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.
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.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Frida Berrigan writes for TomDispatch, Waging Nonviolence and other outlets. Her book, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood, was published by OR Books in 2015. She lives in New London, Conn., with her husband, three kids and six chickens.