Australia reneging on cluster mine ban?

Lack of action in ridding world of dangerous munitions will make Australia an international embarrassment, analyst says.

Mines Advisory Group employee Frederic Gras gingerly picks up an unexploded cluster bomb
According to Handicap International, in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, cluster munitions killed more civilians than any other weapon system [GALLO/GETTY]

A cluster bomb is a weapon that has inside multiple – often hundreds – of small explosive sub-munitions or “bomblets” that are dispersed over an area the size of several football fields from either the air or ground.

As a result, the final location of each bomblet is impossible to control for those deploying them, and so whom they maim or kill is both unknown and indiscriminate.

Roughly 30 per cent of those deployed “fail” to explode on impact and so the unexploded bomblets become de facto landmines.

Some bomblets are even designed to look like foodstuffs or toys. As a result, the victim of a cluster munition could equally be a soldier, an innocent woman or a small child – later that day, in a week, or several decades.

Cluster munitions have been routinely used in this way for over 50 years, and are estimated to have killed or maimed hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilians.

Today, lying dormant yet poised in fields all over Laos are an estimated 50-70 million bomblets that are still killing people over 35 years after they were dropped.

These bomblets are a legacy of the United States’ Vietnam War effort, in which some 200-250 million cluster munitions were dropped into large sections of Laos, despite that country having a population of less than 3 million at the time. This took the US some doing: in fact, nine years and over 500,000 recorded missions.

In places like Laos, Vietnam Cambodia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are around 4,000 victims of landmines and cluster munitions explosions each year.

In fact, in Kosovo in 1999 and Iraq in 2003, cluster munitions killed more civilians than any other weapon system. Research conducted by Handicap International found that as many as 98 per cent of these victims are civilians, more than a third of which are children.

Thankfully the methods and means of modern warfare are not unlimited. Military innovation is kept in check by a raft of principles and treaties outlawing weapons that cause disproportionate or inhumane suffering, or which fail to discriminate between military and civilian targets.

As one of the 108 signatory states, Australia has decided that cluster bombs and their munitions merit the description of indiscriminate weapons whose production and use should be universally prohibited.

‘An end for all time’ promise

In becoming a signatory to the international Cluster Munitions Convention deposited at the United Nations, Australia committed itself to putting “an end for all time” to the suffering caused by cluster munitions.

Whilst efforts to prohibit cluster munitions constitute the most ambitious humanitarian and disarmament treaty since that which brought a moratorium to landmines, its significance goes much further – it has an direct impact on social and economic development, as well as the prospects of peacebuilding efforts.

For example, the UN reported that their demining efforts in 2010 resulted in:

·      1 million explosive remnants of war were destroyed in Afghanistan;

·      7,000 kilometres of roads were opened in both the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Sudan;

·      290,000 people in Somalia learnt about landmines and their risks; and

·      In Iraq, 18.7 million square meters of land were cleared from late 2007 to July 2010, helping 1,500 families return to their farms, and enabling 2,400 children to go back to school.

Given the severity of the problem in Laos, it recently added a ninth Millennium Development Goal on its road to economic development, which requires it clear its land of unexploded ordnance.


And yet it has become clear that Australia are likely to – following the release of the senate committee report on 24 March 2011 – ratify the international convention with legislation that violently differs in two ways from that which would have met its obligations to the international community. 

First, the bill undermines that part of the convention that requires Australia to “never under any circumstances” act contrary to the convention by adding phrases that explicitly allow those of our military allies that are not party to the convention unfettered access to stockpile, retain and transit cluster munitions within Australia, as well as allowing Australian military personnel to actively assist in cluster munitions-related activities during joint military operations with our non-signatory allies.

Quite apart from going against the overriding spirit and intent of the treaty, this provision has alarming implications for Australia. For – rightly or wrongly – as one of the United States’ staunchest allies, Australia may house and its military may assist in manoeuvres involving more than a quarter of the world’s 4 billion cluster munitions already in service.

Second, the legislation does not explicitly prohibit investment in foreign companies that produce cluster munitions as part of its broader business activities.

Indeed the respective governments of New Zealand, Ireland, Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium have in their domestic legislation included statements specifically banning investment and provision of other financial services – such as banking, loans and equity – to companies that either develop or produce cluster munitions.

Other governments, including those of United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland, Lebanon, Mexico, Norway and Rwanda, have all publicly stated that they interpret the convention as including a prohibition of direct (i.e. firms which specialise in producing cluster munitions) and indirect (i.e. firms who produce some components for cluster munitions as well as other civilian and military products) investment.

This distinction is of vital importance since of the six corporations known to be involved in the production of cluster munitions, none will be prohibited from investment by Australian institutions.

Taken together, this means that the bill currently in front of the Australian parliament is clearly out of line with international standards and expectations.

As it stands, unless the Senate amends the bill and kicks it back to the House of Reps, Australia will be an international embarrassment.

NAJ Taylor is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, and casual lecturer in the Faculty of Law and Management at La Trobe University.

Follow NAJ Taylor on Twitter: @najtaylordotcom

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.