Amidst the tumult over sex education for kindergardeners, lipstick on pigs, well-to-do pregnant teenagers, and other such topics of import, it’s understandable that some trivial matters go undiscussed during the presidential campaign.
Take the case of cluster bombs. Cluster munitions are air-dropped or ground-launched weapons that eject a number of smaller submunitions (from 3 to more than 2000) over potentially wide areas. The most common types aim to destroy armored vehicles and unarmored personnel. Others are to destroy runways and electric power transmission lines, deliver chemical or biological weapons, or distribute landmines over large areas.
Modern cluster bombs have been around in one form or another since the Germans first used them against civilian and military targets during the Second World War. Due to their lethality, they have grown in popularity over the decades. Today, thirty-four countries produce cluster bombs, and another 76 stockpile them. Fourteen countries have used cluster munitions on more than two dozen other countries.
The US dropped countless thousands of tons of cluster bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the sixties and seventies. More recently, the United States used cluster bombs in Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, and in Iraq in 2003. Israel used them massively against Hezbollah in 2006, including up to one million submunitions dropped in the last 72 hours of the conflict. Georgia used Israeli-supplied cluster munitions against both South Ossetian and Russian targets last month.
While there are “smart” cluster munitions that can be guided to armored vehicles, and can be set to self-destruct if they reach the ground without hitting a target, they are many times more expensive and thus much less common than the so-called “dumb” kind.
The unguided sort are not merely dumb but also especially cruel and inhumane. This is so because (1) their widespread dispersal means they cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets; and (2) many submunitions fail to explode on impact and thus kill and maim unarmed civilians long after the end of the conflict. Some 300 people are killed annually from unexploded American ordnance in Indochina (33 years after the US withdrawal), and nearly as many have been killed in Lebanon—including UN peacekeepers—since the Israeli invasion in 2006.
“I have seen very young children in Afghanistan with artificial arms and legs having picked up cluster submunitions that are brightly colored and attract children who think they are toys,” said Adele Welty of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose firefighter son died on 9/11. “No one in this country is aware of the constant danger to people in many countries, most of them children, from . . . these explosive devices.”
A serious international effort is underway to address the problems posed by these indiscriminant weapons. More than one hundred counties promise to join the Convention on Cluster Munitions agreed to in Dublin in May of this year. These include US friends and neighbors Mexico, Canada, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom. A number of other countries are likely to join the treaty when it opens for signature and goes into effect in December 2008.
The Convention immediately bans the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster bombs and ensures that medical, socio-economic, and psychological support is given the victims, including clearance of contaminated land. Unfortunately, the signatories do not include China, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, or the United States.
It is now against the law for a US company or the government to export cluster munitions, thanks to efforts of Senators Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein that emerged out of the Convention’s negotiation process. But the Bush administration has been an adamant opponent of the Convention, and reserves the “right” to produce, stockpile, and use the weapons.
This anachronistic position provides a golden opportunity for the presidential candidates. Senator McCain and Senator Obama can both distinguish themselves from President Bush by embracing the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Cluster bombs have nothing to do with being “tough on terrorism.” These weapons are completely inappropriate when confronting a foe that seeks refuge among civilians. Consider the civilian death tolls from recent US actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, without the use of cluster munitions.
While no single treaty can repair the damage done to the US international reputation over the past eight years, joining the cluster bomb regime will be a good start for the new president. Surely he will not want the United States to stand outside international norms of humanitarian law on cluster munitions alongside Syria, Myanmar (Burma), and North Korea?
STEVE BREYMAN is a veteran of the United States Army, and has witnessed the destructive effects of cluster munitions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org