Choose Your Language Of Preference Below

French Version German Version Russian Version Spanish Version

Portuguese Version Chinese Version Arabic Version


South Africa cut a lone figure in Zambia’s tourist capital of Livingstone as the only African country not to endorse a global ban on the use of all cluster munitions.

Africa’s economic powerhouse and the continent’s leading arms producer was the odd one out following a two day meeting of 39 African countries, which on 1 April, endorsed the Livingstone Declaration calling for the eradication of all cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions were first used by the former Soviet Union during the Second World War and quickly became part of military armouries through-out the world.

The weapons can be delivered by air or by ground based missile and artillery systems. The projectiles, open in mid-air and scatter hundreds of bomblets, or submunitions, indiscriminately over areas as large as 40 football fields. Many bomblets do not explode and present a major threat to civilian populations many years after deployment.

The Oslo Conference on Cluster Munnitions, hosted by the Norwegian government in February 2007, set in motion the Oslo Process calling for “a new international instrument to ban cluster munitions that have unacceptable humanitarian consequences,” and in May 2008 diplomats will gather in Ireland’s capital, Dublin, to negotiate the basis of a cluster munitions protocol.

Although calls for the greater regulation of cluster munitions were first voiced more than 30 years ago, it was the 2006 Lebannon war, where the Israeli forces’ use of cluster munitions left behind more than one million unexpoloded submunitions, that provided the impetus for a formal international agreement on cluster munitions.

The Livingstone Declaration forms part of the Olso Process and South Africa was cited by the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC) – an international network of over 250 civil society organisations from 70 countries championing the ban of cluster munitions – as an obstacle to a united African front for the global elimination of cluster munitions.

Pariah state

“South Africa was the only country at the conference to stray from the common African line in favour of a comprehensive prohibition. South Africa, one of the continent’s two producer states (the CMC cites Egypt as the other), argued that certain cluster munitions with ‘a 98 percent reliability rate’ are legitimate weapons of war,” the CMC said in a statement.

Reliability rates refer to self destruct mechanisms of unexploded bomblets should they fail to explode and so limit civilian casualties after the conflict.

South Africa’s director of disarmament and non-proliferation in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Titi Molaba, said South Africa would only endorse a partial ban on cluster munitions “that cause unacceptable harm” to civilians.

South Africa believes that cluster munitions are a valid weapon of war provided they are targeted according to laws of armed conflict

“South Africa is of the view that certain types of cluster munitions cause unacceptable harm, whilst cluster munitions that meet certain criteria such as reliability, accuracy and have self-destruct mechanisms [after failing to explode] should be allowed. South Africa believes that cluster munitions are a valid weapon of war provided they are targeted according to the laws of armed conflict,” she said.

Campaigners immediately criticised South Africa’s position and said it was putting commercial interests above those of human life.

“We are seeing South Africa and perhaps even Egypt wanting to be part of our all-Africa united position to ban cluster munitions, but what is very negative is that South Africa’s substantive national position is so weak; they are going for exceptions to the ban of cluster munitions.

“These are exceptions that don’t make any sense and are not justified, and cluster munitions will continue to cause harm to civilians,” Thomas Nash, CMC co-ordinator, said.

“There is no such a thing as good or bad cluster munitions because wherever cluster munitions are used in whatever form they exist, they all cause the same devastating effects to human lives. And unfortunately, most of the casualties are innocent civilians. They should be banned in all manner of their existence and form.”

Kabinga Pande, Zambia’s Foreign Affairs minister, said the participation of South Africa and Egypt, as alleged producers of cluster munitions on the continent, was key to the success of Africa’s position on the ban.

“As the country currently chairing the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, we are not going to rest and leave out South Africa in this. We shall continue to persuade them because there is no other way of getting South Africa on board except by dialogue. We would like to see South Africa give up on production of cluster munitions, Africa is going for a total ban because all cluster munitions cause unacceptable harm,” Pande said at a Livingston press briefing.

Hugo Ivy, acting CEO of the South African arms company Denel Munitions, told IRIN that the production of 155mm Cluster Bomb Artillery Shell, was discontinued “a few years ago,” because the company viewed the weapon as “unacceptable”.

He said the production line had been discontinued and the company did not produce any other cluster munitions and he knew of no other South African arms company that did.

Cluster munitions casualties

Lotta Sylwander, a representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Zambia, said cluster bombs hindered development and their usage violated the human rights of the affected non-military personnel.

“The wide-area effect and indiscriminate nature of cluster munitions pose a danger to civilians at the time of their use and long after conflicts have ended. Many bomblets fail to detonate on impact and become de facto antipersonnel mines, killing and maiming people long after the conflict has ended. The unexploded cluster munitions present a dangerous obstacle to access land and can delay the return of refugees and displaced persons.” she said.

It is estimated that up to 76 countries, 13 of them in Africa, still stockpile cluster munitions and 34 countries are known to have produced more than 210 types of cluster munitions, with 14 states having used the weapons in at least 30 countries and territories, according to the CMC.

In Africa, the usage of cluster munitions has been reported in Morocco, Chad, Angola, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

Each day when I remember that day, I experience a lot of pain. The school was hit twice within 30 minutes. I feel as the school is still burning

Berihu Mesele, 38, from Mek’ele in western Ethiopia, was 28 years old when he lost both legs in a cluster bomb explosion that struck his nearby school during the 1998 Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. He has since been confined to a wheelchair.

“Each day when I remember that day, I experience a lot of pain. The school was hit twice within 30 minutes. I feel as if the school is still burning. I still see that day and everything that happened to me so many times in my dreams. Life has never been the same,” Mesele, who attended the meeting in Livingston, said.

“There is nothing good about war, nothing good about bombings. It is better to use all that money [for wars] to fight poverty. We need to fight poverty, not fellow human beings,” he said.


[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]