It wasn’t quite the Christmas truce of 1914 but a kind of peace broke out in the House on Thursday with the passage of the Cluster Munitions Prohibition Bill. It took a bill banning a truly nasty bit of weaponry to bring about such cross-party togetherness.
Cluster munitions have caused tens of thousands of deaths in the the last forty years, many of them innocent civilians. Dropped from the air they disperse large numbers of bomblets, many of which don’t detonate and then lie on the ground for years like landmines waiting to go off.
Over the past couple of decades these hideous weapons have been used by the US in the first Gulf War, the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the former Yugoslavia; and by Israel and Hezbollah in South Lebanon. During that last conflict my colleague David Shearer was the UN humanitarian coordinator in Lebanon and witnessed the effect of cluster munitions first hand. He spoke movingly about it during the debate.
With Marian Hobbs and then Phil Goff as Disarmament Minister New Zealand was one one of the seven-country core group under Norway’s leadership that led the charge for a Convention on Cluster Munitions. The convention was opened for signature in December last year. It takes 30 countries to ratify it before it comes into force. Now that our law has been passed, ratification can take place this week, and New Zealand may well be the 25th.
Another Kiwi, Mary Wareham, who works for New York-based Human Rights Watch, has played a key role in the international campaign to ban cluster munitions, as she did in the international campaign to ban land mines. It was great to see Mary in the gallery as the ban was passed into law. Like they did with the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines, the international NGOs have played a key role sparking public opinion, and pushing governments to act. The Aotearoa-NZ coalition led by Wareham strongly influenced the final wording of the bill through its submission to the select committee.
In particular the NGOs, supported by Labour and the Greens, convinced government members to back a provision outlawing investment in companies that produce cluster munitions. Only three other countries have done the same: Belgium, Ireland and Luxembourg. The clause criminalises deliberate investment in the production of cluster munitions including by our Government funds.
Our law, and the Convention, may go some way to protecting Kiwi soldiers from the effects of cluster bombs when they are in the battle field. Hopefully the Convention will succeed in stigmatising and dramatically reducing the use of cluster munitions, just as the ban on landmines has done, and in the process save thousands of innocent civilians from death or injury.
It is the latest contribution to evolving international humanitarian law that over the last century has given us the Geneva Conventions, the UN Charter, bans on chemical and biological weapons, and landmines more recently, the International Court of Justice’s judgement outlawing nuclear weapons, and the International Criminal Court.
Labour speakers acknowledged Disarmament Minister Georgina Te Heu Heu’s strong support for the bill last night. I hope this Government will take the same approach and carve out a leadership role for New Zealand on the Arms Trade Treaty, and growing moves to rid the world of nuclear weapons.