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What We Leave Behind (cont’d)

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The CCW’s Third Review Conference ran from November 7-17 in Geneva. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other key NGOs and nations see an immediate freeze on the use of inaccureate and unreliable cluster munitions as a worthy outcome of the meeting along with elimination of stockpiles of legacy systems, and a complete ban on the use of cluster munitions against military targets in populated areas. ICRC will hold an “international expert meeting” in 2007 as a first step toward a new global pact on cluster weapons. Against the backdrop of Lebanon’s suffering, there is broad support for these steps. But maintaining the sense of urgency will not be easy, especially in the face of diplomatic foot-dragging by key states like the United States, which says Protocol V is an adequate response to cluster weapons (even though the United States has not yet ratified the measure). In advance of the meeting, the State Department asserted support for Protocol V, but cautioned that it is not interested in “negotiating new rules on cluster munitions or other explosive remnants of war.”

Concerted and genuine support from the United States (as a world leader and one of the largest manufacturers of cluster bombs) for banning cluster bombs won’t bring Ramy back to his grieving family, and it won’t restore Rida’s orchards and livelihood, but it could ensure that future generations do not share their suffering.

U.S. cluster weapons: vital, versatile and vicious

While the United States has not ratified the landmine treaty or the CCW, and does not indicate any willingness to accept even partial responsibility for this summer’s brutal war, 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 only purchase new cluster weapons that have a 1 percent or smaller dud rate.

Human Rights Watch estimates that the U.S. has a stockpile of 1 billion “old, unreliable and inaccurate” cluster munitions. Some of the so-called “legacy” weapons have been dismantled, but the Defense Department continues to transfer cluster weapons and delivery systems to allies around the world. The Defense Department analyzed various submunitions and found failure rates of 3 to 23 percent under test conditions, but military officials and others acknowledge that these rates can be exacerbated by environmental factors.

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 CLAW (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-based company boasts that a “single 64-pound munition has the footprint and effectiveness of a 1,000 lb. legacy cluster bomb.”

The Cohen policy and the new weapons it has spawned ensures that despite whatever progress is made in Geneva and at other international fora to ban cluster bombs, the eight U.S. companies that produce cluster weapons, including recognizable names like Textron, General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, 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 Right Watch asserts that 33 other countries produce more than 210 different types of cluster munitions. And at least 12 other countries have transferred cluster munitions to as many as 58 nations.

U.S. bombs at work

In its 2004 report, the Pentagon acknowledged “the potential danger to non-combatants posed by UXO [unexploded ordnance]” and declared that it had “developed strict rules of engagement and targeting methodologies, intended to minimize risks to civilians in or near the zone of conflict.” But, in a world far removed from law, policy and dud rate calculations, cluster weapons continue to do what they are designed for.

A quick look at some of the war zones of the last 20 years should be enough to make anti-cluster bomb campaigners out of just about anyone.

According to Handicap International, in 1999, the United States and allies dropped more than 2,000 cluster bombs on the territory of former Yugoslavia, where the stated aim was humanitarian intervention. Human Rights Watch documented that cluster strikes killed 90 to 150 civilians and injured many more, constituting up to 23 percent of the total civilian deaths in the conflict, even though cluster bombs amounted to just 6 percent of bombs dropped.

A few years later in Afghanistan, the goal was different, but the results were similar. From October 2001 to March 2002, in a bid to topple the Taliban, the United States dropped about 1,228 cluster bombs, representing about 5 percent of the U.S. bombs dropped during that time period. According to Handicap International, there were 121 casualties due to cluster bombs during the same period, but it is impossible to link them all to the United States, as both the Soviet Union and the Taliban had used cluster munitions in previous wars. In an October 2001 incident, a U.S. cluster bomb apparently intended for a nearby military base fell on the small community of Qala Shater, causing 11 to 13 deaths. Casualties included a 17-year-old boy named Najibullah who died in front of his home and 70-year-old Faqir Mohammed.

Iraq: a steel rain’s gonna fall

Over the last 15 years, Iraq has borne the brunt of U.S. cluster bomb use. During the First Gulf War, Handicap International estimates that the United States dropped 47,167 air-delivered cluster munitions containing more than 13 million submunitions. In one day alone–February 21, 1991–U.S. military personnel fired a total of 220,248 M77 submunitions from the Multiple Launch Rocket System made by Lockheed Martin. During the war, the company’s signature system was dubbed “steel rain.” The 1991 “air war” lasted just 43 days, but in the years that followed more than 4,000 civilians have been killed or injured by cluster munition duds. Iraqi civilians were not the only casualties–at least 80 U.S. soldiers have been injured by cluster munitions.

In 2003, one of the earliest reported uses of cluster weapons during Operation Enduring Freedom was also one of the most gruesome. U.S. cluster weapons fired on the al-Hilla community killed 33 and injured another 109. According to Amnesty International, “Injured survivors told reporters how the explosives fell ‘like grapes’ from the sky, and how bomblets bounced through the windows and doors of their homes before exploding.”

In the period between “shock and awe” and “mission accomplished,” the U.S. and U.K. forces dropped between 1,300 and 1,500 cluster munitions from the air, and another 11,600 from land-based systems. The death toll from these assaults has been difficult to calculate. Handicap International places at least a portion of the blame for that difficulty on the Coalition Provisional Authority, saying that “[d]uring the 2003 conflict and its aftermath, the CPA strongly discouraged casualty data collection, especially in relation to cluster submunitions.” The report goes on to note that, as of September, there is still no data collection mechanism for tracking new casualties in Iraq.

Ban it all

Indiscriminate weaponry like cluster bombs hides who is responsible and removes culpability. Without responsibility, how can there be law? The big bomb releases the little bombs, which might kill a soldier tomorrow, a farmer next month, or a child a year from now. Cluster bombing is different from strafing a village, massacring a family or executing a suspected militant. Hands and consciences remain clean while bodies are shredded and pulped. There is no My Lai massacre or No Gun Ri atrocity with cluster weapons. Rather, a permanent state of terror is created where all human activity is dangerous and costly.

Recent experience in Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere demonstrates the grave and lasting consequences of cluster bombs, and reveals the shortcomings of existing international law and its enforcement. Weapons that indiscriminately kills long after hostilities have abated is an anathema to international law–and human decency. It is time to ban them all.

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.

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