opinionBy Moses Magadza
Harare — The first ever two-day African meeting to ban cluster munitions opened in Zambia's tourism town of Livingstone yesterday with calls for African states to unite their voices and send out a strong message to the rest of the world that Africa wants a comprehensive ban treaty at the negotiations to take place in Dublin, Ireland, this May
At the start of the meeting, Robert Mtonga, representative of the Cluster Munition Coalition in Zambia, appealed to all 40 African states attending the conference to unite in the call against the use of cluster munitions.
"Too often Africa's voice is pushed to the margins in international decision-making. But in banning cluster bombs worldwide, a common African voice will speak volumes and win the day," he said.
In a telephone interview from Zambia, Mtonga said he was touched by the commitment shown by representatives of African governments attending the conference to ban the use of cluster munitions.
"Cluster munitions are very destructive and do not differentiate between combatants and civilians or livestock. They can destroy an area the size of two or three football fields.
"One cluster munition carries many sub-munitions. Sometimes they all do not explode and remain a danger to people and livestock long after the conflict. Some of them are very colourful and children have often mistaken them for toys," he said.
Thomas Nash, coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition, in an interview said the outcome of the conference, which ends at 4pm today, will be the Livingstone Declaration, which will be a strong position against cluster munitions from about 40 African countries.
"The enthusiasm here is very impressive. We have always relied on African countries in this campaign. Now that we are on course, we will still rely on them to come up with a comprehensive position on this issue," Nash said.
Tesfay Haileselassie from Mekele in Ethiopia said she was still treating children who were injured by cluster munition strikes that killed or maimed 54 children in June 1998.
"Each day, when I see these children, who lost a leg or are maimed, I feel as if the school that was hit twice is still burning and I still dream about that. The cluster munition survivors are still suffering from lack of medical treatment."
"Africa knows all too well the effects of war on people," says Margaret Orech Arach, a CMC campaigner and landmine survivor from Uganda.
"Africa must stand together to ensure survivors of cluster bombs and their communities have their needs met by this treaty."
Nash recognises that Africa has now an opportunity to stand as a bulwark against the efforts of certain states -- mainly producers and stockpilers -- to weaken the treaty.
"Right now, we need Africa's strength, wisdom and united voice to ensure we get a treaty with no exemptions, no delays and no loopholes."
African nations have taken a strong stand on securing a treaty that will not only ban the production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster bombs, but also provide support for survivors and clearance of their land.
To date, 19 African countries have formally endorsed the Wellington Declaration, the basis for negotiations in Dublin. These include: Algeria, Angola, Benin, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.
So far in the Oslo Process, African states have taken a strong stand on the need for a comprehensive ban with a definition of cluster munitions that allows for no exceptions.
African nations have also supported far-reaching obligations for states to provide assistance with clearance and support to survivors, with a particular obligation on countries that have used cluster munitions in the past. The African voice has become ever more prominent in the international discussions on cluster munitions and the continent looks set to play a critical role at the negotiations in Dublin.
Cluster bombs have been used in over 30 countries and territories worldwide including Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Chad, Sierra Leone, DR Congo, Uganda and Eritrea, as well as Western Sahara. Egypt and South Africa have produced cluster bombs and at least 14 African countries stockpile the weapons.
During a meeting in Belgrade in October 2007, Uganda became the first African country to declare it would destroy its stockpiles. Uganda has since announced that it will host a pan-African meeting after the Dublin negotiations to rally support for signature of the treaty in Oslo in December 2008.
The African continent was and remains ravaged by the scourge of anti-personnel landmines and by stemming proliferation now this new global effort provides the opportunity to prevent an even greater humanitarian crisis before it happens.
The Cluster Munitions Coalition is an international network of over 250 civil society organisations in 60 countries committed to protecting civilians from the effects of cluster munitions.
Members of the CMC network work together on an international campaign calling on governments to conclude a new international treaty banning cluster munitions by 2008.
Writer Theodora Williams describes cluster munitions as "large weapons of war that open in mid-air and scatter widely in smaller sub-munitions, which usually number in the dozens or hundreds resulting in the death and maiming of thousands of innocent civilians".
To this day their use continues to challenge accepted principles of international humanitarian law.
While all weapons are potentially dangerous to civilians, cluster bombs pose a particular threat to civilians.
She says cluster munitions have a wide area of effect.
"The area affected by a single cluster munitions, known as its footprint, can be as large as two or three football fields. When dropped they disperse into hundreds of smaller bomblets, or sub-munitions -- and that is what, according to the UN, makes them more dangerous and vicious than landmines.
"They have consistently left behind a large number of unexploded bomblets. The unexploded bomblets remain dangerous for decades after the end of a conflict."
In some cases their colour, coupled with their small and non-threatening appearance, has caused children to interpret them as toys, resulting in untimely death and severe injury.
Campaigners for the ban of cluster munitions point to their indiscriminate killing of both combatants and civilians.