Britain will lead the way in scrapping all its cluster bombs, the Prime Minister announced yesterday before diplomats from more than 100 countries later unanimously passed a treaty to ban the use of the bombs around the world.
Overruling the objections of defence chiefs, Gordon Brown said the UK would abandon its entire stockpile as a key step in the long-running campaign against the weapons.
Later last night, delegates in Dublin also agreed to destroy any stockpiles of the weapons within the next eight years. The agreement does not include the US, China or Russia. But it was hailed as a triumph by campaigners last night. Simon Conway, co-chair of Cluster Munitions Coalition, said: "It's a combination of years of work and we are extremely happy. The bombs have been criticised for killing and maiming civilians in war zones all over the world.
Before the resolution was passed, Mr Brown said: "After 10 days of intense talks in Dublin, we are now very close to agreement on a new international convention prohibiting the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
"In order to secure as strong a convention as possible in the last hours of negotiation, we have issued instructions that we support a ban on all cluster bombs, including those currently in service by the UK. This builds on the UK's leadership on landmines and the Arms Trade Treaty."
While pointing out it could take decades to clear up the lethal legacy of cluster bomb use in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, campaigners said the decision was "a major act of statesmanship" by Mr Brown. Mr Conway said: "This is the breakthrough we were looking for. It will encourage other participating nations to make compromises."
Cluster bomb systems scatter bomblets across a wide area and can be deadly to civilians, particularly children, who pick up munitions which failed to detonate on impact.
Although the Defence Secretary announced in March last year that the UK would ban "dumb" cluster bombs, which can lie on the ground until they are detonated, defence chiefs wanted to keep "smart" weapons, which destroy themselves, to use against massed troops or insurgents. But last night a full international agreement banning the use of cluster bombs was still some way off. Russia, China and the US were making clear their opposition to such a move – America was not represented at the summit – and Downing Street sources said there were sticking points, including the issue of interoperability.
For instance, the legal situation would be unclear if British troops were fighting alongside the US and the US retained the weapons. The Government wants to allow the US to retain the stockpile of cluster munitions the US military keeps in bases in Britain.
Diplomats were also arguing over the degree of obligation for countries signing up to a ban to clear unexploded sub-munitions.