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To Have an Impact, a Ban on Cluster Bombs Must Be Absolute

A kind of miracle will take place May 19: The representatives of more than 100 countries will gather in Dublin to finish their negotiation of a treaty banning — banning! — the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs.

This treaty process, called the Oslo Process, began last year when Norway invited countries serious about abolishing cluster munitions to work outside the glacially-paced Convention on Conventional Weapons. But as they have move speedily toward their goal, the Bush administration and others have continued to try to wreck it with exceptions.

Cluster bombs are exceedingly nasty weapons. They are indiscriminate killers when used as directed.

They are designed to spew up to hundreds or thousands of bomblets over areas the size of a football field; large percentages of bomblets do not explode upon impact, but instead lie where they land until a kid, say, goes to pick it up and gets her arm blown off. Ninety-eight percent of the victims of cluster bombs are civilians, according to Handicap International, a British advocacy and relief organization.

Banning cluster bombs is the unfinished business of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign to ban landmines, which is credited with the comprehensive 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, so far ratified by 156 countries. Since that treaty entered into force, use of landmines has all but disappeared, even among the non-signers of the treaty (the Clinton administration refused to sign it and so does President Bush).

Only two countries have used landmines in the past few years: Burma and Russia. The United States has not used them since the Gulf War in 1991, nor Israel since it withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Trafficking in landmines has virtually disappeared, and most countries, including Israel, say they will eventually join the treaty.

What accounts for this success? Having Princess Diana as a champion didn’t hurt. More important, though, is this: Its advocates preferred no treaty at all to a bad one. They were out for an all-inclusive ban, rather than an exception-ridden regulatory scheme.

Most of the members of the Oslo Process are now going for the same thing. At a preliminary meeting in February in New Zealand, they successfully resisted the attempts of some fellow members to weigh the treaty down with exceptions, such as full exemption for certain kinds of cluster munitions — though experts say there is no such thing as one that does not murder and maim civilians — and long delays before any ban kicks in.

The United Kingdom, carrying the water of the United States — which has been officially absent from the process but has arm-twisted behind the scenes — is demanding an exception, one big enough to drive a Stryker vehicle through, that would allow signers to conduct “joint military operations” with non-signers who use banned clusters. The concept is called by the euphemism “interoperability,” but it should be called “NATO.” Countries who want an authentic ban have refused — so far — to give in to American pressure.

The current negotiations over clusters are really about whether we’ll emerge with an absolute ban comparable to the one on landmines, or whether we’ll have merely a hyped-up regulatory regime. If it’s the latter, then the debate will be about how the weapon is used, rather than whether it is used. Only an absolute ban has the possibility of producing a strong deterrent effect on signers and non-signers alike. (Recall that Israel, which used clusters in the closing days of the 2006 war with Hezbollah, claimed that it had used no weapon banned by international treaty. The ban contemplated by the Oslo Process would take away that defense.)

But can a treaty be meaningful if the United States, China and Russia, substantial producers and stockpilers, are not on board? Some Oslo Process participants are already talking about balancing the need to forge a strong treaty with the need to bring as many countries on board as possible.

The landmines movement teaches a different lesson: The integrity of the treaty matters most. If the bar is set low to appeal to certain nations, those nations will inevitably drag the bar down lower still. If the bar is set high, it is likely that most nations will, over time, rise to that level and embrace it.

Some folks may cling to their weapons, but a large chunk of the world is ready to give this one up. The United States should not stand in their way.

Kathleen Peratis, a partner at the New York law firm Outten & Golden, is a board member emerita of Human Rights Watch.

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