Features » December 11, 2006
What We Leave Behind
From Kosovo to Lebanon, cluster bomb casualties continue to mount
In just one week in October, a series of bomb scares swept across Germany. Outside of Hannover, 22,000 people were evacuated when three bombs were discovered. A few days later in the same city, a weapons removal squad defused a 500-pound bomb found near the highway. Finally, a highway worker was killed when his cutting machine hit a buried bomb on the main highway into Frankfurt.
The bombs hadn’t been planted by terrorists, and they weren’t the opening salvos of the next war. The culprit was unexploded ordnance left over from a war fought more than 60 years ago. “We’ll have enough work to keep us busy for the next 100 to 120 years,” the owner of a bomb-defusing company told the New York Times.
The submunitions dispersed by cluster bombs are a lot smaller than 500 pounds, but their use in every major conflict since World War II 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. Ninety-eight percent of those killed or injured by cluster bombs are civilians. And yet international efforts to restrict the use of cluster bombs–modeled after landmine treaties of previous years–are being undermined by lack of U.S. participation. Worse, instead of destroying old cluster bomb stockpiles, the United States is exporting them to allies around the world.
What is a cluster bomb?
Although varied in size and configuration, a cluster munition is essentially a large canister–as long as 13 feet and weighing up to 2,000 pounds–packed with bomblets or submunitions. Launched from the air by fighter planes, bombers or helicopters, or shot out of artillery, rockets or missile systems, the canister is designed to break open mid-air, spreading the submunitions over areas as large as two or three football fields. While some modern systems are outfitted with GPS or infrared guidance systems, or “wind correction” kits to stabilize their spin, most are free-falling or gravity devices. The bomblets–a single canister can hold hundreds–ranging in size from a soda can to a flashlight battery, are packed with shrapnel and an explosive charge. They are meant to explode on impact with the ground, differentiating them from landmines, which are triggered by the victim.
Militaries throughout the world value cluster bombs because a single volley can impede or slow advancing troops and destroy or render unusable airfields and surface-to-air missile sites. But the weapons do not always work as designed. Mine removal teams, post-conflict workers, military officials and even the companies themselves admit that wind, weather and soil conditions, as well as possible mechanical malfunction or human error, can all drive the “dud rate” for these weapons as high as 40 percent.
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 under the Geneva Conventions that govern conduct during conflicts.
Israel’s war against Lebanon: cluster bombs on display
Lebanon provides an object lesson in how these tenets of the Geneva Conventions are not upheld and how implementation of existing law is inadequate to the challenge. On August 14, 2006, Israel and Lebanon signed a peace agreement ending their 34-day war, yet the body count continues to rise. According to a November Handicap International report, since mid-August, unexploded ordnance has killed 21 and wounded another 121 Lebanese civilians.
An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman insists that “all of the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are legal according to international law and their use conforms to international standards.” That is cold comfort for the family of 11-year-old Ramy Shibleh, one of the post-war victims. He was gathering pinecones outside Halta, a small southern town where the Lebanese army had already cleared mines twice. But more bombs remained, including the one that Ramy and his brother hit with their cart of pinecones. Reuters reports that Ramy tried to toss the rock-like object out of the way, but it exploded, tearing off his right arm and the back of his head and killing him instantly. His mother keeps the shreds of the yellow shirt Ramy was wearing when he died. “He was only picking the pine nuts to buy the toys he loved,” she told reporters.
With its weapon industry and the billions in military aid that it provides to Israel each year, the United States is implicated in the war and its grim aftermath without firing one shot or dropping one bomb. At least two of Israel’s cluster bomb and launch systems are U.S.-manufactured. Human Rights Watch discovered remnants of the “M483A1” 155mm-artillery projectiles, which each contain 88 M42 AND M46 submunitions. The projectiles are known as “Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions” (dual in the sense that they are anti-personnel and anti-vehicle) and were developed at “the Army’s Center of Lethality”–the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Picatinny, New Jersey. The researchers also found M26 rockets fired from Lockheed Martin’s Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Each MLRS can fire up to 12 rockets at once, and each rocket contains 644 M77 submunitions.
While the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is responsible for the vast majority of the millions of cluster bombs used throughout the war, recent reports from Human Rights Watch assert that Hezbollah shot a hundred or more Chinese-made rockets packed with cluster submunitions. During the war, three civilians in northern Israel were wounded, but as of this writing, there have been no reports of post-conflict casualties from these Hezbollah weapons.
