Ban Bus

A two minute history.

Like all great tales it starts with “Along time ago, in a land far far away”.

In fact the long time ago was 1997 and the land far far away was Mozambique. The world had descended on Maputo to begin rounds of treaty talks that would ultimately develop into the Landmine Ban Treaty. At this stage of the process it seemed a successful treaty and ban on landmines was along way away and the chance of success was very fragile. There was much work to do and pressure and engagement had to occur with governments on many levels. There had to be strong political lobbying and good strong grass roots movements. The clock was ticking and in under one year we would succeed with a ban or fall to abject failure.

John and Mette planning Ban Bus US.

Two of the NGO participants at the Mozambique meeting were Mette Eliseussen from Norway and myself from Australia. Both of us had many years of field experience behind us, Mette as a Program Manager for Save the Children working in Afghanistan and me as a photojournalist who had worked the worlds trouble spots for many years. One of Mette’s projects with war traumatised children involved drawing postcards to express their experiences in war. She had over 20,000 cards and she wanted to deliver these to the United States government to push them towards signing the treaty. These were the words and messages from people affected by war who had no voice of their own in the international arena.

Postcard drawings made by Kabul children..

Many plans were hatched between Mette and me as to how best to impact on the US government till finally we hit upon the idea of doing an advocacy bus trip across America talking to any people or communities who would listen. This was the birth of The Ban Bus.

Repeated efforts to plan and fund this trip collapsed till two months prior to the treaty signing. A handful of NGO’s gave a few funds to get this bus on the road and in a matter of days Mette and I were in San Francisco joined by our friends Michael Hands and Mary Wareham.

Ahead was the whole of America. The great civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson set us on our way in front of a crowd of thousands of students from the steps of the University of Berkley. The journey had begun.

For the next six weeks the bus wove a path to any community who wanted to know more about landmines. No one was turned down. Peace groups, student bodies, churches, political meetings, government legislatures, veterans groups, United Nations organisations and any one else who wanted to know more was accommodated.

Simon Flem Devold and Mette with staff at Children´s museum.

As the trip progressed, the national media gained interest and journalists followed every move and presentation. A physical presence of the issue of landmines was being established in the public eye and in turn pressure was being put on the American government. The questions were now being asked in the media and the public arena as “Why is America against this treaty?”

For the next six weeks The Ban Bus crossed the country and finally finished in Ottawa the day before the treaty was signed after covering over 9000 km and doing 100 presentations. A massive amount of media was generated and the American government certainly was feeling the heat.

Although the US government did not sign the landmine treaty they certainly were put under a large amount of public and political pressure. That pressure continues to this day and changing political fortunes may bring it back as a major agenda item again.

The Ban Bus was a huge success as an advocacy initiative and was done with a lot of good will and very little budget. A handful of NGO’s covered various costs and the majority of the working budget was achieved by selling T-shirts along the way. This was the main source of income for fuel and food. Accommodation was kindly provided by numerous people who opened their homes to The Ban Bus team. Every manner of spare room, basement and Spartan bare floor (thanks Bud) were used and without this generous support The Ban Bus would not have been possible.

A cheesy film once quoted “Never Say Never”. Oh never truer words were spoken. Although the Ban Bus was a success in the amount of outreach if achieved and the media it attracted it nearly killed the team. Friendships were strained and all were on the verge of complete and absolute burn out. When the treaty was signed and we loaded onto various flights we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Job done but personally finished.

A week later, most of us were back together again in Oslo for the presentation of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. We had won it. Not the Ban Bus but the whole International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Jody Williams had won it. It was good to be back together. A Nobel Peace prize is the greatest international accolade that can be bestowed on any group or individual. This makes for a proud moment but as we sat in the Oslo Town Hall for the presentation one could not but wind your mind back to reflect on what we had done and where we had come to. Proud times. The proudest time was not however the Nobel Peace Prize. It was a week earlier and that magic moment when Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, put pen to paper and the Treaty to Ban Landmines came into being. Then I nearly cried.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1997 with still too many wars and chaos around the world. We have continued working in most of them and there was always a nagging remembrance of a job unfinished. The treaty to ban landmines has ticked along and done a stunning job in systematically reducing the global problem caused by them. The world is now a far safer place than it was before 1997. Over three quarters of the world nations have signed it and landmine use is now down to negligible amounts. It’s a success in progress.


Anne groth, Christian Ruge and Michael Hands.

The nagging remembrance comes in the form of a small metal object that rains from the heavens by their thousands. It comes in the form of the cluster bomb. There are many similarities and differences between landmines and cluster bombs but the one great similarity is that they create a dangerous legacy for communities days, years, decades after the conflicts are over. They are a deadly legacy that never goes away, the gift that keeps on giving. Like landmines, once used the earth is left scorched and barren as any attempt to farm it will spell death to the innocent who stumbles into a contact. Here lies the similarity between the two munitions. The difference lies in that amount that can be deployed at any one time.

