A new treaty to ban cluster bombs worldwide has been agreed last week in Dublin. It represents the most significant advance in the field of humanitarian and disarmament affairs since the achievement of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Latin American and the Caribbean countries want to form a clear zone. But three of them don’t agree, and landmines still lie under the continent’s soil.
Cluster bombs are weapons that release up to several hundreds of submunitions when deployed from the air. These ‘bomblets’, also called grenades when thrown from the ground, have two major humanitarian impacts: Firstly, because they have a widespread dispersal, they can’t distinguish military from civilian targets. Secondly, many submunitions fail to detonate on impact and become antipersonnel mines, killing and injuring people long after the end of the conflict.
13,000 people killed
Playing children, farmers, working women: submunitions have killed at least 13,000 people in the world so far, according to the United Nations Development Program. And 500,000 survivors, often missing an arm or a leg and needing life-long support, have been identified. But statistics are to be handled with care, as many survivors and diseased are not officially registered.
Three quarters of the victims are civilian, according to the Landmine Monitor Report. And in 2006, a third of the people who accidentally stepped on a bomb were children, often eager to play in fields.
“A total 9,192 victims have been estimated in Colombia, Ecuador, Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru,” says Wanda Munoz from Handicap International, a non-profit organisation that helps victims all over the world. “But this only shows the tip of the iceberg as most countries don’t have solid statistics on the matter.”
Groundbreaking new treaty
From Princess Diana’s commitment, to Miss Landmines’ beauty contests, a lot has been done to enhance global awareness on the effects of landmines and cluster bombs.
In 1997, the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty was signed, and has since been ratified by 158 countries, including all of Latin America, with the exception of Cuba. The treaty set out to ban the use of antipersonnel landmines (placed under the ground or other surfaces and designed to explode by the contact of a person), destroy all stockpiles and clear affected territories.
But Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon in August 2006 resulted in more than 200 civilian casualties in the year following the ceasefire, and served as the catalyst that has propelled governments to attempt to secure a legally-binding international instrument tackling cluster munitions.
The new treaty elaborated last week will be opened to signatures in Oslo in December. It will see the majority of the world’s stockpilers, producers and past users of cluster bombs enforce a categorical ban. All types of existing cluster munitions must be destroyed within eight years. No transition period and no exceptions are allowed.
This agreement not only bans the weapons in over 100 countries, but also means the signatories will provide support to affected communities and clear contaminated land.
“The accomplishment of this treaty has exceeded all expectations”, reported the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), a group of 250 NGOs that has been campaigning worldwide to ban these munitions.
The majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries are keen to ban these weapons by the end of 2008 and form a cluster munition free zone. Argentina, for example, a former producer of cluster bombs, has destroyed its stockpile and renounced future production.
But, as CMC underlines, three countries still consider cluster bombs a necessity and have not agreed to the new treaty: Colombia, Brazil and Cuba.
As a result of 40 years of internal conflict, Colombia is considered to be the country most affected by landmines and explosive remnants of war in the Americas. Yet it has also refused to ban cluster munitions.
According to the Landmine Monitor Report: “Mines laid by the military are found around their installations. Antipersonnel mines and anti-vehicle mines laid by non-state armed groups are found along routes used by government forces, in rural areas, around schools, houses, national parks, indigenous communities’ land, and illicit drug cultivation sites.”
“The air force has been playing a key role in the action against the Farc lately and it’s improbable the Ministry of Defence will think about banning cluster bombs,” states Alvaro Jimenez Millán, national coordinator for the Colombian Campaign Against Mines. “This is why Colombia only took part in the meetings as an observer.”
He claims the country is also the only one on the continent in which landmines are used daily: “Although the government has signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the daily use of these weapons make it difficult to fulfil its commitment.”
So even if Colombia was to sign up to the treaty banning cluster bombs, it would be problematic as it wouldn’t stop the non-governmental rebel groups to use them if they wanted to.
Brazil, the region’s producer and stockpiler of cluster munitions, is not keen to get rid of them either.
“According to the government, the harm caused by cluster munitions depends on where they are used,” says Cristian Wittman from the Brazilian Campaign Against Landmines. “If they are dropped in a non-populated area, they wouldn’t go against any humanitarian law. The government therefore is only open to discuss restrictions on use.”
Cuba, the sole Latin American non-signatory to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also refuses to stop using the munitions. However, in a 2003 declaration, the Cuban government said it would continue to use antipersonnel mines exclusively for the defence and security of the country. Minefields also remain around the US Naval Base at Guantanamo.
Although most Latin American countries have agreed to sign up to the treaty, most are still affected by landmines.
The areas are generally fenced and marked. All of the countries committed to get rid of them in 1997, but many keep postponing their deadline. The reason most often cited is that the mountainous or sandy landscapes make de-mining operations dangerous and costly.
Administered by the UK but claimed by Argentina, the Falklands/Malvinas also suffer from unexploded remnants of the 1982 war. Over 100 minefields are estimated by Britain’s Foreign Office and many beaches remain fenced.
“We have been working together with Argentina for the past few years to examine how to conduct a de-mining operation,” says a source from the British embassy in Buenos Aires. The task is made difficult due to the Falklands being an island with sandy soil. As a result the landmines have moved around and many are deeply buried. “A feasibility study was conducted in 2006 and we are now thinking on ways to proceed next to fulfil our commitment under the Mine Ban Treaty.”
Although some visitors to the islands buy skeleton head ‘Danger – Landmines’ plastic signboards in tourist shops as if the bombs belonged to the past, the subject is still a reality for thousands of past and future victims.
“I lost my arms and legs because of cluster bombs,” confides Branislav Kapetanovic, a survivor from Serbia. But he has great hope for the future: “This new treaty sets the highest standard to date for victim assistance and will make a real difference to affected people and communities around the world.”