Q&A: Central America declares itself cluster munition-free

© AFP / M. Zaatari

© AFP / M. Zaatari

On Friday, Central America became the first region in the world to be free of cluster munitions, after Belize joined the International Convention on Cluster Munitions. Speaking at the start of the Fifth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention in San Jose on Tuesday, Costa Rican President, Luis Guillermo Solis, said that as a region that has seen its fair share of armed conflicts, it was important for Central America to “send a clear message” about its commitment to peace and development. 

“Cluster munitions are particularly unacceptable because of their scattered and non-localized detonations that can remain active for decades and then result in the mutilation and deaths of innocent people, destroy families, schools, hospitals and farmland, exacerbate poverty and limit economic development,” Solis said.

Indeed, these types of munitions have unique characteristics that make them “a grave danger to civilian men, women and children,” according to the ICRC’s chief legal advisor in Washington DC, Christopher Harland. 

These weapons are generally delivered by air or fired from artillery, and disperse large numbers of explosive submunitions or bomblets over wide areas, potentially causing high civilian casualties especially when they are used in populated areas. In addition, many submunitions often fail to explode as intended, leaving a long-term legacy of explosive contamination. Many thousands of civilians have been tragically killed and injured by coming into contact with unexploded submunitions.

In light of the declaration made in San Jose this week, Intercross  asked Chris a few questions about the Convention and why the Central American announcement is significant.

Intercross: When was the Convention adopted, and how many States have signed it so far?

Christopher Harland: On May 30 2008, 107 States adopted the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) at a diplomatic conference held in Dublin, Ireland.  The CCM entered into force on August 1 2010, and as of early September 2014, 86 States were Parties to the Convention. 

What’s the definition of a cluster munition under the Convention?

A cluster munition is a conventional munition that is designed to disperse or release explosive submunitions, each weighing less than 20 kg. Some munitions containing submunitions are not considered cluster munitions for the purposes of the treaty. These include munitions designed to disperse flares or smoke. Also excluded are munitions that contain fewer than 10 explosive submunitions when each of these submunitions is (a) designed to locate and engage a “single target object” (or “point target”) and (b) equipped with an electronic self-destruction and self-deactivating feature. Very few submunitions with these features are stockpiled today.

What does the Convention prohibit?

The CCM prohibits the use, development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention and transfer of cluster munitions. It also prohibits assisting, encouraging or inducing anyone to engage in these activities. Once a State has become a party to the Convention, it cannot defer this prohibition. The CCM effectively bans all cluster munitions that have been used in conflicts over the last six decades and that cause the humanitarian problem described above.

What are States' commitments under the Convention?

Under the CCM, States commit to clearing areas contaminated with unexploded submunitions within 10 years of the instrument's entry into force for that State. They also agree to destroy their cluster munition stockpiles within eight years.

Have we seen much progress since the Convention entered into force?

Progress is being made in meeting the Convention’s requirements to clear cluster munition remnants. Five of the 12 States Parties to the Convention that were contaminated by cluster munitions have now met their clearance obligations and there are ongoing efforts to improve the release of land suspected to be contaminated with cluster munition remnants so as to more quickly and efficiently return this land to the communities.

As indicated in the San Jose Progress Report, more than half of the States Parties to the Convention possessing these weapons have now fulfilled their stockpile destruction obligations, destroying more than a hundred million explosive submunitions. This is a significant accomplishment as it was often said during the development of the Convention that the destruction of cluster munition stockpiles would be one of the Convention’s greatest challenges. It’s a positive sign that several States Parties, including some with very significant stockpiles, have met their obligations well in advance of the Convention’s deadline.

In addition, States Parties with cluster munition victims on their territory or under their control must provide medical care, rehabilitation and psychological support, and provide for their social and economic inclusion on a non-discriminatory basis. The CCM's victim assistance provisions, including its comprehensive definition of "victim," which includes individuals, their families and their communities, constitute the most far-reaching victim assistance obligations ever included in a treaty of international humanitarian law. States that do not have victims on their territory or under their control are also obliged to help.

The Convention requires that States Parties, when in a position to do so, provide technical, material and financial assistance to affected States Parties for the implementation of the Convention's commitments.

Will troops be criminally liable for being involved in a military operation with non- party States that use cluster munitions? 

The Convention does not prevent States Parties from engaging in “military cooperation and operations” with States that are not party to the treaty and that might use cluster munitions. Yet, States Parties are required to promote adherence to the CCM and discourage the use of cluster munitions by non-party States. In addition, combined military operations must not entail the use of cluster munitions by the State Party itself or another prohibited activity such as the stockpiling, transfer or production of cluster munitions.

What national measures must be taken to implement the Convention?

States Parties are obliged to take all appropriate legal, administrative and other measures to implement the CCM. Such measures include adopting legislation imposing penal sanctions to prevent and suppress prohibited acts, submitting annual reports to the UN Secretary-General on the status of implementation, participating in regular meetings of States Parties to discuss implementation and best practices, adopting changes in military doctrine and operating procedures, and implementing plans for the clearance, destruction, victim and international assistance commitments described above.

States Parties are making progress in adopting the legislative and administrative measures required at the national level to ensure its full implementation. Yet that progress, in the ICRC’s view, remains slow. We urge those States that have not already done so to develop and adopt such measures as a matter of urgency. In our view, the adoption of national legislation to prevent and suppress violations of the Convention, and the incorporation of the Convention's norms into military doctrine and training, are particularly important.

The promotion of the Convention is an important, but sometimes overlooked, obligation of each and every State Party. This requirement is spelled out in Article 21 whereby each State Party is obliged to encourage all countries to join the Convention with the aim of achieving universal adherence. No other treaty of international humanitarian law has such an express commitment.

What is the position of the Organization of American States with respect to the Convention?

In addition to many of the Member States of the OAS being a party to the Convention, resolutions adopted by this multilateral body have urged States to sign, accede to and implement the Convention, among other weapons and munitions treaties.

Visit the ICRC's web section on cluster munitions for more info. Also, during his TEDxRC2 talk in 2011, renowned editorial cartoonist, Patrick Chappatte talked about the impact of cluster munitions. Watch his talk below and click this link to see his animated reportage on the impact of cluster munitions in Lebanon.


Patrick Chappatte is a renowned editorial cartoonist and previous TEDGlobal and TEDxParis talker. His work is published in the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times' global website, the NZZ and Le Temps. 

In 2009, he travelled to Lebanon with the ICRC to get a first-hand look at how cluster munitions continue to maim and kill, long after they were dropped. His visit resulted in a groundbreaking animated documentary called, "Death in the Fields." It can be viewed at www.icrc.org/eng/chappatte

Featuring excerpts from the film, Chappatte's TEDxRC² talk explores how illustrations provide a powerful way to refocus attention on forgotten crises -- in a world where we are over-exposed to images of suffering and despair. He also expands on how drawings and animation can take us places and make us feel things that no other story-telling genre can. 

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x = independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.* (*Subject to certain rules and regulations)