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Balking at the cluster bomb ban

ADVOCATES for disarmament are declaring a “major milestone” after a global treaty banning the use of cluster bombs was ratified this week, meaning the long-awaited agreement covering the deadly weapons will take effect within six months.

But the news also casts a spotlight on Cambodia, which has so far held back from signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions despite having taken a leadership role in the international debate.

The convention was pushed forward Tuesday after a 30th country officially ratified the international agreement. It means that the treaty will enter into effect August 1, explicitly prohibiting all use of deadly cluster munitions and banning countries from producing, transferring or stockpiling the weapons.

Steve Goose, the arms division director at Human Rights Watch, said he was pleased by the “extraordinarily rapid pace” in which countries have supported the convention. “It shows the international community is unified in its conviction that this is a weapon that should not be used,” he said.

But Goose said he was “disappointed” that Cambodia and neighbouring Thailand still have not come on board.

“At the beginning of the diplomatic process, Cambodia was one of the more outspoken countries, saying that cluster munitions are like land mines,” Goose said. “They were one of the key spokespeople in trying to move the thing forward.”

However, Cambodia surprised observers when the convention was opened for countries to sign during a December 2008 meeting in Norway.

Though it declared “full support” for the convention, Cambodia was not among the more than 100 countries that signed on.

“Due to the recent security development, Cambodia now needs more time to study the impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defence,” Hor Nambora, Cambodia’s ambassador to the UK, said in a statement on December 4, 2008.

A Cambodian official said Wednesday that the government still intends to sign on to the convention “as soon as possible”.

“It’s the will of the government to sign,” said Prak Sokhon, secretary of state at the Council of Ministers and vice president of the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority. “We would like to send a clear message that Cambodia doesn’t want to have such kinds of bombs.”

Prak Sokhon downplayed suggestions that authorities were reluctant to dismantle its cluster munitions if neighbouring Thailand, which disarmament observers believe possesses the weapons, doesn’t follow suit.

“Vietnam and Thailand are not signatories of the cluster munitions convention. But even if those two countries do not sign, Cambodia is still willing,” said Prak Sokhon, who said authorities must also examine what it has to do to abide by the strict language of the convention before agreeing to its terms.

“Signing the cluster munitions convention right now will firstly affect our defence capacity, but at the same time it would put us in a very difficult situation,” he said.

In Southeast Asia, the only countries to sign on to the convention have been Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos, which is believed to be the most heavily contaminated country for cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions are seen as particularly controversial weapons because of the residual damage they leave behind. Like land mines, unexploded cluster munitions can lie dormant for years before being unearthed, causing severe injury and death years after they are deployed.

“Cluster munitions are huge bombs which contain about 1,000 small bomblets inside,” said Sister Denise Coghlan of Jesuit Refugee Service, who has worked extensively on anti-land mine campaigns. “What happens is that once you drop one, the bomblets are exploded over the area the size of a football field.

“The theory is that they all go off. They explode on impact, and there’s no further damage. But this is completely not true.”

Unexploded cluster munitions in Cambodia are primarily the result of the US military’s secretive Vietnam-era bombing campaign in the Kingdom between 1969 and 1973, according to a 2007 analysis by the group Handicap International.

Between 1.3 and 7.8 million bomblets remained unexploded, the report said.

Many of the bomblets still pose a risk, particularly to children who stumble upon the deadly weapons.

“Cluster munitions are deadly,” said Jamie Franklin, country programme manager for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which has two explosive-ordnance disposal teams working in the eastern part of the country where the munitions are concentrated.

The tennis ball-sized devices most commonly found in areas MAG covers are deadly, containing explosives surrounded by a shrapnel casings designed to explode, fragment and injure.

Their wide blast radius means a single piece of ordnance often results in multiple casualties.

“People still do get injured,” Franklin said. “Over the last few years, casualties from [unexploded ordnance] are about to take over land-mine casualties on an annual basis.”

Over a six-month period last year, a MAG team in Stung Treng reported that 90 percent of the ordnance it cleared were cluster munitions, Franklin said.

UXO remains a threat
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Wednesday that millions of Cambodian families remain threatened by land mines and unexploded ordnance, with 670 square kilometres still believed to be contaminated.

“Thousands of families are directly and indirectly exposed to the constant threats posed by the hazardous remnants of war,” Hun Sen said during a ceremony to receive demining equipment from the Japanese government.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA

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