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Unacceptable Humanitarian consequences are just that -- unacceptable.

Opinion piece by Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross, as published in the Canberra Times and The Age.

 

In February of this year, 49 Governments met in Oslo, Norway to discuss the development of an international treaty to ban cluster munitions. At the conclusion of the meeting, 46 of the nations involved agreed to support a proposed treaty calling for a ban of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.

Although a number of States have begun reviewing their policies on the use of cluster munitions, there has as yet been no effective international response.

In 2006, the International Committee of Red Cross called on States to end the use of inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions and to prohibit the use of cluster munitions in populated areas. Cluster munitions are weapons (e.g. bombs, artillery shells and rockets) that can contain hundreds of smaller sub-munitions. Although the sub-munitions are generally designed to explode on impact, they often fail to do so, leaving vast amounts of lethal explosives on the ground.

A cluster munition can release its deadly load over an area of up to several thousand square metres, and un-exploded submunitions have had a severe, long-term impact on civilians in most of the conflicts in which they have been used, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Laos and Lebanon.

The threat from unexploded ordnance is twofold. When used in or near inhabited areas, it presents clear physical dangers to the civilian population, but it can also create long term social and economic effects for a country attempting to rebuild. Significant tracts of arable land can no longer be used, and many cities, towns and villages become inaccessible. These are both what Australian Red Cross defines as unacceptable humanitarian consequences.

The issue is of particular importance to the Red Cross Movement given our role in providing humanitarian assistance in times of conflict -- as unexploded ordnance, particularly submunitions, have a significant and dreadful impact on the civilian population and on our ability to provide aid and essential services.

During the most recent conflict in Lebanon last year, an estimated 4 million cluster submunitions were released. Unexploded ordnance has caused more than 200 deaths and injuries since the cessation of armed hostilities in August 2006, and it is estimated that more than 1 million submunitions still litter the fields and orchards of Southern Lebanon.

I saw the effects of unexploded cluster munitions first hand while visiting Lebanon in February, and they are truly devastating, and alarmingly random. Submunitions were found in houses, back yards, in trees, in orchards and many other places. In one street near a hospital 800 submunitions were found.

I met a farm worker who had been working in a field on September 9, about a month after the conflict had ended. He was leaving the field after work and did not notice the unexploded submunition which was hidden under some fallen leaves. The munition exploded, severely damaging his foot and leg, resulting in partial amputation.

He did not believe he could return to work as a labourer again, and I can only imagine the fear he must feel knowing that almost anywhere in the fields he once worked could be another remnant of the conflict waiting to release its potentially lethal payload.

Australian Red Cross would like to acknowledge and congratulate the Australian Government for its decision to destroy its limited stocks of cluster munitions (held between 1970 and 1990 for testing purposes), and its decision not to use such weapons in previous conflicts, including most recently in Iraq.

But we would also urge the Australian Government to do more. A ban on inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions is now openly being discussed by the International Community and Australian Red Cross would urge the Government to consider the role it can play in supporting a ban on this weapon that continues to have such a disproportionate and serious effect on the civilian population.

To support a ban on the use of these inaccurate, unreliable weapons of conflict would send a clear message to the rest of the world and be a significant step towards ridding it of a weapon that goes on destroying lives long after the fighting forces have packed up and gone home.

May 8 is World Red Cross Day. To find out more about the Red Cross Red Crescent movement across Australia and the World, visit the About Us section of the website.