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Survivors and activists hail cluster bomb ban

(This is a story I did for Reuters AlertNet and re-posting it here as the Convention comes into force today.)

By Thin Lei Win and Maria Caspani

BANGKOK/LONDON, July 30 (AlertNet) – Thoummy Silamphan was only eight when he lost his left hand to a cluster bomb in 1996. He was digging for bamboo shoots when his spade hit a metal object in a remote village in northern Laos.

“Before I knew what it was, I was already blown away,” Silamphan, now 22, told journalists in Bangkok, ahead of a landmark international ban on cluster bombs, which comes into force on Aug 1.

“The blast was so loud that villagers at nearby rice fields came to see me immediately, but I did not hear a thing because of the shock.”

The Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of a weapon which is blamed for maiming and killing tens of thousands of civilians.

“It is the most significant disarmament and humanitarian treaty in over a decade,” said the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), a network of 200 civil society organisations.

Cluster bombs are dropped from planes or fired by mortars. The canisters open in mid-air releasing bomblets that scatter over a wide area. Most explode immediately, but those that fail to detonate on impact can claim victims many years after the end of the conflict.

The United Kingdom, United States and Sudan are among the 15 or so countries which have used cluster bombs, while some 85 countries have stockpiled billions of the munitions, according to the CMC.

Activists and aid agencies hailed the speed with which countries had signed up to the convention, which only opened for signature in December 2008.

NEW STANDARD

The treaty requires signatories to destroy stockpiled cluster munitions within eight years, clear contaminated areas within 10 years and help affected communities and survivors such as Silamphan.

The provision of victim assistance, which includes physical rehabilitation, psychological support and socio-economic integration, sets “a new standard in international law”, said Lou Maresca, legal adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

So far 107 countries have signed the convention and 37 countries have ratified it. The first meeting of the state parties will be held in November in Laos – the most bombed state in the world.

CMC coordinator Thomas Nash, speaking by phone from Geneva, said much was already being done. “In Laos and Lebanon, every day people are already clearing cluster bombs, already providing support to survivors.

“Spain has completed the destruction of its stockpiles, as well as Norway and Moldova.”

But Nash said they needed to persuade more states to sign.

Countries which have been affected by cluster bombs, like Vietnam, Cambodia, Serbia and Tajikistan, could particularly benefit from joining the convention, he added.

MAJOR POWERS REFUSE TO SIGN

Glaring absences in the signatory list include the United States, India, China and Russia.

Maresca said history had shown that big military powers rarely sign up to new humanitarian laws immediately, but the treaty would still be effective even without the participation of these countries.

“We know from previous experience, for example the convention on the prohibition of anti-personnel mines, that the very existence of the treaty has nonetheless forced those military powers to alter their behaviour, to change their practice and the use of weapons,” he said.

As the treaty has gained support, the use of such weapons has become stigmatised.

“I would imagine the same will happen to cluster munitions,” he added. “Just the process of negotiating this treaty has forced the United States to change its national policy on cluster munitions.”

CHILDREN KILLED

More than two dozen countries have been affected by cluster bombs and activists say three out of five casualties occur during day-to-day activities. Many victims are children like Silamphan. Some are killed when they mistake the bomblets for playthings. The United Nations estimates almost half of casualties are from Laos.

Between 1964 and 1973, at the height of Vietnam War, the U.S. military dropped more than 2 million tons of explosive ordnance, including an estimated 260 million cluster munitions, mainly to disrupt enemy supply lines that passed through Laos.

It is thought that around 30 percent of bomblets failed to explode on impact, and over two-thirds of the country is still contaminated. Experts say they kill or injure about 300 people a year and the reality is that Laos will never be rid of cluster bombs.

Silamphan said it was difficult to motivate himself after the injury, but he has since graduated from college and is now working for a programme helping others injured by unexploded ordnance. He is optimistic the convention will make a difference.

“Survivors hope that the convention will ensure that more contaminated land gets cleared and especially that more survivors will receive assistance and support,” he said.