WASHINGTON, Feb. 12, 2008 – A proposed arms-control treaty banning use of cluster munitions and aiding countries that use them could affect U.S. operations with NATO allies, a Defense Department official said. A draft treaty to enforce the ban is now circulating among Oslo Convention nations, and it prohibits any form of assistance to countries that use cluster munitions, Joseph Benkert, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for global security affairs, told online journalists and “bloggers” in a conference call yesterday.

Cluster munitions — small explosives dropped from airplanes and fired from artillery — have ignited heated international debate, with detractors saying they are indiscriminate and cause civilian casualties. In February 2007, representatives of several foreign nations, including some U.S. allies, gathered at a convention in Oslo, Norway, to negotiate a ban on cluster munitions by the end of 2008.

A NATO ally that signs the Olso Treaty would not be able to operate with U.S. forces in a NATO operation using cluster munitions, Benkert said.

Benkert explained that the United States, which is using cluster munitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, shares the concern over the weapons and has taken steps to minimize harm to civilians. “We in DoD have, over the years, made considerable efforts to reduce the risk to civilians from cluster munitions or any other weapon,” he said.

But the U.S. government does not believe a complete ban on cluster munitions, as proposed by the Oslo process, would be in the best interest of national security or of the international community, Benkert said.

“A complete ban would put at risk the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners, and make it more difficult to fulfill our security guarantees to others,” he explained. “And for certain types of targets, use of cluster munitions could, in fact, result in fewer civilian casualties and less damage of civilian infrastructure than would be the case if conventional unitary warheads were used against the same target.”

Instead, the United States is participating in the Convention on Conventional Weapons, a standing forum attempting to address the cluster munitions issue by balancing military requirements with humanitarian needs, he said.

The Convention on Conventional Weapons involves all key producers and users of cluster munitions — including Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and South Korea — that are not supporting the Oslo Treaty.

“All of the major producers and users of cluster munitions are represented in the CCW, and so any resulting instrument from the CCW that these parties agree to is likely to have a much more practical impact than in Olso,” Benkert explained.

The Oslo process risks producing a “feel-good” arms-control outcome, he said, where nations without imminent need for cluster munitions produce a ban that has very little effect on their national security, but does have an impact on the security needs of the United States and its NATO allies.

“In our view, (the convention) is the proper forum with the greatest number of states who are producers and users of cluster munitions and most likely to have the impact,” he said.

Benkert said the United States is pushing to conclude a protocol for use of cluster munitions within the Convention on Conventional Weapons by November.

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