By Sylvie Brigot-Vilain, ICBL-CMC Governance Board member
In 2008, the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in Dublin, under the relieved and cheerful applause of states delegations, civil society, UN agencies and the Red Cross. “We made history” said Soraj Ghulam Habib, a young cluster munition survivor from Afghanistan to Jonas Gahr Støre, then Norwegian Foreign Minister. And yes, we did, but…. in our unstable, violent and ever changing world, where the protection of civilians seems to be the last concern of too many warring parties (and of those who support them), the Convention needs much more support to firmly anchor the norm against cluster munitions in modern warfare.
The Convention entered into force in 2010, and has now been joined by 116 States. As the Security Council of the United Nations said, in one official document about Sudan “the use of cluster munitions is now generally accepted to be in violation of the principles of IHL”*.
All states that have used the weapon since the CCM entered into force, have generally started by denying it, despite not having joined the CCM. So clearly, the Convention has established a new norm against the use of cluster munitions because of its unacceptable consequences on civilians, at the time of use and in the long term.
Yet, this norm is under attack. Since September 2014, Human Rights Watch, a member of the Cluster Munition Coalition, has collected substantial evidences of new use of cluster munitions in five countries — Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen; by states and non-state armed groups. None of these states have joined the CCM. HRW has also documented the impact on civilians in these countries, like the story of this nurse from Al-Jumhouri hospital in Saada City who told them that “on April 29 four injured people, three men and one 10-year-old boy, had arrived at the hospital. The nurse said he remembered the patients because they told him that they had been wounded when ‘bombs that looked like toys’ exploded when they picked them up from the ground. Three of the wounded, including the child, had the same last name, indicating that they were family members.”
In all of these five countries, civilians already bear the heavy brunt of months or years of deadly and bloody conflicts, often caught in the middle of fights with no way to escape, or as direct targets of soldiers. Why do states, or other warring parties need to add to these suffering by using these indiscriminate weapons, which will in addition also impact communities when peace has come back?
As the UN Security Council Panel recalled there is a general acceptance that the use of cluster munitions is in violation of the principles of IHL. The norm exists and it is strong. The Convention on Cluster Munitions established it. But it needs to be upheld, and defended to continue serving its core purpose of protecting civilians from at least one of the scourge they face in war times.
It is the responsibility of the States Parties to the CCM to be its guardian, and the guardian of the norm it establishes.
As wars increasingly involve more diverse actors and impact civilians in unprecedented way, more decisive actions need to be taken to protect them. Speaking out against cluster munitions now and joining the CCM are two of them.
* Letter dated 7 February 2014 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005) concerning the Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council