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US Wary of Pending Treaty Banning Cluster Munitions

The U.S. State Department said Wednesday a pending international treaty banning cluster munitions could have unintended consequences for international military cooperation in such areas as disaster relief. The United States and several other major military powers are not taking part in the 100-nation treaty talks in Dublin. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

State Department officials say they share international concern about civilian casualties caused by cluster bomb munitions lingering in former battle zones.

But they say the United States and key allies believe such weapons are still useful in certain conflict situations, and that rather than banning them they should be technically upgraded so that they become harmless soon after being used.

State Department experts briefed reporters here as delegates from more than 100 countries held a third day of sessions in Dublin on a treaty banning cluster munitions.

The United States and several other key producers of such weapons, including Russia, China, India and Pakistan are not taking part in the treaty process, launched last year in Oslo.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Stephen Mull said the outright ban envisaged in the Oslo process would be impossible to achieve, given the continued utility of the weapons.

He said the United States' focus instead is to regulate their use through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, or CCW, which meets in Geneva and brings together all major weapons producers.

Mull faulted provisions of the emerging treaty, including one which he said would effectively criminalize military cooperation between signatory states and those outside the treaty:

"This would have very grave implications for a whole range of activities that we don't think are within the goals of the organizers of this process. For example, if the convention passes in its current form, any U.S. military ship would be technically not able to get involved in a peacekeeping operation, providing disaster relief or humanitarian assistance as we're doing right now in the aftermath of the earthquake in China, the typhoon in Burma, not to mention everything we did in Southeast Asia after the tsunami in December of 2004," he said.

Cluster weapons are typically delivered by aircraft or missiles, opening in mid-air and scattering individual sub-munitions of bomblets over a wide area.

Interest in the issue was heightened by among other things, Israel's use of the weapons in its 2006 war with Hezbollah, which caused civilian casualties during and after the conflict.

Assistant Secretary Mull said the bomblets can be made to self-destruct or become harmless shortly after their use.

He said a Congressional mandate now forbids U.S. exports of cluster munitions that do not have these protections, and said that since such weapons are still under development, the United States, in effect, has an export ban in place.

Dublin conference delegates aim to complete the draft treaty by May 30 and forward it to Oslo for signatures. It would formally take effect six months after 20 nations sign and ratify the agreement.

The New York-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch said this week it is regrettable that the United States and some other countries continue to insist on the need for a weapon the rest of the world is banning because of unacceptable harm to civilians.

Human Rights Watch said despite their non-participation, a treaty would stigmatize cluster munitions to such a degree that it will be difficult for any country to use them without international condemnation.