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16/09/2015 13:12 BST | Updated 16/09/2016 06:12 BST

The UK Says It Is a Global Humanitarian Leader, So Why Won't It Condemn Banned Weapons?

The UK says it is a global humanitarian leader, so why won't it condemn banned weapons?

Last week at a major international meeting of the treaty banning cluster bombs in Dubrovnik, the UK opposed the unreserved condemnation of use of these banned weapons. This week the UK is hosting weapons manufacturers - including from countries accused of violating human rights and humanitarian law - at an arms fair in London that, in 2011, displayed cluster munitions in contravention of UK law. These and other actions are undermining UK claims to be a global leader on the protection of civilians living through armed conflict.

The UK and cluster munitions

The UK is a past producer of cluster munitions and used them during the Falklands War, in Kosovo, and in Iraq during the conflicts in 1991 and 2003. Having participated cautiously in an international process launched by Norway in 2006, the UK eventually reversed its position and agreed to ban all of its cluster munitions when the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) was adopted in Dublin in May 2008. To date 117 countries have joined this global ban.

The UK's opposition to global condemnation of cluster munitions arises from the government's refusal to condemn the Saudi-led coalition's use of cluster munitions in Yemen. This is despite the UK having condemned cluster bomb use in Sudan, Syria and Ukraine this year. The UK's failed attempt to prevent states from collectively condemning "any cluster munition use, by any actor" in Dubrovnik continues a long-standing pattern of persistent, but ultimately futile efforts to resist the overriding humanitarian imperative to rid the world of cluster bombs, given their dire impact on civilians.

The history of UK diplomatic engagement on cluster munitions, reviewed in a briefing paper circulated at the Dubrovnik meeting, provides grounds to question the UK's claim that their opposition to condemnation of use is motivated by concern to promote the universalization of the CCM. Rather it should be seen as an attempt to avoid fully promoting the norms of the Convention and to avoid undertaking, collectively, the best effort to discourage the use of cluster munitions. Both of those are obligations under article 21 of the CCM. Indeed, the strengthening of the Dubrovnik Action Plan on the final day of the Review Conference explicitly linked the condemnation of use cluster munitions with implementation of article 21, as outlined in this analysis.

The UK's attempt to justify its refusal to condemn cluster munition use on the basis of article 21 was not founded in legal analysis, but in political desperation. Although the UK argued that the language of the Dubrovnik outcome documents should be changed, states parties to the ban treaty rightly rejected the UK's objection and collectively issued an emphatic condemnation of use.

The global ban on cluster bombs

Five years on from entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, it is deeply distressing to see the use of these internationally banned weapons in Libya, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. The aim of the treaty is to prevent human suffering and the effects of the cluster bombing of these countries illustrate very clearly why that aim is so important. Civilians have been killed and injured. Land has been contaminated. Communities will be affected for years to come.

However, as we condemn the actions of a handful of states outside the treaty, we should also pause to consider what the use of cluster munitions would look like today without the Convention on Cluster Munitions. There is little doubt that the treaty has made use of cluster munitions much less likely. Past users, including the UK, France and the Netherlands, have joined the ban treaty as well as 16 former producers and 33 former stockpilers. Millions of stockpiled cluster munitions have been destroyed. Major stockpilers of cluster munitions that remain outside the treaty have also broadly refrained from using cluster munitions, despite being actively involved in military operations. The only documented use of cluster munitions by the US since the treaty was signed is the attack in Yemen in 2009, only a few months after the signing conference in Oslo. Despite its widespread use of explosive weapons in populated areas of Gaza, Israel has not used cluster munitions since 2006 when it bombarded southern Lebanon with the weapons.

Against this background and given the international condemnation that follows any use of the weapons (if not always consistently articulated by the UK), one should have confidence that eventually this standard will make the use of cluster munitions a thing of the past.

Is the UK a credible global leader on protection of civilians?

The UK is, formally, the lead country on the UN Security Council regarding action to ensure the protection of civilians in armed conflict. In an international context where the Security Council is widely seen as failing to deal with the most pressing humanitarian emergencies created by conflict, the UK's politicised stance is highly problematic to addressing global challenges to civilian protection in a moral, consistent way. The protection of civilians from the effects of war, in particular its cruellest and most harmful aspects like the use of cluster bombs, is best served by strong international condemnation of all conduct that causes unacceptable harm to civilians, not by a 'pick and choose' approach of condemning certain actors whilst refusing to condemn allies. The protection of civilians demands that we transcend such politicisation and prioritise human life.

This failure to prioritise the protection of civilians extends beyond the condemnation of cluster munitions. The UK is also falling short in other prominent areas of international humanitarian work. The UK refused to sign up to an international declaration on Safe Schools, aimed at preventing attacks on education during armed conflict. The UK is also refusing to work towards a similar international commitment to enhance the application of international law in order to prevent harm from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Meanwhile the UK's commitment to the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty has come under scrutiny in the context of UK arms transfers to Saudi Arabia fuelling the conflict in Yemen. Instead of responding to these concerns, the UK is this week welcoming arms dealers and weapons manufacturers from around the world to London.

There are real questions for the government to answer here. If the UK cannot take a coherent and consistent approach to its own national policy in the key initiatives to tackle contemporary humanitarian challenges, then it is not in a position to provide international leadership on the protection of civilians.