Where the majority of landmines have to be manually sown, cluster bombs can be delivered from the air in their millions. The global scale of the landmine problem at the end of 1997 was estimated to be between 60 and 100 million landmines laid, armed and in wait for the next footfall. This is a catastrophe and sounds like a terrible problem. It is. What is worse and actually can make landmines pail into insignificance is the use of cluster bombs. Anyone using this weapon has the ability to saturate an area with these deadly bomblets in a matter of days and so not just create carnage on the ground but the unexploded duds will lie about as a dangerous reminder of the war that was. The recent war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah was a great example of this.

The war was short and vicious and only ran to 34 days. It was largely a conventional conflict between infantry and artillery with the Israeli’s having air support but the key that separated this war from any others was Israel’s use of cluster bombs. They fought their conventional war for 31 days then unleashed a ferocious barrage of cluster bombs in the last three day. Militarily this made no sense as a peace package was already on the table. The only possible answer can be that it was a “salted earth policy”. Leave those in Southern Lebanon stinging and thinking twice in future before provoking their powerful neighbour.

This was bad enough but what was mind numbing were the numbers of cluster bombs used. The United National Mine Action Centre in Tyre in Southern Lebanon estimates in excess of 4 million of these bomblets were fired by the Israeli’s. Of these 4 million munitions about 25% to 40% of them failed to explode. That’s 1 to 2 million dangerous little bomblets just lying about waiting for someone to touch them. That’s 1 to 2 million little reasons for the returning population to stay scared. That’s a massive amount of money to be spent by the international community to clean this mess up. It’s also 2 to 4 times the size of the entire landmine problem and all created in three days. The potential for mass saturation not only exists but it’s actively being used.

This is not a new phenomenon. Every time cluster bombs are used, the end result is the same. Today, everyone knows of the use of these weapons in Lebanon in 2006 but few remember the monumental amount that the United States dropped on South East Asia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In excess of 300 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos between 1966 and 1973,,,,, 300 million! Cambodia and Vietnam were also hammered and they all live with the legacy of that war that ended 33 years ago. What possible military logic is there to deploy a weapon system that by its very nature creates such ongoing danger and poverty for so long. Quite frankly they would be better off if they were Nuked as they would have got over the consequences quicker. In 1978 World War 2 had been over for 33 years and most of the damage was long gone. Both Japan and Europe had redeveloped and moved into a new and prosperous chapter in their histories. Laos does not have this luxury.

I always see Laos and Lebanon as the two pillars of this problem. The worst and the last. Every conflict in between is no different and I know as I have worked in most of them. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, West Sahara, Bosnia, Falklands, Iraq have all been clustered and all are stuck in a dangerous paralysis till the clusters are removed. For most, the clusters will never be removed. At least not for the time being.

In 2003 there was a meeting of NGO’s in Dublin regarding post conflict development issues. The hot topic of the day was the US invasion of Iraq. Cluster bombs rode high on the agenda as we were getting reports of them being dropped into urban Baghdad. Some were nervous about taking on the cluster issue so the interested few found a back room and this was the birth of the Cluster Munition Coalition. We dozen or so who were there ticked along and tried to raise awareness and lobby governments but it was slow and painful and gained very slow momentum. The first breakthrough was the hiring of a bright young ex New Zealand diplomat as the coordinator and things started to progress at a greater rate.

We grew and grew and raised more interest both in the media and with politicians and started to get the issue on agendas at international negotiations. Still it was slow. The break though for us was the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006. This wasn’t a special use of them, just the latest use of them. We had the current hook we needed to lobby governments behind us now.


The ball was now beginning to roll faster and faster and the governments of the world began to really take notice. Militaries around the world still vigorously defended the use, potential use, maybe use, one day use of these weapons. They peddled out the same old tired arguments that were rolled out ten years ago against landmines. I had a distinct Déjà vu. It’s just not in a militaries psyche to wilfully disarm anything. They by their very nature are in the business of acquiring as many weapons systems as possible, not giving them up. An old repetitive argument it might be but an argument it is all the same. The fight had begun.

From our point of view we must identify who is in charge and how we get them to change their minds on cluster bombs. Who is in charge is the government of the day and not the armies. The military is an extension of civil society and not the other way around. Governments tell the military what to do so when they demand to keep a weapon system it s the role of government to critically examine what the issue is and how to direct the military. They must never take on advice from anyone at face value but must question, research and question again. In other words, the dog must wag the tail, not the tail wag the dog.

