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Cluster Bombs and Teddy Bears

This November 5 sees an international day of action to raise awareness of the human suffering caused by cluster bombs. Ten years after a treaty banning landmines, there is now an international process under way to ban cluster bombs.

Like landmines, cluster bombs kill and injure civilians after conflict.

The widespread use of these weapons in Lebanon last year drew the world's attention to that once again. Like landmines, cluster bombs are generally recognised as abhorrent weapons.

Since their widespread use by the USA in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, the public conscience has recoiled at weapons that scatter explosives indiscriminately over a wide area.

The first proposals to ban cluster bombs were made in 1974. Since that time the weapons have been used in some 25 countries and, most worryingly, they are now in the arsenals of 70 states world-wide.

Cluster bombs have already killed too many innocent civilians both during and after conflict.

Through a perverse accident of their design, they seem to be particularly attractive to children - six-year old Abbas picked up a cluster munition in Lebanon last year because "it looked like a perfume bottle".

It exploded in his hand causing injuries to his stomach and lungs.

Many of the recorded casualties are young boys drawn by curiosity to investigate the small, unfamiliar and intriguing objects that are left littering their environment.

If they are not killed outright then the resulting injuries, such as loss of hands or sight, will often mean a life of physical, economic and social hardship in countries ill equipped to support people with disabilities.

The relief of parents that have seen their family survive a war can turn quickly to grief that the conflict has not really ceased, that the violence of the past can still tear their lives apart.

The UK has been the third largest user of cluster bombs in the world over the last ten years.

Despite scattering nearly two hundred thousand lethal submunitions during the bombing of Kosovo and the invasion of Iraq, the Government has failed to produce any evidence that these weapons made a real contribution to achieving military objectives.

After all, more UK troops died from NATO cluster bombs in Kosovo than were killed by the Serb military.

If it is not clear that they have actually helped the UK to win wars, it is certain that they do not help to win the peace. Presented with the opportunity to secure an international ban on these weapons, the UK's response has been shameful.

Although trying to keep one foot in the camp working for a meaningful treaty, the UK really supports the go-slow approach - hoping to hide behind the coattails of China, Russia and the USA.

Rather than ensuring that cluster munitions are banned, the UK actually wants a treaty to legitimise the millions of these weapons that it still has in stocks.

The Government claims that so-called "self-destruct" mechanisms can be fitted to cluster bombs in order to stop them from contaminating the post-conflict environment. The UK has purchased nearly three million of these "bomblets" from Israel - so they have strong incentive to claim that this system works.

Unfortunately, when Israel used these same munitions in Lebanon in 2006 they were left littering the homes, gardens and fields of the civilian population.

The UK's favoured solution doesn't work. This has been picked up on by MPs in Parliament. Two influential Select Committees have recently examined evidence and concluded that the solution proposed by the Government leaves "a potential to inflict death and injury on innocent non-combatants that is substantial".

Despite this rejection, the Government is working to create an international law based on this same solution.

The cynicism of the Government's position comes out most clearly in its response to the evidence from Lebanon and to the criticism of these Select Committees.

Faced with a growing body of data and expert testimony that these self-destruct mechanisms don't work, UK officials have focused on discrediting the evidence not on examining the implications of this for the protection of civilians.

Despite the rhetoric, close scrutiny shows that protection of civilians is rarely at the forefront of Government thinking on this issue. In March this year the Government announced that it had completed a review that had "considered carefully the humanitarian factors" associated with cluster bombs.

Yet officials have refused to reveal what evidence regarding civilian harm was actually considered - it is known that the assessment contained no statistics regarding civilian casualties, nor on the quantities of unexploded bombs left in different post-conflict environments, nor statistics on the areas of land painstakingly cleared by civilian teams and funded out of precious development monies.

It is hard to imagine what the Government's "careful consideration" amounted to.

Given that the lives of real men, women and children are at stake, the approach taken is disgraceful.

It seems to be based on two premises - one which is misguided and the other which is simply callous. The first is a lazy assumption that protecting civilians means putting British troops at risk.

Yet serious military thinkers recognise that this is not the case: in modern war, killing civilians fuels the enemy. The second premise is that foreign civilians do not really count.

Whilst robust methods are used to protect domestic populations against anything from dangerous pharmaceuticals to faulty toys, there is no equivalent diligence when the likely victims are foreign, disempowered and voiceless.

To raise awareness of the injustice of cluster munitions, the United Nations Children's Fund, Development Programme and Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, along with the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, are sponsoring an international newspaper advert.

The advert shows three seemingly innocuous objects - a teddy bear, a toy truck and a necklace - each of which, as a precaution, was withdrawn from sale when found to present a risk to children.

The fourth item is a cluster bomb. All weapons kill and maim and all wars will cause harm and suffering to innocent people.

Yet whilst Government's like that of the UK approach the issue in such a callous and short-sighted way, much of that suffering is still unnecessary, superfluous, indiscriminate and avoidable.

Our political leaders need to stop the empty rhetoric, stop killing civilians, and start taking responsibility for the protection of the innocent and the vulnerable.

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