Four years of bargaining over cluster munitions have failed—despite a drive by America, backed by Russia and China, to promote a deal that would have curbed but not banned the devices. Cluster weapons are a prime target for arms-control campaigners because of their indiscriminate effect. Such bombs or shells typically scatter hundreds of smaller submunitions over an area the size of a football pitch. When they work, they blast the enemy from the battlefield. But not every bomblet explodes. Those that remain menace civilians for decades, maiming, killing and blighting livelihoods. Children suffer most. Yet for most of the past decade, the big users and producers, the self-styled “key states”, have refused to consider any curb on their freedom to use the weapon. For years that stymied attempts to add a protocol on cluster munitions to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
A turning point came in 2006 amid outrage over Israel’s use of cluster weapons in Lebanon. Frustration over the paralysis of the UN process prompted Norway, backed by campaigners, to launch talks on a separate treaty to ban the weapons. By 2008, some 94 countries, including most NATO members, had signed a convention in Oslo that comprehensively banned the production, use, stockpiling or sale and transfer of all cluster munitions. Since then the number of signatories has climbed to 109.
That progress set the wheels turning in the UN talks. The big users and producers made what would once have counted as big concessions: one was a ban on use of the cruder cluster munitions made before 1980. These are the most likely to fail, leaving deadly unexploded bomblets. In another gesture, the big states backed new rules on reporting the size of stockpiles. Their draft would at least have regulated the cluster munitions held by countries never likely to sign the Oslo agreement—in other words more than 85% of world stocks. It would also have led to the destruction of far more devices than the Oslo deal ever could. To counter the contention that its proposal was a step backwards, America inserted language that allowed for the possibility of higher standards being imposed in future.
But those arguments did not impress. The 50-plus countries that opposed the draft protocol, and the campaigners who egged them on, complained that the text still allowed the use of cluster munitions known to cause unacceptable harm. The International Committee of the Red Cross said the American proposal would simply stimulate the development of devices that met the new standards but might still be lethally unreliable; and backsliding from the Oslo rules would set a bad precedent.
The big countries were cross. America (which has argued that a total ban on cluster munitions would make life impossible for NATO) expressed “deep disappointment”. Russia grumbled that opponents were “irrational” and China said they would bear indirect responsibility for future cluster-bomb casualties. Whatever their public stance, some smaller countries that rather like cluster munitions may be privately rejoicing over the talks’ failure.
The failure also exemplifies the declining clout of the big powers. Delegates in Geneva stressed that in multilateral talks, every country has a vote: mighty states must not count on cajoling weaker ones. And all sides said the process was complicated by the scrutiny of do-gooding outfits. Startled delegates found their interventions relayed to the world by Twitter even before they had finished speaking. Such transparency, some warn, reduces the room for diplomatic manoeuvre. In talks where the best is often the enemy of the good, this lack of flexibility can cause harm.
Few see much prospect of the CCW returning to cluster bombs in the foreseeable future. Before that happens, the chances are that stray bomblets will ruin or end a lot more innocent lives.
Arms control: Dead munitions, Economist, Dec. 3, 2011, at 74