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ICRC demands urgent action on cluster bombs

Calls are becoming louder for a ban on cluster bombs

(Keystone)

The all-Swiss International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Monday for immediate global action to put an end to the use of cluster bombs.

The Geneva-based organisation is urging states to take a catalogue of measures at a conference that opens in the western Swiss city on Tuesday.

These include an immediate end to the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and the elimination of their stocks, and a ban on using cluster munitions against military targets in populated areas.

The ICRC said it would call for a conference of experts next year to discuss a possible new global pact on the weapons.

In Switzerland, parliament is due to discuss the ban on the weapons after an initiative put forward last year by a member of the House of Representatives, John Dupraz. The Swiss army has 200,000 such weapons systems.

Philip Spoerri, the ICRC's director of international law, said countries needed urgently to address the bombs, which are still killing or injuring Lebanese civilians every week.

Israel dropped an estimated four million cluster bombs on the country during fighting in July and August.

"It is simply unacceptable that [civilians] should return to homes and fields littered with explosive debris," Spoerri said.

Worst offenders

"Cluster munitions are often the worst offenders given the massive numbers in which they are used, their area-wide effects and their well-known problems of accuracy and reliability."

Cluster bomblets or submunitions are packed into artillery shells or bombs dropped from aircraft. A single cluster-bomb canister fired to destroy airfields or tanks and soldiers typically scatters some 200 to 600 of the bomblets over an area the size of a football field.

Usually ten to 15 per cent but in some cases up to 80 per cent of the bomblets fail to explode immediately.

Those that do not explode right away can be detonated later by the slightest disturbance, experts say.

Spoerri noted that unexploded ordnance also make relief and reconstruction efforts much more difficult by contaminating farmland and destroying local food production.

The ICRC's campaign concerns all "inaccurate and unreliable" cluster munitions - the vast majority of the bombs which also have killed innocent civilians during and after conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Laos.

Neutral

The neutral agency previously called for a ban on the weapons being used in cities and villages after the 1999 Nato air war against Serbia over the separatist province of Kosovo.

But its initiative to make countries responsible for cleaning up failed munitions has only been ratified by about 20 governments, and not by Israel or the United
States.

The Red Cross said this month's meeting of countries that have signed the 1980 United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons provided an opportunity to address the issue of the bombs.

The current treaty and its 2003 protocol on "explosive remnants of war" do not contain any specific restrictions on cluster munitions or requirements to reduce their failure rate.

Although a number of states have begun reviewing their policies on the use of cluster munitions, there has not been an effective international response, the ICRC said.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

A report last week by the campaign group Handicap International said civilians comprised 98 per cent of cluster bomb victims, and a third of the casualties were children.

The organisation said that cluster bombs - weapons that release several hundred smaller bomblets when fired - pose an unacceptable danger to civilians both during and long after a conflict.

The study said cluster bombs had killed about 3,800 people and injured 5,500 more in 24 countries. Unofficial estimates put the real number of victims at 100,000, the Brussels group said.

It added that these bomblets often fail to explode as they are spread over an area at least the size of several football pitches, creating a highly lethal "footprint".

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Key facts

Cluster munitions are shells dropped from the air or launched from the ground that eject some 200 to 600 small submunitions - bomblets.
Their primary purpose is to kill enemy infantry, although specialised weapons designed for anti-runway, anti-armour and mine-scattering purposes have also been developed.
The Review Conference of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons takes place from November 7 to 17 in Geneva.

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