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Will Cluster Bombs Be Banned?

  • Gary Thomas

On Monday, representatives from some 100 nations are scheduled to gather in Dublin, Ireland to hammer out an international convention to ban cluster bombs. But the world's major military powers -- including the United States, Russia and China -- will not be among them.

The campaign to ban cluster munitions is a descendant of the campaign to ban landmines and includes many of the same people. As in their earlier effort with landmines, the cluster bomb campaigners want an international treaty banning their use.

Steve Goose helped found the Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions, a coalition of human rights and peace activists that is the prime non-governmental organization behind the anti-cluster bomb movement. He says these bombs are insidious weapons that indiscriminately kill or maim civilians.

"When hundreds, sometimes thousand, of sub-munitions are released from individual bombs, they spread out over an area that sometimes covers several football fields, and you cannot target them precisely or even closely to your military objective," says Goose. "So when they are used in areas where either civilians are or where civilians might return to in the future, you end up with predictable and excessive numbers of civilian casualties."

Why Oppose a Ban?

But as was the case with the landmine treaty, major military powers like the United States, Russia, and China -- all of which make, sell and, in some cases, have used cluster munitions -- oppose a ban.

Richard Kidd, Director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, says cluster bombs are a necessary tool in a nation's military arsenal. "By the laws of physics, chemistry and geometry, the cluster munition is the most efficient way of delivering conventional munitions onto an area target," says Kidd. "Area targets will be a feature on all future battlefields. And so the military utility of the cluster munition is really not in doubt. What the issue is, is can we preserve that utility while making the munition safer for civilians? And the answer is, 'Yes.'"

In coldly descriptive military prose, cluster bombs are air-dropped or ground-launched munitions that eject hundreds of smaller sub-munitions, or "bomblets," over a wide area. The bomblets then spray the area with pellets or other anti-personnel or anti-tank munitions. Iraqi soldiers who were at the receiving end of U.S. cluster bombs in the 1991 Persian Gulf War called them "steel rain."

The United States used these weapons extensively during the Vietnam War and in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. NATO dropped cluster bombs on the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and U.S.-led forces used them in Afghanistan to help rout the ruling Taliban in 1991. Russia has been accused of using these weapons in Chechnya and Israel dropped cluster bombs on Lebanon in 2006.

Steve Goose, who also is Executive Director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, says cluster bombs pose a threat even after they hit the ground.

"It's related to the campaign to ban landmines, particularly in that one of the two major objectionable features of cluster munitions is that if they don't work like they are supposed to -- that is, if they don't explode on impact -- they, in essence, become little anti-personnel landmines because they are usually still armed, making them highly hazardous," says Goose. "If you touch them, kick them, pick them up, do other things, they will explode. But cluster munitions have not been used nearly as much as landmines were. This campaign is in many respects a preventive campaign."

But the State Department's Richard Kidd dismisses comparisons between landmines and cluster bombs. He says cluster bombs are not bad if used responsibly, and that efforts are underway to make them safer, so they explode when they are supposed to.

"One, cluster munitions have nowhere near the humanitarian impact of landmines. Two, cluster munitions have a demonstrated military utility. And with new technology, that military utility is actually going to increase as we add guidance, redundant fuses, et cetera. And third, also, the prospect of this new technology will make the weapon even safer than it is today," says Kidd.

"Cleaning Up the Mess"

The exact number of unexploded cluster bombs lying around is unknown. The Cluster Munitions Coalition says there are no verifiable figures on the number of civilians killed or injured by cluster bombs, but that the casualties are substantial.

The United States is creating a "quick reaction force" of explosives experts to handle threats from leftover munitions around the world. According to the State Department, the U.S. spent $65 million last year to defuse landmines and cluster bombs, but only $1.5 million went specifically for cleaning up unexploded cluster munitions -- mostly in Laos and Lebanon.

U.S. officials say the small amount spent reflects the small danger posed by unexploded cluster bombs. Richard Kidd says there are other, more pressing humanitarian issues than cluster munitions.

"While we don't want to be dismissive of any loss of life, because every loss is tragic and every life is sacred, when we have to make resource decisions about where and how we apply funds to prevent humanitarian harm, there are a lot of other areas that are actually higher priority than cluster munitions," says Kidd.

But Steve Goose says the United States needs to not just treat the problem, but to find a solution. "Like with landmines, the U.S. has put a huge amount of money into trying to clean up the mess," says Goose. "But also like landmines, cleaning up the mess is not enough. You've got to go after the cause and not just try to clean up after yourself."

Dublin Prospects

Kidd says the United States believes that another forum, the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, is the proper place to discuss the issue. But Goose argues that process is far too slow, a charge that Kidd denies.

Goose says that even though the United States is among several nations spurning the Dublin conference next week, it is at least willing to talk about restrictions on cluster munitions. He says that in the end, a treaty on cluster munitions can affect international behavior, even among countries that do not sign it.

"Even if they stay away, we think that this process has been and will continue to establish a new standard of behavior, a new international norm against this weapon that stigmatizes it, that makes even those who have not joined the treaty act largely in accordance with it. This is one of the key lessons we've learned from the landmine treaty," says Goose.

Organizers of the Dublin conference hope to end up with a treaty that bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions that will be signed by participating governments in Oslo in December. However, some participating governments such as Britain have reservations about the draft language and are looking to revise the treaty during negotiations.

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