The State Department is investigating Israel’s use of American-made cluster bombs during the war in Lebanon–in particular, whether Israel broke a secret agreement made with the United States in 1967 not to use cluster bombs against civilians. In their October 2006 report “Foreseeable Harm,” Landmine Action disclosed the conditions of the agreement, including the stipulation that Israel was to use cluster munitions “only for defensive purposes, against fortified military targets, and only if attacked by two or more ‘Arab states.’ ” Additionally, the secret provisions prohibit use of the bombs except against “regular forces of a sovereign nation” and in “special wartime conditions,” according to the administration and congressional officials. The arrangement gave the IDF greater latitude than the typical regulations that require foreign governments to use U.S.-origin military items solely for internal security and legitimate self-defense.
There have not been any follow-up reports in the media on the status of the State Department’s investigation, or its conclusions. Calls to the Office of Defense Compliance by In These Times requesting more information were not returned. But it does not take months of careful study to conclude that the IDF flagrantly violated U.S. law as well as the secret agreement made to skirt that law, to say nothing of the Geneva Conventions.
And then there is the timing. During the last three days of the war–as the final touches on the peace agreement were being made–Israel dumped an estimated 1.2 million bomblets throughout Lebanon, a country smaller than Connecticut. Jan Egeland, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was decidedly undiplomatic in his assessment: “What is shocking and, I would say, to me, completely immoral is that 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution.”
With their failure rate of up to 40 percent, more than one of every three bombs may not detonate immediately–lying in wait for children, trucks and livestock.
While the IDF has not explained their decision to saturate southern Lebanon with bombs, an October 6 New York Times article posits that Israel wanted to inflict as much last minute harm on Hezbollah as possible, or slow the repopulation of border communities. An unnamed Israeli commander of a rocket unit in Lebanon told Haaretz on September 12 that the saturation bombing with cluster weapons was “insane and monstrous; we covered entire towns in cluster bombs.”
The saturation bombing has effectively crippled agriculture. Farmers’ fields and orchards are now minefields and their crops are rotting on the stalk. The summer tobacco, wheat, and fruit, as well as late-yielding crops like olives, cannot be harvested and winter crops, like lentils and chickpeas, have not been planted because farmers cannot plow their fields. Many of the two to three daily casualties are poor farmers desperate to feed their families from fields that are now de facto minefields.
Rida Noureddine, an olive and wheat farmer whose land is littered with cluster bombs, feels the frustration of many southern Lebanese who are dependent on the land. He told the New York Times, “I feel as though someone has tied my arms, or is holding me by my neck, suffocating me because this land is my soul.”
Cluster bombs in the eyes of the world
With the spotlight on Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon and the failure of international law to stop the carnage there, the call for a ban on cluster bombs similar to the prohibition on landmines is growing louder. Belgium instituted a ban and Germany announced their troops will no longer use cluster weaponry. Australia and Norway have declared a moratorium. Sweden, Mexico, the Vatican and the International Committee of the Red Cross are all calling for a ban.
The model for their efforts is the Landmine Ban or “Ottawa Treaty,” which entered into force in March 1999. The treaty prohibits the manufacture, trade and use of anti-personnel mines, obliges signing countries to destroy stockpiles within four years and clear their own territory within 10 years, and urges governments to help poorer countries clear land and assist landmine victims. Non-governmental organizations like Landmine Action and the Mennonite Central Committee argue that once a cluster submunition hits the ground, it is essentially a landmine and should be barred under the treaty.
The United States is not among the 151 states that have ratified the Landmine Ban, and the Bush Administration’s February 2004 landmine policy reserves the right to use so-called “self-destructing mines” through 2010. Israel, Burma, North Korea and 36 other countries also remain outside the international consensus banning landmines.
Another possible tool for anti-cluster bomb campaigners is the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW). As ratified, the Convention prohibits or restricts the use of weapons that cause excessive injuries or have indiscriminate effects on people–including weapons that leave undetectable fragments in the human body, mines and booby-traps, incendiary weapons (such as white phosphorus used by the United States in Iraq and Israel in Lebanon) and blinding laser weapons.
In November 2003, a fifth protocol, addressing “Explosive Remnants of War” like cluster weapon duds, was added. So far, only 26 nations have signed on to Protocol V and agreed to negotiate responsibility for clearance, provide risk education to the local population, improve the reliability of munitions through “voluntary best practices,” and continue to implement existing international humanitarian law. These are useful measures, but they do not address the use of cluster bombs, just what to do after they have landed. In addition, ratification by many more countries–especially by countries like Israel and the United States that are using these weapons–is needed for the effort to be more than symbolic.
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Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate with the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative and a member of the Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World.