09 December 2008

Afghanistan Signs Cluster Bomb Treaty

By WALTER GIBBS and KIRK SEMPLE(Oslo, 4 December 2008) - In a last-minute change, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan agreed on Wednesday to join some 90 other nations signing a treaty banning the use of the cluster munitions that have devastated his country in recent years.The decision appeared to reflect Mr. Karzai's growing independence from the Bush administration, which has opposed the treaty and, according to a senior Afghan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity following diplomatic protocol, had urged Mr. Karzai not to sign it."Until this morning, Afghanistan was not going to be a signatory," said Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's ambassador to the Scandinavian countries and the leader of its delegation here. He said the president's change of heart came as a result of pressure by human rights organizations and cluster-bomb victims, including Soraj Ghulam Habib, a 17-year-old from the city of Herat who lost both legs when he accidentally stepped on an explosive cluster remnant seven years ago.Mr. Ludin's announcement was greeted by raucous cheers in Oslo's City Hall, where the signing ceremony began Wednesday after two years of diplomatic work by Norway. By the end of the day, more than 90 nations - including 18 of 26 NATO members - had signed the treaty, called the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bars adherents from using, producing, selling or stockpiling cluster munitions.Norway's foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, said he expected several more nations to sign on Thursday. Among them, however, will not be the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan or several Middle Eastern nations. But Mr. Gahr Stoere said universal compliance was not necessary for the cluster-bomb treaty to work."What we've adopted today is going to create profound change," he said. "If you use or stockpile cluster weapons after today, you will be breaking a new international norm."Whether dropped from aircraft or fired from artillery, cluster bombs can scatter dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosives across an area the size of a football field. Some bomblets fail to explode upon hitting the ground and, like land mines, can remain a deadly hazard to children, farmers and others long after a conflict ends."This is the weapon that just can't stop killing," said Thomas Nash, the coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition, a London-based group of organizations that would like to see cluster bombs outlawed. Campaigners said cluster bombs should follow mustard gas, land mines and hollow-point "dum-dum" bullets that expand on impact into a closed chapter of the history of warfare.Mr. Nash said Laos was the country most saturated with unexploded cluster munitions, including types that attract children because they look like "little baseballs." They are a legacy of the United States' bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Georgians, he said, face their own cleanup problem following what human rights groups say were cluster-bomb exchanges during the recent conflict with Russia.Israel fired significant numbers of cluster bombs into southern Lebanon during a monthlong conflict with Hezbollah in 2006. Afterward, United Nations peacekeepers reported unexploded munitions strewn across the landscape."Quite frankly, if Israel hadn't done that, we might not have a cluster treaty today," said Jody Williams, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for coordinating the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and has condemned cluster bombs with equal fervor.In recent months, Mr. Karzai has sharpened his public criticisms of the American mission in Afghanistan. He has spoken out against aerial bombings and other operations by the American-led forces in the country that have caused civilian casualties, offended cultural sensitivities and undermined popular support for the war that routed the Taliban in late 2001.While several Afghan officials interviewed Wednesday said that the United States did not publicly press the Afghans to reject the treaty, an official in the Karzai administration said that throughout the process that led to the treaty, the Americans made it clear "that they would prefer that Afghanistan stay out of it."Afghan officials said that the government had opposed the treaty for the past two years because of concern that it would hamper the fight against the insurgency.Mr. Ludin, the Afghan ambassador, said his country's reversal was made possible by an article in the treaty that permits signatory nations to engage in military operations with nonsignatory nations like the United States.The United States defended its decision not to sign the treaty. James F. Lawrence, director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement of the State Department, said cluster bombs were sometimes more humane than conventional bombs. As an example, he said that antennas on a roof could be taken out efficiently with a cluster bomb, without bringing the building down.In a June 2008 policy memo, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered all United States military services to gradually replace their least reliable cluster bombs. He said that by 2018 only munitions with a failure rate of less than 1 percent would be employed.The United States has not used any cluster bombs since 2003, said Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst for Human Right Watch, who was at the event in Oslo. A NATO policy banning the use of cluster munitions in Afghanistan has been in place since 2007.American officials said the United States would continue pursuing measured restrictions on the use of cluster bombs by trying to amend the 1980 United Nations convention on conventional weapons. The members of that treaty include Russia, China and most of the others that have refused to sign the Oslo treaty.The cluster munitions convention will not take effect until six months after 30 nations have officially ratified it - a milestone that Norwegian organizers said could be achieved by 2009. Signatories agree to destroy their stockpiles within eight years of the treaty taking effect. Each signer also promises to make "its best efforts to discourage" nontreaty countries from using the weapons.Walter Gibbs reported from Oslo, and Kirk Semple from Kabul, AfghanistanThe New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/04/world/04cluster.html?_r=2&hp