Targeted policies by Norway against investments in cluster-munitions companies and a new law in Belgium that prohibits financial institutions from offering credit or services to cluster-munition manufacturers are expected to bring similar steps by more governments and corporations, arms-control diplomats and specialists say.
These efforts are likely to gather momentum in Canada, the Netherlands, and other countries as advocacy groups intensify efforts to end the use of such weapons, most of whose victims for years after the cessation of hostilities are overwhelmingly civilians, studies show.
Cluster munitions are shells that are designed to come apart near ground level and disperse many smaller “bomblets” over a large area. Usually they are dropped by planes, and most often are intended for use against enemy infantry.
“Civilians are almost the sole victims of cluster munitions [and account for] 98 percent of casualties,” said a report issued Wednesday by Handicap International (HI), an advocacy group that examined the effect of such weapons in 25 countries and regions.
The report by HI, co-recipient of 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, estimated that casualties from cluster munitions were as high as 4,132 in Afghanistan; 2,989 in Iraq; 587 in Lebanon as of last month; and 4,000 in Laos, where 52.9 million cluster bomblets expended there by U.S. and allied forces during the Vietnam War fell near villages.
Altogether, Handicap International estimates that more than 440 million cluster bomblets have been used in the past 42 years and believes the number of casualties worldwide could be as high as 100,000. HI also says 400 million people living in affected areas are at risk from unexploded cluster bomblets.
Officials from 70 countries are to meet Wednesday through Friday in Lima, Peru, to advance international talks begun three months ago in Oslo to try to draft a global treaty next year banning certain cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
The Lima talks are intended to increase the momentum and define what a future treaty should contain, which cluster munitions to prohibit and how to prevent further proliferation, and to create a framework of how to provide aid to victims, clear contaminated land and destroy stockpiles, said Norwegian Ambassador Steffen Kongstad.
Patricia Lewis, a British nuclear physicist and arms-control specialists who heads the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), told reporters that the process begun in Norway “is raising the standard for international negotiations.”
She said the talks on cluster munitions and other recent arms-control initiatives, are putting the spotlight “on the moral and humanitarian aspects of their use.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, like his predecessor, Kofi Annan, and United Nations humanitarian agencies support the Oslo process to conclude a treaty on cluster munitions, according to U.N. diplomats.
“We hope [the diplomatic efforts] lead to a strong treaty to ban cluster munitions,” said Stan Brabant, chief for international policy at Handicap International.
The United States does not favor a new treaty but seeks technical improvements to enhance the accuracy of the weapons — which is opposed by some other major powers such as China, because of cost — and recognizes the humanitarian problems caused by use of cluster munitions, arms control, analysts said.