South Africa will destroy its remaining stock of cluster bombs in order to underline its support for a new United Nations-sponsored treaty that formally renounces the use of cluster bombs.
The treaty was signed by Defence Minister Charles Nqakula in Oslo, Norway, yesterday along with representatives from about 100 countries.
“It gives me great pleasure to be able to participate in this signing ceremony,” Nqakula said. “We have not only actively participated in the Oslo Process [that led to this treaty] since February last year, but we are also satisfied with the result, which has culminated in the signing of the Convention on Cluster Munitions here in Oslo…”
He says when the States Parties to the Certain Conventional Weapons failed to agree to a mandate to negotiate an international, legally binding instrument on cluster munitions in 2006, “there were not many who actually believed that we would gather here in Oslo two years later. Thanks to our collective efforts, led amongst others by our hosts, Norway, we are here this week to sign this groundbreaking international treaty.
“In doing so, we recognise that this landmark humanitarian disarmament instrument sets a new standard in our collective commitment to the principles of international humanitarian law and South Africa is fully committed to the Convention`s full implementation.
“As a country that used to produce and stockpile cluster munitions that have an area wide effect, we have come to the belief that these weapons have not only become obsolete as weapons of modern warfare, but that their recent use in conflicts have shown them to cause unacceptable harm to civilians, long after the cessation of active hostilities.
“South Africa has in its stocks a relatively small stockpile of outdated cluster munitions. I wish to announce here today that these munitions have been earmarked for destruction,” Nqakula says.
“Importantly, this Convention contains pioneering provisions on victim assistance, a crucial humanitarian assistance provision that sets a new standard on the responsibilities of States in dealing with cluster munitions victims and their dependants.
“I am also pleased to note the wide degree of support that the Convention on Cluster Munitions has received amongst States in general during the Oslo Process, particularly the huge endorsement from most African States.
South Africa comes here to Oslo inspired by the “Kampala Action Plan”, adopted by the 42 African States that met in the Ugandan capital two months ago. All of our States present there made an undertaking to ratify this Convention as soon as possible and I can assure you that South Africa will commence its ratification process as a matter of priority.
As a continent that has been ravaged by wars, often fuelled by weapons produced elsewhere in the world, it is my hope that we will one day soon be able to call Africa a truly cluster munitions-free continent.
“By signing this Convention in increasing numbers as we have begun to do this week, we will succeed in rendering cluster munitions obsolete as weapons of war. By doing so, we will be able to stigmatise their use to the extent where we will be able to reflect on what we had set out to do in February last year.
“Then, back here in Oslo, South Africa was one of the 46 States that agreed to negotiate a Convention that prohibits cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.”
First used in World War II, cluster munitions contain dozens of smaller explosives designed to disperse over an area the size of several soccer fields, but often fail to detonate upon impact, creating large de facto minefields.
The UN says this failure rate makes these weapons particularly dangerous for civilians, who continue to be maimed or killed for years after conflicts end. Some 98% of victims are civilians and cluster bombs have claimed over 10 000 civilian lives, 40% of whom are children.
In his message to the signing conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all governments to sign and ratify the Convention without delay, adding that the Convention indicates a significant and fundamental change in the position of many governments.
“The importance of this shift cannot be overemphasized,” Ban said in a message read by Sergio Duarte, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs.
“A great number of governments present here today, some with considerable defence and peacekeeping responsibilities, have concluded that their policies were not in full concurrence with their international obligations and could jeopardize recovery and development efforts,” he added.
Adopted at a diplomatic conference in Dublin this May, the Convention on Cluster Munitions offers an unprecedented prohibition on the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of these weapons, representing the most significant humanitarian and disarmament treaty of the decade.
In addition to claiming casualties, cluster munitions contaminate arable land, kill livestock and destroy shelters, presenting ongoing barriers to economic recovery and development, according to a press release issued by the UN Development Programme.
In Laos, for example, clearance operations are still ongoing more than 30 years after conflict left 75 million unexploded cluster bomblets across the country.
In Lebanon, cluster munitions were dropped on more than 48 million square metres of land in July and August 2006, killing and injuring over 300 civilians.
The UNDP noted that it is the first successfully negotiated international treaty to ban an entire category of conventional weapons and is a significant strengthening of international humanitarian law. By contrast the Ottawa landmine treaty only outlawed antipersonnel landmines.
Among the other signatories is Britain and 17 other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member states. As well as destroying its own stocks, the British government has also announced that US forces will be asked to remove cluster bombs from bases in the UK. Oxfam spokesman Richard Moyes says the humanitarian agency applauds the decision. “It would be hypocritical for the UK Government to ban cluster bombs but continue to allow others to stockpile and deploy them from bases on UK soil.”
The US and some other major past users of cluster munitions have declined to sign the treaty at this time.
Landmine Action Chief Executive Seb Taylor says even so “both practically and morally it is going to be far harder for any country to use these weapons.”