding lasers.

The world's major cluster bomb manufacturers -- which include the US, Israel, Russia, China, South Korea, India and Pakistan -- have all refused to sign up to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. They plan to push through a less restrictive treaty in Geneva soon.
Arms campaigners say the draft proposal would effectively legalise almost all cluster bombs and be a nail in the coffin of the hard-won cluster bomb ban, which is all but two years old. Austria, Norway and Mexico are leading a counter proposal, which would ban all cluster bombs in line with the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

Peers and cross-party MPs met Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, to express their concerns. The Labour MP Martin Caton is planning to hold an adjournment debate in Parliament tonight on the issue.
"The Government's view appears to be that it is better to get America, China and Russia to sign up to something, rather than nothing," Mr Caton said. "But if this goes ahead, it will give the green light to some of the worst cluster munitions in these countries' arsenals."

Conservative MP Pauline Latham added: "The UK's role in securing an international ban on cluster bombs in 2008 showed the best of what Britain can do in the world. We must not allow this ban to be undermined by pressure from nations that are not ready to abandon illegal and indiscriminate weapons."
In a briefing paper, the Cluster Munition Coalition -- which campaigns against the weapons -- said that every recorded incident of cluster bomb use since 2008 had involved submunitions that were manufactured after 1980.
Amy Little, campaign manager at the organisation, said: "We fail to see why countries are negotiating a dangerous piece of law when a treaty banning cluster munitions already exists."

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Lebanon and Libya:

If the Washington-led plans are accepted in Geneva soon, both the Israeli-made M85 cluster bombs and Spanish built MAT-120 mortar rounds would be permissible.
The M85 -- used by British forces in Basra -- has been singled out as a particularly pernicious cluster round. Billed as one of the most advanced submunitions on the market, its manufacturers claim it has a 1 % failure rate in tests. But a study of southern Lebanon by Norwegian experts, where 4 mm primarily M85 bomblets were dropped in the last few days of Israel's war against Hezbollah suggests the failure rate is closer to 10 %.

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