Leading article: No backsliding on cluster bombs

Wednesday 09 November 2011 01:00 GMT

Britain used to be one of the leading lights on the issue of cluster bombs. Following the lead on landmines of Diana, Princess of Wales, the Foreign Office proved one of the main movers of the ground-breaking 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, helping to persuade 22 of 28 Nato allies to sign up to the agreement to ban their use.

It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to find that the Government has been backsliding in the face of determined opposition to the ban by the exporters of these deadly weapons, led by Washington.

The US, along with Russia, China, South Korea, India and Pakistan, have come up with an alternative, and unpalatable, proposal for a meeting in Geneva later this month. Forget a total ban, they propose, instead agree a watered-down version as an amendment to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons from the early 1980s. Under this, countries will be allowed to use cluster bombs as long as they are of more recent manufacture (after 1980) and have a failure rate of less than 1 per cent or a self-destruct mechanism.

The Government, it seems, is minded to go along with this abandonment of principle in favour of pragmatism. Given the strength of opposition by the US and the major military powers, they argue, better a little of what is possible than a lot of what is impossible. It's the same argument that we have heard over whaling or over dealing with the Chinese on Tibet and the Burmese government on oppression.

In this case, the only response can be: no. Compromise is neither right nor possible. Cluster bombs are an abomination. They are indiscriminate, hurting civilians as much as combatants. They can lie around for years as unexploded ordnance to endanger the limbs and lives of children and ordinary civilians. They are based on a principle of maximum harm that belies any hope of restraint or humanity.

The Government was right the first time to take a tough line on this form of waging war. Only total prohibition will work and that is where we should continue to plant our flag.

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