Take the lead in the banning of cluster bombs

5 December 2007

Take the lead in the banning of cluster bombs

This week in Vienna more than a hundred countries will gather to discuss how they can work together to achieve a ban on cluster bombs. A choice moment for the Netherlands to play a leading role in this historic process, argue Krista van Velzen and Huub Oosterhuis. Defence Minister Eimert Van Middelkoop, a member of the Christian Union, must dare to put Biblical ethics into practice.

By Krista van Velzen, Member of Parliament for the SP, and Huub Oosterhuis, theologian.

An estimated 100.000 people have died as a result of cluster bombs. These bombs, dropped during air raids, can spread over an area so large (approximately the size of four football pitches) that is is almost impossible to avoid civilian casualties. In addition, these bombs often do not explode immediately and thus remain dangerous to civilians long after a conflict comes to an end. Cluster bombs wreak havoc amongst young and old, men and women, soldier and civilian. Moreover, this type of munition can paralyse the economy of a region or country for a very long time. The international community has decided, quite correctly, to outlaw landmines via the Treaty of Ottawa. The banning of cluster munitions would be a logical follow-up to this.

"We are for a complete moratorium on these weapons. The Defence Minister Mr Van Middelkoop reads the same Bible as I do, and so he should be coming to the same conclusions," says Joël Voordewind, Member of Parliament for the Christian Union. Cluster weapons cannot be seen as legitimate by Biblical criteria, argues also Dr Roel Kuiper, Professor of Reformist Protestant Philosophy.

The purpose of the Biblical-prophetic ideal is concisely summarised in the famed rules of the Prophet Micha (4:3): "And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares ... nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Words which to this day are read out in many Christian churches around Christmas time. And words which certainly offer an ethical handle on the idea that we should be seeking to ban cluster bombs as quickly as possible.


The use of cluster munitions by the Dutch armed forces is at the present time suspended. Unfortunately Mr Van Middelkoop refuses to utter the word 'moratorium', because he does not want to exclude the deployment of cluster munitions, despite his pleas for an international ban. He does not rule out the possibility that negotiations could lead to the abolition of one of the two kinds of cluster bomb possessed by the Dutch air force (the CBU-87), but is himself taking no steps to have them destroyed.

By choosing to equip the air force's F-16 fighter planes with a rocket capable of delivering cluster munitions and not "for the time being" to make use of the option of having the bombs destroyed, the minister is giving the impression that he would want to persist with these abhorrent weapons, provided that they were only a bit more up-to-date.

The intention of the negotiations which began this year under the leadership of the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, was, however, clear: to achieve an international ban on a weapon which causes great harm to people, and in the meantime to see steps taken on the national level. That the theological discussion between the parliamentary group of the Christian Union and the party's Minister of Defence has as yet had no positive outcome is well-known. The Ministry of Defence is not pleased that the Netherlands has not been included on the international rankings of countries which have put significant national measures into place. Yet this is an entirely correct assessment.


After forty years of the use of cluster munitions, a group of countries has at last stood up and said that they want to call a halt to their deployment. Now that pictures of the results for the civilian population of the use of cluster bombs by Israel and Hezbollah have been seen throughout the world, nobody can any longer claim that these weapons can be used safely. The Netherlands must not only support the process of getting rid of cluster munitions, it should be driving it on. This could be achieved during the negotiations in Vienna by announcing a moratorium, and by making an energetic start on the destruction of our own stocks. This seems to us in the spirit of the Biblical ethic to which the Christian Union and the Defence Minister make reference.

This article was first published in the original Dutch in the Reformatorisch Dagblad on 5th December 2007

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