According to most militaries around the world, doom and destruction will befall any government who bans any weapon system. After World War 1 an army report to the US government argued vigorously that if poison gas was banned then future wars could not be won. Poison gas was banned and that ban has held up except for two notable exceptions, Mussolini used gas in Abyssinia in the 1930’s and Saddam Hussain gassed the Kurds in the 1980’s.

Since World War 1, it’s not that humans have become a peace loving tree hugging species. The opposite is true as millions of people have been slaughtered in another World War and numerous other conflicts. The only difference is that we took one weapons system out of the equation and started to look at the concept that wars have limits. If wars do not have limits then the next one could go to total industrial war and that would probably quickly spend the end of our species. Chemical, nuclear, biological, no limits. This makes the use of cluster bombs look a bit tame. It’s not that the human race has a shortage of ways to kill each other, it’s just that if we do then we should strive to limit the fighting to the battle field and actively wage it in a way that creates no lasting legacy. Cluster bombs by their very nature create such a legacy.


From the end of the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 we have gained amazing political momentum towards actually addressing the problem of cluster bombs. The evidence that came out of Lebanon was clear and concise that whenever cluster bombs are used a disaster follows. To get any form of change like an international treaty you need a government to champion the cause. Up until the Lebanon war this was missing. After the war we took the information gained in Lebanon to the Norwegian government and lobbied for them to be this champion. We got a reasonable reception from them but the usual hostile response from the Norwegian military.

The government agreed that the use of these weapons always created a post conflict humanitarian catastrophe but the military argued that they had only the most modern state of the art systems and their clusters could never cause the kind of problem found in Lebanon.

When I was in Lebanon just after the war, one of my main tasks was to find evidence that the kind of cluster bombs that the Norwegians had failed just like all the rest. The kind they had had a self destruct and was called the M-85. This was to be my Holy Grail. Prove these fail and the Norwegian militaries argument falls over. After much searching and crawling into cluster strike areas and hopping from rock to rock I finally got the evidence I needed. Masses of M-85’s scattered over a large area, most armed, very dangerous and all with a failed self destruct mechanism. Gotcha!!! I filmed it and photographed it and sped the evidence back to Norway.

What really amazed me was the speed that the Norwegian government moved at. In a matter of weeks the major debate had been waged and won and they were beginning to emerge as the possible nation to sponsor a treaty process. The Norwegian military went into melt down over the possibility of losing their cluster bombs and staged a very impressive field test. They covered a disused runway with half and inch of gravel and fired their M-85’s onto it. As expected, they all worked beautifully. Of course they did. This was a test set up in pristine conditions where the objective was to prove how good their systems are. The fact that this kind of test bares no resemblance to battlefield conditions was of no consequence to them. They did their tests, proved how good their systems were and all watched and reported. We all held our breath for the decision from the government.

A pristine test versus the battlefield reality, which would win? They made their deliberations and came out against the military. Everything from ground angle, hardness, weather conditions, wind, vegetation and height of deployment affect the failure rate of any weapon and the reality is these things fail and fail again.

A treaty process was now possible and the Norwegian would get behind it.

The Norwegian political machine now moved into overdrive and they made a challenge to the world to meet in Oslo in February of 2007 to begin work on a comprehensive treaty that will ban cluster bombs. 49 countries came and at the end of two days 46 of them agreed to work towards a treaty and a ban. The ball was rolling and now needed to build momentum.

You can’t just pull an international treaty out of the air. It has to be a very consultative process so all participating countries can have a say in what goes into it. After all, it is a legally binding document that if they sign they will have to adhere to. A process must be developed and worked through.

The normal arena for a treaty to be negotiated is within the United Nations and the forum is a conference called the CCW. The only problem with this is that the CCW hasn’t achieved a thing in many decades. The problem with anything negotiated in the UN is that it’s a consensus process. This means that any country can scuttle the whole process by their lack of consensus. The cluster bomb issue had been discussed there many times and achieved absolutely nothing. A different approach was needed.

The Landmine Treaty form 1997 created a different approach. The sponsor nation then was Canada and they developed what was later to be called the Ottawa Process. This meant a treaty would be negotiated outside the UN system with the aim of “Opt in”. In simple terms, a good solid treaty would be negotiated then it’s up to countries to come and sign it. No one has the power of veto and the problems of consensus would be overcome. This was the perfect blueprint for a treaty to ban cluster bombs. The Oslo Process, as it has been come to be known, was born.

