UN Humanitarian, Development and Human Rights Chiefs Call on States Not to Undermine the International Ban on Cluster Bombs

Nov 23, 2011

The following statement is issued on behalf of Valerie Amos, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, Helen Clark, UNDP Administrator, and Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In November 2003, a group of United Nations agencies and other organizations involved in humanitarian action called on States to immediately stop using cluster munitions pending the agreement of an international treaty that would address the appalling humanitarian and development consequences of this insidious weapon.

Cluster munitions rob civilians – ordinary men, women and children – of their lives, limbs and dignity.  They obstruct roads and poison fields, they threaten livelihoods, productivity, basic social services and access to property and vital infrastructure.

A cluster munition or cluster bomb is a container which can be fired from the air or from the ground.  The containers scatter explosive sub-munitions or “bomblets” over a wide area and can cause the immediate death and injury of civilians and damage to schools, houses and health facilities.  Worse still, the frequent failure of bomblets to detonate on impact leaves behind large numbers of unexploded and volatile sub-munitions.  This creates a serious hazard that endangers civilians, including returning refugees and displaced persons, aid workers and peacekeepers, for years or even decades after wars have ended. 

Children are at particular risk from unexploded bomblets as they are often attracted to their unusual, toy-like shapes and colours.  The majority of cluster munitions victims in Cambodia and Kosovo are children.  In Lebanon unexploded ordnance and unexploded sub-munitions, prevented the return of 200,000 people after the end of hostilities in 2006, while denying access to over a quarter of Lebanon’s arable land.  In the Lao PDR, 25 percent of the country’s land surface remains contaminated over 30 years after the use of cluster munitions.  Farmers, already under severe economic pressure, often have no choice but to risk their lives and return to their land, even though it has not been cleared.  In Libya, unexploded sub-munitions pose a threat to people returning to their homes in Misrata.

The good news is that eight years on, an effective international treaty now exists that addresses the deadly consequences of cluster munitions.  The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in 2008 and provides a comprehensive ban on the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions.  To date, 111 States have signed the Convention, with 66 ratifying it, meaning they are now legally bound to comply with it. 

A comprehensive ban is the only way to save lives – and protect humanitarian and development operations – from the indiscriminate and lasting effects of cluster munitions.  This is why we are extremely concerned by the ongoing efforts of States, currently meeting in Geneva, to agree a new treaty on cluster munitions in the form of a new protocol to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

The protocol that is being discussed will lower the standard set by the CCM and fail to address the well-documented humanitarian and development threats posed by cluster munitions.  If adopted, it will allow the indefinite use of cluster munitions produced after 1 January 1980 that meet certain technical requirements and that are prohibited by the CCM because of the unacceptable harm they pose to civilians.

Evidence-based research shows that despite technical fixes by manufacturers, the reliability of their weapons has not been improved: their ability to explode as intended or to self-destruct cannot be guaranteed.  In fact, as the technology has developed, so has the risk posed to civilians and clearance personnel by unexploded and very sensitive sub-munitions.

The adoption of a protocol to the CCW that contains such provisions would set a disturbing precedent in international humanitarian law. It would, for the first time, create a new international treaty that is actually weaker than existing international humanitarian law.

A comprehensive ban is the only way to spare civilians from the unacceptable harm posed by cluster munitions now and in the future. This ban exists already. We therefore urge those States that have not yet joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions to do so now! And for all States to refuse to adopt a protocol that weakens the existing ban on a highly dangerous weapon. 

Contact information

Mariana Gonzalez

OCHA Geneva
Elizabeth Byrs

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Rupert Colville, Spokesperson

UNDP Around the world