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Stop the use of the weapons affecting civilians hardest

Henriette Killi Westhrin, Secretary General, Norwegian People´s Aid. Photo: Eirik Sundt.

10 years ago in Oslo, 46 States and civil society organisations agreed to work together to end the unacceptable harm caused by cluster munitions, a process that resulted in the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Now, it’s time for States to demonstrate leadership to end the use of explosive weapons killing civilians and destroying hospitals, schools, cities, and other civilian areas. 

On 23 February 2007, 46 states, encouraged by civil society and the International Committee of the Red Cross, agreed to the Oslo-Declaration, a brief document outlining a road map to ban cluster munitions causing unacceptable humanitarian harm. In May 2008, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, banning all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions was adopted in Dublin, and since then a majority of States have joined this Convention.

When the process started, cluster munitions were in stock among most modern militaries, and quite commonly in use. When Israel fired some 4 million cluster bomblets against Lebanon over one weekend in 2006, it could brush off the massive international criticism by stating that cluster munitions were not a prohibited category and that they respected International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Now, ten years later, the picture is completely different. The Convention has stigmatised cluster munitions as a category. The weapons are still in use, but in a very limited way compared to before the Convention. In those limited instances, including Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, the States alleged to be the users, such as Russia, Syria and Saudi-Arabia, deny this categorically. Other States that for different reasons have not joined the Convention have stopped using cluster munitions, as the political price for being named as a user, is to high.  The USA was vocally against the Convention, but in practice they respect the norm against use, just as they respect the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention. This demonstrates that international efforts to strengthen norms and rules protecting civilians in armed conflict are effective and meaningful. However, in spite of these success stories, we see how civilians increasingly become victims of current armed conflict, in particular as a result of the use of other categories of explosive weapons.

Cluster munitions were prohibited for two reasons, high failure rates creating explosive hazards for civilians’ decades after use, and wide area effects during use. The wide area effects made them into inherently indiscriminate weapons, violating the IHL-rule that obligates parties to distinguish between combatants and civilians. When States agreed the prohibition against cluster munitions they also accepted the principle that explosive weapons with wide areas effects cause unacceptable humanitarian harm and that existing IHL rules were not sufficient to hinder such harm.

There has been a worrying trend over recent years with an increasing number of civilians are killed and injured by explosive weapons, in particular in populated areas. In Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Iraq, all parties use explosive weapons in populated areas. City centres, hospitals, schools, and refugee camps are shelled with artillery and missiles, and bombed from the air. Armed non-state groups such as Islamic State (IS) use improvised car bombs, suicide bombers, and booby-traps in large numbers. In all instances, civilians bear the costs, either consciously, or as an unintended consequence – so-called collateral damage. In both 2015 and 2016 more than 40,000 civilians were killed or injured by explosive weapons, and as always, they pay the highest price in armed conflict.

Use of explosive weapons also causes massive damage to critical civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, housing, markets, work places, and water and energy systems, with significant short-and long-term consequences.

Use of explosive weapons is also an important factor in increasing flows of refugees from war-zones. When the destruction of houses, schools, and hospitals are added to the real fear for one’s own life that shelling and bombing causes, the decision to leave increasingly makes sense. The destruction also affects the prospects for reconstruction, return, and peacebuilding.   

Too many civilians watch their communities being laid in ruins by explosive weapons, and we all have a global responsibility to find solutions to this growing humanitarian problem. This will not be easy, as it is not one single type of weapon causing this problem, but a combination of several types of weapons and means of warfare. It’s not made easier by the fact that armed non-state groups, with scant respect for international norms, are responsible for a significant part of this use.

In 2007, bold States came together with humanitarian actors and civil society activists to address the harm caused by cluster munitions. Now it’s time to step up the efforts to end the harm caused by use of explosive weapons in populated areas, to stop bombing civilians, schools, cities, and hospitals. The 10 year anniversary of the start of the process that resulted in the ban on cluster munitions is a good opportunity to start this work.

Norwegian People´s Aid has worked for 25 years to protect civilians from explosive weapons through mine action, support to communities chronically exposed to shelling and bombing, and by working to strengthen international law protecting civilians in armed conflict. We are ready to support all serious efforts aimed at stopping the destruction of life, health, homes, schools, and hospitals caused by use of explosive weapons.  

23.02.2017 | By Henriette Killi Westhrin, Secretary General, Norwegian People´s Aid.