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Govt urged on bomb pact


Campaign pressures officials involved in shaping cluster munitions convention to sign agreement.

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

Roger Hess of Golden West inspects an M413 containing 14 cluster bombs at a work site in Kampong Chhnang province.

THE Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) launched a campaign last week to pressure Cambodian officials to sign a convention prohibiting the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions, which Cambodia opted not to sign last December despite playing an active role in its creation.

The use of cluster munitions, or bombs that scatter explosive submunitions across a wide area, has in recent years provoked widespread international condemnation because of the weapons' tendency to strike civilian populations and because many submunitions often remain unexploded long after the conclusion of armed conflict, according to a report released Friday that coincided with the launch of the campaign.

The report, produced by the NGOs Human Rights Watch and Landmine Action, notes that 96 countries had signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions as of April.

The convention first became open for signing in December 2008, following nearly two years of deliberations that were part of the Oslo Process, a diplomatic initiative spearheaded by Norway.

Following the February 2007 launch of the Oslo Process, Cambodia became the first country to endorse the Oslo Declaration, a commitment to "conclude in 2008 a new convention prohibiting cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians", according to the report.

Cambodia hosted a regional forum on cluster munitions in Phnom Penh in March 2007. On the eve of that meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An said, "Cambodia supports this Oslo appeal to ban cluster munitions which cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and will become an active participant in the process".

Despite active involvement in the international conferences and formal negotiations that followed, Cambodia opted not to sign the convention at the signing conference last December, a move that several members of the mine action community described in recent interviews as something of a surprise.

"It came as a bit of a surprise because Cambodia had been such a strong, staunch supporter in the Oslo Process," said Hugo Hotte, humanitarian mine action program manager for Handicap International Belgium. "We were all expecting Cambodia would sign."

Melissa Sabatier, mine action project manager for the UN Development Programme, said, "Given the global leadership Cambodia demonstrated throughout the Oslo process, the last-minute change was surprising to UNDP as well as to the international community."

At the signing conference, which Cambodia attended as an observer, Cambodia reiterated its commitment to the convention but said it would need to study the "impacts of the convention on its security capability and national defence" in light of "recent security developments".

Sabatier said the government "has not formally communicated any change" in position since the signing conference.  

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that the government "needs more time" to assess the convention's potential effects on Cambodia.

He said the government had not yet signed the convention because "the military situation along the border [with Thailand] remains not good".

He also said officials wanted more time to determine which weapons fall under the ban.

"We do not yet fully understand this because there are many kinds of cluster bombs," he said, adding that the Ministry of Defence and government lawyers were looking into the specific terms of the convention.

The report states that Cambodia "is not believed to have used, produced or transferred cluster munitions", adding, "It is not known whether Cambodia has a stockpile of the weapon". Defence Ministry officials could not be reached for comment Sunday.

Khieu Kanharith added, "Anyway, we are not the country producing [cluster bombs], so it is not a problem if we are one or two years late".

As part of the campaign targeting government officials, individuals will be encouraged to send letters via the CMC website urging officials to sign the convention. A CMC press release notes that the campaign will also involve meetings with "leaders, parliamentarians and diplomats to hammer home the ban message". In addition to Cambodia, the campaign will focus on four other non-signatories: Brazil, Iraq, Nigeria and Serbia.

Decades-old munitions

The report notes that Cambodia, along with Vietnam and Laos, endured the "most extensive and most sustained" use of cluster bombs, which came at the hands of the US between 1965 and 1975. Laos has signed the convention, while Vietnam has not.

Approximately 80,000 cluster munitions, containing 26 million submunitions - or "bombies" - were dropped on Cambodia between 1969 and 1973, according to a 2007 analysis of US bombing data by Handicap International.

Sabatier said surveys indicate that 30 percent of the bombs failed to go off, "leaving about 7 million bombies unexploded in the ground today".

There were 35 accidents involving cluster bombs in Cambodia between January 2005 and January 2009, resulting in 78 casualties, according to an analysis of Cambodian Mine/UXO Victim Information System data performed by Handicap International Belgium's Phnom Penh office.




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