Frida Berrigan / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-01-09 00:43:42
Weapon of War — Killer of Innocents
Like Landmines, US Wants its Cluster Bombs
( January 7, 2007) — In one week in October, Germany suffered a series of bomb scares. Outside Hannover, 22,000 people fled their homes when three bombs were discovered. A few days later, a weapons-removal squad defused a 500-pound bomb near the city’s highway. Finally, a highway worker near Frankfurt was killed when his cutting machine hit a buried bomb.
Terrorists hadn’t planted the bombs. They weren’t the opening salvo in the next war. The culprit was unexploded ordnance left over from World War II.
The submunitions dispersed by cluster bombs are a lot smaller than 500 pounds, but their use in every major conflict in the last 60 years ensures that bomb clearers the world over will have work for decades — even centuries — to come. From Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to the countries of the former Yugoslavia, and onto Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, modern battlefields are littered with bombs that continue to kill long after wars have ended.
Cluster bombs are not singled out for prohibition under international law, despite the fact that they cannot distinguish between civilian and combatant and their effects stretch beyond the duration of hostilities, two crucial litmus tests for munitions use under the Geneva Conventions. Ninety-eight percent of those killed or injured by cluster bombs are civilians.
In September, the Senate voted on an amendment by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The measure was attached to the defense appropriations bill and bore the title “Protect civilian lives from unexploded cluster munitions.” Seventy senators voted it down.
A cluster munition consists of a large canister — as long as 13 feet and weighing up to 2,000 pounds — packed with bomblets. Dropped from the air by fighter planes, bombers or helicopters, or launched from artillery, the canister is designed to break open in midair, spreading bomblets over a football field-size area.
The bomblets — a single canister can hold hundreds — range in size from an AA battery to a soda can and are packed with shrapnel and an explosive charge.
Militaries value cluster bombs because a single volley can impede advancing troops and render airfields and surface-to-air missile sites unusable. But the weapons seldom work as designed.
Mine-removal teams, post-conflict workers, military officials and even the manufacturers themselves admit that wind, weather and soil conditions, as well as mechanical malfunction or human error, can drive the “dud rate” for these weapons as high as 40 percent.
Last fall, with global attention still focused on Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon, the call for a cluster bomb ban grew louder. Belgium instituted a ban, Germany announced a suspension, and Australia and Norway declared a moratorium. Sweden, Mexico, the Vatican and the International Committee of the Red Cross took up the call. Meetings will begin in Norway early this year to take the next steps toward negotiating a cluster bomb ban.
The land mine ban is their model. The March 1999 treaty prohibits the manufacture, trade and use of anti-personnel mines and obliges signing countries to destroy stockpiles within four years and clear their territory within 10 years.
The United States is not among the 151 states that have ratified the land mine ban, and the Bush administration’s February 2004 land mine policy reserves the right to use what it called self-destructing mines through 2010. Israel, Burma, North Korea and 36 other countries also remain outside the international consensus banning land mines.
While the United States has not ratified the land mine treaty, the Pentagon is concerned about cluster weapons. In an October 2004 report to Congress, the Department of Defense described cluster munitions as vital and versatile, but military officials admit they are “keenly aware of and interested in reducing our cluster munitions dud rates and improving the accuracy of the delivery methods.” Consequently, the Pentagon recently adopted the Cohen policy, named after former Defense Secretary William Cohen, which requires the military to purchase only cluster weapons that have a 1 percent or smaller dud rate.
The Army, Marines and other military services are requesting hundreds of millions of dollars for new cluster weapons and the retrofitting of existing systems to conform to the Cohen policy.
Weapons manufacturers have adapted to the new policy, and their promotional material emphasizes the “limited footprint” and “targetable” nature of their weapons. In vivid military jargon, weapons manufacturer Textron describes the Clean Lightweight Area Weapon as “the next generation smart soft target munition.” (For those not familiar with the lingo, a soft target is a person.) The Rhode Island company boasts that a “single 64-pound munition has the footprint and effectiveness of a 1,000-pound legacy cluster bomb.”
The Cohen policy and the weapons it has spawned ensures that despite whatever progress is made in Norway and at other international forums to ban cluster bombs, the eight U.S. companies that produce cluster weapons, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, will continue to manufacture the systems and the military will keep using them.
The United States may well be the largest producer, but it is not alone. Human Rights Watch asserts that 33 other countries produce more than 210 types of cluster munitions.
As an indiscriminate weapon, a cluster bomb hides responsibility and removes culpability. The big bomb releases the little bombs, killing a soldier tomorrow, a farmer next month, or a child a year from now, and creating a permanent state of terror where human activity is dangerous.
Recent experience in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere demonstrates the grave and lasting consequences of cluster bombs. Weapons that indiscriminately kill long after hostilities have abated are an anathema to international law — and human decency.
It is time to ban them all. Feinstein and Leahy will resubmit a version of their amendment in the 109th Congress. This important first step demands resounding support. Otherwise, future generations of bomb removers will have their work cut out for them, and innocent civilians will continue to die.
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. A longer version of this piece appeared in In These Times.
©2007 San Francisco Chronicle
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