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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.