Cluster bombs: still sowing death, despite ban treaty
for Planet Next – www.planetnetx.net
Tensions between Thailand and Cambodia have been rekindled after the publication of a report released by Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), according to which the Thai Army used cluster munitions on Cambodian territory during the February 2011 conflict along the border near Preah Vihear temple. The report states that “Thai officials confirmed the use of cluster munitions in a meeting with the CMC on 5 April,” thus contradicting Thai Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, who in February had said that “Thai troops did not use cluster munitions during the clashes with Cambodian troops,” as was claimed at the time by Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen (http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/local/220845/sansern-no-cluster-bombs-were-used).
At the heart of the problem is the territorial dispute over the surrounding region itself. A joint commission in 1904 set the border between the two countries atop the Dangrek mountain range, where the temple is located. A subsequent map, drawn up in 1907, put Preah Vihear in Cambodia.
When Cambodia achieved independence from France in 1954, Thai forces occupied the temple. In response, Cambodia took its case to the International Court of Justice, which in 1962 gave the temple and roughly 1.8 square miles of nearby land back to Cambodia. Thailand claims an agreed-upon demarcation process has not yet been completed.
In the summer of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated the 11th-century Hindu temple a World Heritage site following a request from the Cambodian government. Since then the number of soldiers at the border has been increasing until a first clash occurred in October (2008).
Last February, a confrontation between the two armies claimed the lives of three Thai and five Cambodian soldiers, and according to local NGOs forced more than 25,000 people to flee their homes amid fears of further violence. Unconfirmed reports said that there were “more than 70 killed in Cambodia.” The temple itself was seriously damaged by artillery during the firefight on the border, the latest in a long series of sporadic skirmishes over the past three years.
After two separate on-site investigations conducted in February and April of this year in two Cambodian villages around the Preah Vihear temple hill, CMC members witnessed unexploded submunitions and fragmentation damage caused by cluster munitions. Further, Norwegian People’s Aid, one of the leading NGOs in the field of humanitarian mine action, confirmed that unexploded M42/M46 and M85 type DPICM submunitions have been found in the area.
Cluster bombs pose a particular threat to civilians for two reasons: they have a wide area of effect, and they have consistently left behind a large number of unexploded bomblets, remaining dangerous for decades after the end of a conflict.
Used for the first time in World War II by German and Soviet forces, cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, are weapons consisting of a container with dozens or hundreds of smaller bombs inside, which are called submunitions or bomblets. Since then, the USA have used massive numbers of cluster bombs in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.
More recently, cluster bombs were used extensively by US forces in the Gulf War (1990/91) and in Afghanistan since 2001; by the Russian army in the first and second Chechnya war–first in 1995, when Russian jet aircraft repeatedly bombed the Chechen town of Shali with cluster bombs, and then in 1999, when Russian air fighters dropped several cluster bombs on the apparently undefended mountain village of Elistanzhi. Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs in populated areas in Georgia in 2008, when both countries accused each other of military buildup near the separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Cluster bombs were used also in the former Yugoslavia, in 1999. In that occasion, US and British forces within the NATO coalition dropped 1,400 cluster bombs in Kosovo. US and UK armies also used cluster bombs during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Israel used cluster bombs in Lebanon in 1978, in the 1980s and again in 2006.
It was only in 2008 that the “Convention on Cluster Munitions” – an international treaty that prohibits the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs – was adopted in Dublin by 107 states and opened for signature on 3 December of the same year in Oslo. At the moment, the CCM is open for all Countries to sign at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
The Convention became binding international law for the States Parties when it entered into force on 1 August 2010. By 2011 a total of 108 states have joined the Convention, as States Parties (56) or Signatories (52). The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) also obliges the signatory countries to destroy their stockpiles of cluster munitions within eight years, to clear areas with duds from cluster munitions within ten years, and to provide assistance to victims.
The Kingdom of Cambodia adopted the Convention, but has not yet signed it. In Oslo the representatives of the Cambodian government refused to sign the Convention, arguing that it needed more time to study the “impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defense”, despite the fact that Cambodia was an early, prominent, and influential supporter of the Oslo Process that produced the convention. Shortly thereafter, a Cambodian government spokesperson said: “We are not under any pressure…as a non-producing country. Due to the fact that Thailand does not sign yet the treaty…we can delay a bit our adhesion to the treaty.”
In July 2009, a Council of Ministers official said that due to current border tensions with Thailand, Cambodia had to delay signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions. He added: “This does not mean that Cambodia has turned away from its promise. We will still sign on to this treaty…even though our two big neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, have refused to sign.” On 1 August 2010, as the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force internationally, Cambodian officials continued to insist that the government cannot join before first determining how it might affect the military.
The Kingdom of Thailand has neither acceded nor signed the Convention, like other countries such as Brazil, India, Israel, Pakistan, China, Russia, and the United States. In December 2008, Thailand stated that it had no intention of using cluster munitions or acquiring more of them in the future. According to Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor – an initiative providing research for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) – Thailand has continued to show interest in the convention, but the recent report seems to question Thai intentions.
“Thailand has been a leader in the global ban on antipersonnel mines, and it is unconscionable that it used banned weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians in a similar manner,” said Laura Cheeseman, director of the CMC. According to CMC, the Thai Ambassador to the UN in Geneva confirmed the use of cluster munitions “in self-defence”, using the principles of “necessity, proportionality and in compliance with the military code of conduct”. He alleged heavy use of rocket fire by Cambodian forces against civilian targets in Satisuk, in the Khun Khan district of Thailand.
Even though Cheeseman stated that “this conflict should spur both countries to take urgent action to denounce the weapons and join the ban treaty,” the reality is quite different. The conflict between the two ASEAN (Association of South East Asia Nations) members and neighbours has been escalating and there seems to be no end in sight. The use of cluster munition confirms that a long process and a serious dialogue between the two countries is needed and the mediation of the ten member Association could be a major step in that direction. But in the specific case of the use of cluster munitions ASEAN Secretariat should promote a ban among their members given that, apart from Laos, which is among the 56 States Parties, only Indonesia and the Philippines are among the signatories countries.
Picture – Unexploded M85 type cluster submunition, by Stéphane De Greef, Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor