The British and US governments have significantly watered down efforts to create a legal obligation to clear up millions of unexploded bombs and mines in former war zones such as Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Laos, aid agencies say.
The protocol is due to be finalised during the last round of negotiations among more than 90 countries, including Russia and China, in Geneva later this month. It is designed to extend and strengthen the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons, but there are fears that the negotiations could collapse because of deepening divisions over the scope of the new rules.
Ministers face intensifying pressure this week to cut back on use of controversial cluster bombs, blamed for causing 50 casualties every week in Iraq. British aid agencies, including the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, yesterday launched "landmine action week", a series of protests and fundraising events designed to highlight the global plight of civilians exposed to unexploded armaments.
However, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Britain's Landmine Action have accused the UK and US of weakening attempts to legally require signatories to clear up all undetonated and faulty bombs, missiles and landmines. They claim the draft protocol, which has been seen by The Independent on Sunday, greatly reduces the obligations on military powers to take responsibility for their unexploded bombs during and after a war.
Instead, the latest draft suggests military powers can refuse to clear up battlefields, pay for independent clear-up operations or merely give out detailed information on their use of these bombs, if their opponents or the local controlling power will not co-operate with them directly.
The draft also regularly uses phrases such as "where appropriate", "as far as feasible", "as far as practicable", "in appropriate circumstances" and "subject to their legitimate security interests". These conditions, critics claim, offer signatories a series of major loopholes and allow them to duck their obligations.
Observers believe that Britain, while publicly endorsing calls for a legally binding declaration, has privately supported US reservations about the protocol in an attempt to keep the Bush administration on board. The Foreign Office is thought to want to avoid repeating the case of the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, which the US refused to sign. China and Russia, however, are said to favour much tougher rules.
Richard Lloyd, the director of Landmine Action, said: "Although the protocol could be a legally binding piece of international law, its measures are either extremely weak or essentially voluntary." Lou Maresca, the ICRC's legal adviser on landmines, agreed. "We have concerns that the latest draft is rather weak," he said, adding: "It's vague on a number of key issues and it relies on the notion of co-operation, which allows claims of non-cooperation to be a justification to do nothing. For a party reading this instrument, it's not necessarily clear what they should or shouldn't do."
The Foreign Office insisted last week it would push for a legally binding agreement, but refused to be drawn on its contents. "Negotiations are still ongoing," said one source. "At the moment, they're prejudging the situation." The disagreement will heighten the controversy over Britain's use of cluster bombs in Iraq, where UN agencies estimate that at least 1,000 people have been hurt since the war ended.
The Ministry of Defence's efforts to clear up unexploded bombs in Iraq have been criticised by aid agencies as being far too slow. They are also limited to areas of military value, and are paid for from British overseas aid funds rather than by the MoD, the agencies add. The UN says 17,000 Afghans face injury or death over the next decade because US and British mine- and bomb-clearing efforts are too slow and poorly funded.