An international treaty banning the use of cluster bombs, which came into effect on Sunday, was seen as one of the most significant arms control advancements since the Mine Ban Treaty more than a decade ago.
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) regional legal adviser Christopher Black said that the new treaty - the Convention on Cluster Munitions - could potentially have an even greater impact than the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.
While antipersonnel mines were a huge humanitarian problem, submunitions left unexploded would affect people for decades to come.
Cluster munitions were used largely in developing countries, with over 30 locations affected, 11 of which were on the African continent.
Cluster munitions were defined, in the new Convention, as a "conventional munition that disperses or releases explosive submunitions: small, unguided explosives or bomblets (each weighing less than 20 kg) that are designed to explode prior to, on, or after, impact."
Speaking at a seminar jointly hosted by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the ICRC in Pretoria on the Convention on Cluster Munitions two days before it came into force on August 1, ISS Arms Management Programme researcher Gugu Dube explained that between 10% and 40% of these submunitions did not explode when they were meant to, thus affecting civilians for many years following the cessation of hostilities.
Such unexploded submunitions left "contaminated land", affecting agriculture, reconstruction and any return to normal life after conflict.
Black explained that cluster munitions were "area weapons" by definition - they covered a large area.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in June 2008, that these weapons had a "legitimate use" in the military, but, Black explained, most military officers did not want to use weapons that were inherently a humanitarian problem.
Black said that in international law, the right to use weapons "was not unlimited". Weapons causing superfluous damage or unnecessary suffering were not allowed, and international law was against "disproportionate attacks". Black added that cluster munitions fell into this category as they were "indiscriminate" in that they did not discriminate between military targets and civilians, and were "potentially disproportionate".
Department of International Relations and Cooperation assistant director for conventional arms Chwane Mthethwa added that although South Africa, a signatory of the Convention, had yet to ratify, it recognised the importance of the treaty because African States were gravely affected by cluster munitions. It was also imperative at a time when Africa needed to promote peace, security, stability and development.
Royal Norwegian Embassy councillor Gunnar Holm stated that Norway had destroyed the last part of its stockpile of cluster munitions on July 16. He said that the new convention was less about the weapon itself and more about its impact on people. The Convention had a "political aim but a humanitarian rationale".
Unlike any of the arms control treaties that came before it, the Cluster Munitions Convention provided for the assistance of victims of cluster munitions. On top of this requirement, the Convention comprehensively banned cluster munitions by prohibiting their use, production, stockpiling and transfer. States parties were also required to destroy stockpiles and clear its territory of any remnants of cluster munitions.
While States parties would be directly affected by the Convention, States that had not yet signed or ratified the treaty would also be affected, as cluster munitions would be considered a stigmatised weapon, thereby making it more difficult for any State to use cluster munitions in the future.
As of August 1, 2010, the 30 States that had ratified the Convention were legally bound by its provisions. These were: Albania, Austria, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Croatia, Denmark, France, Germany, the Holy See, Ireland, Japan, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Luxembourg, Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic), Malawi, Malta, Mexico, the Republic of Moldova, Montenegro, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Niger, Norway, San Marino, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Spain, Uruguay and Zambia.
The Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed in Dublin, Ireland in 2008.