Ban Bus Drives Through Europe

As most countries are expanding their military budgets, a handful of governments have taken an opposite stand. Representatives of 10 Southern European nations gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria last week to cooperate on clearing their arsenals of cluster munitions.

The Sofia Conference was held in anticipation of the Oslo agreement which bans cluster munitions and is expected to be signed this December. Some 100 countries have already pledged to ratify the document, among them those from Southern Europe where numerous victims of cluster bombs still remind about the region’s turbulent history. But enough is enough. Regional powers have made a brave decision to break with their past and are now in the forefront of the disarmament process.

“I thought the Bulgaria Conference was a real success,” said Thomas Nash of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). His organization, which groups almost 240 members, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has been the leading force behind the Oslo agreement and one of the participants of the conference.

“At the Sofia Conference international experts presented all aspects of the treaty from the ban to victim assistance, clearance and stockpile destruction. There was a very thorough analysis of the treaty’s provisions,” Mr. Nash told the Student Operated Press on Tuesday. “In many ways it was the first meeting of the next stage of the process to ban cluster bombs.”

Unlike most high-profile meetings, the Sofia conference produced visible effects. Governments from Albania, Bulgaria, and Croatia announced their access to the Oslo agreement. Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia fell short of making official pledges, but both leaned strongly towards the treaty. “The region has experienced first-hand the humanitarian consequences of this deadly weapon and should not hesitate to ban it,” urged Branislav Kapetanovic, a Serbian cluster bomb survivor.

Not everyone, however, listened to Mr. Kapetanovic. Greece, Romania, and Turkey refused to join the Oslo agreement, maintaining that cluster munitions provided their forces with vital backup. With the force of over 510,000 soldiers (the second largest army in NATO), Turkey seems to be a key player in the volatile region. In comparison, Albania, which will sign the Oslo agreement, has fewer than 15,000 troops.

“We urge Greece, Turkey, Romania and all states that have not yet endorsed the cluster bomb ban to sign the Convention in December,” said Muteber Oereten, a Turkish activist of the CMC. “This is the most significant humanitarian and disarmament treaty in more than a decade. Signing it will help prevent civilian casualties and reinforce peace within our region,” she added.

“We are disappointed by the positions of Turkey, Greece and Romania,” Mr. Nash admitted. He said that the latest conflict in the Caucasus between Georgia and Russia during which both sides had used cluster bombs, proved how important it was to convince as many countries as possible to the Oslo agreement. To popularize the idea among ordinary people, a couple of CMC members will travel in the Ban Bus from Belgrade, Serbia to the Norwegian capital.

Among over 100 representatives who will sign the Oslo agreement, will be absent diplomats from China, Russia, and the United States. The world’s three greatest producers of cluster bombs insist that the munitions are an important part of their arsenals and getting rid of them would put soldiers’ lives at risk. The United States used cluster bombs in Iraq; Russia in Georgia. So did Israel in Lebanon in 2006, and a number of countries during local conflicts in Africa and Asia.

Cluster bombs spread wars to civil areas. Even when dropped on military sites, they explode into hundreds of deadly submunitions which can harm noncombatants far from the main target. Croatia, Serbia, and other countries of the Balkan region have learned their lesson the tough way. Hopefully, it will take less drastic measures to make the reluctant states join them.

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