Now was the time to build partnerships and membership for this process. 49 countries in Oslo in February in 2007 was nice but we needed the world, a second round of talks were set for Lima, Peru for May. This meeting had 86 countries come and the end result was the desire to create a treaty. In baby steps, first you find the will, then you find the way. The will was there. The next round of talks would be held in Vienna in December and this would get down to some very substantial discussions. 138 countries came here and the talks started to get tough. Some of the wealthy nations began to attempt to bully the rest with arrogance and bombast but the integrity of the treaty process held out.

The oracles of doom predicted the end of NATO, global catastrophe and other great calamities. They all wanted exceptions build into the treaty that would allow them, and only them, to keep their very special and very smart cluster bombs. This was rejected. The gloves were starting to come off and negotiations into the real text were beginning to emerge. There was one more round of talks to be held in Wellington New Zealand before the final meeting in Dublin in May. Wellington would be crucial.

The way a treaty is developed in these meetings is that at the end after all the negotiations are done there is a declaration made. The declaration is the draft text that will then be picked up at the next meeting and worked forward from there. It was essential that what came out of Wellington was going to be strong and that no loop holes were bored into it by some of the nations who wanted a weak treaty.

When you lobby governments on issues like this you need to break the argument down to individual components and defeat them one at a time. If you stay locked in the big picture argument then it’s very hard to break a government view as one point will support another. Knock the wall apart piece by piece and the tower crumbles.

The issues that are not real do piece by piece fall by the wayside and what is left is just the substantial issues. The real substantial issues did come down to three point’s, Transition periods, Definitions and Interoperability. Now we were getting somewhere and had some meaty arguments to get stuck into.

We can dismiss one of them from the outset, the so called issue on Transition periods. This was an extremely cynical proposal for anyone to place upon the agenda. The very thought that you would create a treaty that bans a weapon because of the unacceptable random harm to civilians and then not implement it for 5 or 10 years is quite simply ridiculous. That’s like being only a bit dead or half pregnant. The reality is you are either dead, pregnant or have a total ban, nothing else.

When I saw the handful of countries try to introduce this I almost felt embarrassed for the diplomats reading such a stupid statement. If only they could see the looks of other delegations in the room they would have thought twice before their speeches. I don’t yet think this is a dead issue but I do think it’s a dying one.

Definition’s is an important debate for there must be developed a strong understanding of what is and isn’t banned. This will take its proper course during the final treaty talks in Dublin. What has been accepted is a list of things that are not to be covered by the treaty such and chaff and decoy flares. That is fare and practical and it’s good to get these points out of the way early.

The real sticker for many of the wealthy nations is the concept of Interoperability. This boils down to if you go to war with allies and they use cluster bombs will you then be held liable. This is probably the key point for many nations. Its certainly a key point for Australia and the United Kingdom. One side of me says bad luck as they shouldn’t be running off to war with the United States so wilfully and readily but the pragmatist in me realises that this will be something that needs to be addressed. This form of treaty process is based on being practical and finding practical solutions so yes, we must be practical also. I would not like to pre-empt how that will play out but accept a solution must be found. What is essential is that what does develop in this arena isn’t a broad loop hole where during a coalition operation like in Afghanistan an Australian soldier can not order in a cluster bomb strike from another ally. If that were to happen then the treaty would be worthless.

With all of this setting the scene behind us we now find the final round of talks ready to be played out in Dublin in the second half of May. The world comes to Dublin and either makes or breaks it. This is the last chance to make this a reality. If it becomes a failure then the chance of getting a second chance at a treaty in the foreseeable future is basically zero. There was once an attempt to address this in the past. It was in 1976 and it was a red hot shot. It failed. Now 32 years later and many more wars under the bridge we get our second bite at the cherry. With all of the desire and good intention to get a treaty process started it took the catalyst of Lebanon to make this happen. This now has to be all or nothing. Failure is not an option.

For the members of civil society who have driven this process from the ground up its not just the latest brief from government for us but a life and death situations for all who live in countries that in future could be affected by cluster bomb use. We can’t take away the killing and pain of what has gone on before but we can stop it happening in the future.

In one sense I feel sorry for the members of government delegations who just take their brief from their capitals and then try and argue what is often the indefensible. I couldn’t do it and feel nothing but contempt for those who conduct themselves with no personal morality.

The call to arms

With the world coming to Dublin I thought I’d beat them to it. It was time to hit the road and get this issue as much exposure and understanding as is humanly possible. It was time for another Ban Bus. What was that bit about Never saying Never? Since the original Ban Bus 11 years ago across America many things have happened. I’ve no idea how many wars and nasty little corners have filled my world in those years but all of that has kept me hungry to get something real done. Much horror can spur much motivation. The good thing in my life is Mette and me are now a couple. We survived the Ban Bus across America, just, and went onto strength and strength. Combined we can pack a real punch when it comes to this kind of work.

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Ban cluster bombs!