A cluster munition is a weapon comprised of a container that is fired, launched or dropped by aircraft or land-based artillery and disperses large numbers (often hundreds) of unguided submunitions or bomblets.
Cluster munitions pose dangers to civilians for two principal reasons: 1) Impact at time of use: The weapon cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians so its humanitarian impact can be extreme when it is used in or near populated areas; and 2) Legacy: Because so many bomblets fail to detonate when dispersed, they become de facto antipersonnel mines, killing and maiming people long after the conflict has ended.
During the 2003 Iraq air war, cluster munitions dropped by UK and US forces caused more civilian casualties than any other weapon system, apart from small arms fire. In August 2006, Israel deployed 90 percent of its cluster bomb strikes in the final 72 hours of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, when it knew there would be a resolution to the conflict. This created more than one million unexploded cluster munition duds and prompted an unprecedented multilateral response to tackle this deadly weapon.
After a November 2006 meeting of the UN Geneva-based Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) again failed to meaningfully address cluster munitions, Norway invited concerned states to come to Oslo to discuss how to address clusters through a new diplomatic process. Nearly all (46) of the 49 governments present at the February 2007 meeting agreed to an “ Oslo Declaration” committing them to conclude, by the end of 2008, a legally binding international instrument to:
1. Prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians; and
2. Establish a framework for cooperation and assistance to survivors of cluster munitions and their communities, as well as clearance of contaminated areas.
The Oslo Declaration kicked off what has become known as the ‘Oslo Process’ aimed at securing the treaty objective. A ‘Core Group’ of six governments (Austria, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway and Peru) steering the Process convened a series of global meetings to build political support for the treaty, including in Wellington (18-22 February 2008).
After ten tense days of negotiations in Dublin, Ireland (19-30 May 2008), a total of 107 governments adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This international treaty comprehensively bans the use, production, trade and stockpiling of cluster munitions. It also contains humanitarian provisions requiring clearance of cluster munition remnants within a ten-year period and assistance to victims of the weapon. The global Cluster Munition Coalition has welcomed the treaty, calling it the most significant advance in the field of disarmament since the creation of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.
On 3 December 2008, the new treaty was opened for signature in Oslo, Norway. New Zealand was among the first signatories. A total of 94 states signed the Convention in Oslo and the treaty can now be signed at the United Nations in New York.
In February 2009, the Convention attained the 30 ratifications necessary for it to take effect six months later. By the time that the Convention entered into force on 1 August 2010, a total of 108 governments had joined, of which 38–including New Zealand–had ratified.
The First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions was held in Vientiane, Lao PDR in November 2010, the second in Beirut, Lebanon in September 2011, the third in Oslo in September 2012, and the fourth in Lusaka, Zambia in Spetember 2013. Throughout, New Zealand has led the convention’s work on national implementation measures, including legislation.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions is a stunning example of what can be achieved in the field of humanitarian disarmament to protect civilians and New Zealand can be proud of the role that it played in creating it.