Open letter to Defence Minister: Ban the clusterbomb

23 May 2007

Open letter to Defence Minister: Ban the clusterbomb

In an open letter, representatives of political parties and NGOs have called on Defence Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop to work towards a world-wide ban on all forms of cluster munition, with the Netherlands taking a lead. This week in the Peruvian capital of Lima an international conference is taking place the goal of which is to bring such a ban closer. SP Member of Parliament Krista van Velzen took the initiative in calling for a ban and is participating in the official Netherlands delegation along with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence.

Clusterbombs shatter above the ground into a large number of smaller bombs which are distributed over a broad area. Some of these small bombs fail to explode immediately and remain on the ground, acting as a sort of land mine. Estimates in a recent report from Handicap International indicate that 98% of all victims of cluster bombs are civilians, and the world-wide total of fatalities stands above 100,000.

The Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store was the first to take the initiative to outlaw these weapons, at the same time calling for an international ban, since which forty-six countries have followed suit. Yet the Dutch government and a majority of MPs have to date thrown out every proposal to destroy the country's own stock of cluster bombs and put a moratorium on their use.

The letter to Defence Minister Van Middelkoop points out that, as the bomb fragments can fall over an area the size of four football pitches, it is practically impossible to ensure that there will be no civilian casualties. Danger to civilians also comes from the fact that the bombs often do not explode immediately, it points out, and acting like land mines they make no distinction between young and old, man and woman, soldier and civilian. In addition, the bombs can make whole areas unusable for economic purposes, including agriculture. The letter goes on to note how many people have fallen victim to these weapons, and that the signatories "fear that if we do not move rapidly to an international ban, this will be nothing more than the tip of a future iceberg. The ban on landmines, precisely ten years ago, was wonderful, but it came to late, because by then millions of landmines had already been set. Cluster munition is in fact a similar weapon to landmines and is against humanitarian law, which bans weapons which make no distinction between civilians and military personnel." Cluster bombs are widespread, the letter continues, but unexploded cluster munition is currently found in far fewer countries than are land mines, so that a speedy ban would prevent the problem from growing.

The letter goes on to remind the minister that a delegation from the Netherlands took part in the Oslo conference in February which took the first steps towards a ban, and that the delegation to Peru is there with his blessing. The Netherlands has already agreed, along with forty-five other countries, to prepare within a year an international law banning these weapons.

"What is acceptable suffering?" the minister is asked. A bomb which "only tears off limbs", or one which only kills very short people, or one which has a failure rate under 1%? Surely all forms of cluster bomb should be forbidden, because none produces an "acceptable" level of suffering, if indeed such a thing exists. "We are counting on you," the signatories inform the minister, "to do your best" to bring about such a ban. When it was discovered that pension funds were investing in firms which produced cluster munitions, public reaction left no doubt as to the widespread revulsion they provoked, the letter recalls. Several funds responded by withdrawing their investments, and the minister is urged to follow their example by declaring that the Netherlands "will no longer use cluster munition" and that existing stocks held by the Dutch air force would be destroyed. A Dutch ban would "not be a symbolic act but an important step in the direction of an international ban," they point out, adding that "We are counting on your efforts and cooperation."

As well as the SP's Krista van Velzen, the letter was signed by representatives of two smaller parliamentary parties, the Green Left and D66, as well as secular and Christian peace groups, the director of UNICEF in the Netherlands, the Foundation for Refugees, and Oxfam.

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