Published on Tuesday, August 8, 2000 in the Manchester Guardian (UK)
Cluster Bombs: The Hidden Toll
by Richard Norton-Taylor
The number of civilians prey to unexploded cluster bombs is significantly higher than admitted by governments, including the British, which have consistently suppressed evidence about the weapon's military effectiveness, according to a devastating report published today.
Cluster bombs, which contain at least 147 "bomblets" scattered over a large area, were used extensively in the Vietnam, Falklands and Gulf wars, and most recently during Nato's air assault on Kosovo.
Cluster bombs have killed 50 people - about one a week - over the past year in the Serbian province, and injured more than 150, says the report by the UK Working Group on Landmines, a charity combining non-government agencies and funded in part by the Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.
"The unexploded bomblets effectively turn into landmines, ready to detonate on contact, causing death and injury to civilians even many years after the war has ended," said Richard Lloyd, the group's director. "As many are brightly coloured and the size of a drinks can, they are particularly attractive to children."
The report by Rae McGrath, a leading campaigner against landmines, shows the effect of cluster bombs in earlier conflicts is being ignored by confused and indiscriminate military strategies.
Cluster bombs were dropped from medium and high altitudes during the Kosovo conflict despite official US assessments after the 1991 Gulf war that they were likely to miss their targets.
The Ministry of Defence, which says RAF planes dropped 531 cluster bombs during the Kosovo war, quotes the manufacturer's estimate of a 5% failure rate. But the UN Mine Action Coordinating Centre in Kosovo gives a much higher figure.
"In Kosovo, preliminary statistics for the British RBL755 [a cluster bomb available on the open arms market] show that the failure rate is about 11-12%", the centre said in March.
Moreover, the MoD has itself admitted that the failure rate of cluster bombs used in the Falklands was at least 9.6%, nearly twice as high as the manufacturer's claims.
The bomblets are designed to explode on impact but a soft surface or the presence of trees - cluster bombs were dropped against concealed targets in wooded areas of Kosovo - can lead to "substantial failures", today's report says.
Evidence from the use of cluster bombs in Kosovo, the Gulf war, US military trials, and the Falklands conflict indicate that failure rates range between 9% and 30%, the report says. The difference between a 5% and a 9% failure rate in Kosovo would mean more than 3,000 more unexploded bomblets in the province.
Cluster bombs are capable of turning huge areas into killing fields. The report says it is clear from censored figures that their use in Kosovo was disproportionate to any military advantage gained.
It says official figures of targets destroyed during the bombing have been discredited by the release of details from the US Munitions Effects Assessment Team (Meat) which conducted a comprehensive investigation immediately after the campaign.
The Meat report was suppressed - even the UN could not get a copy - and replaced by one written by the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Henry Shelton, based mainly on interviews with aircrews.
The Shelton report estimated that 140 tanks, 220 armoured personnel carriers, and 450 artillery pieces were destroyed in Kosovo. Meat's figures are, respectively 14, 18, and 20. The Meat team found that of 744 "confirmed" Nato strikes, there was only evidence of 58 successful ones.
The 50 people killed by Nato cluster bomblets since the end of the bombing campaign include two British soldiers and a young boy whose death was witnessed by a 13-year-old friend.
The friend, who underwent a double leg amputation, recalled: "I went with my cousins to see the place where Nato bombed. As we walked I saw something yellow - someone told us it was a cluster bomb. One of us took it and put it into a well. Nothing happened... We began talking about taking the bomb to play with and then I just put it somewhere and it exploded.
"The boy near me died and I was thrown a metre into the air. The boy who died was 14 - he had his head cut off."
In June, in its report on the lessons from Kosovo, the MoD described cluster bombs as "an effective weapon against area targets such as a group of soft-skinned military vehicles". It added: "Nevertheless, we have learned that it would be useful to have a capability to strike single vehicles more accurately..."
Today's report says: "The continued use of cluster bombs has cost thousands of civilian lives, denied land to the poor and disenfranchised and is now costing the international community millions to eradicate the unexploded submunitions... To continue this distortion of the truth [the official claims of a 5% failure rate] while ignoring the advice of experts from the military and civilian mine-clearance community, is unforgivable."
Cluster bombs are not covered by legislation banning landmines since they are not "designed" to be detonated by people on the ground. Today's report calls for a new international law making governments, the military and manufacturers fully responsible for the clearance of unexploded bomblets and for marking affected land, paying compensation to civilians and handing over to the UN full records of cluster bomb deployment.
As a first step, it says, there must be a global moratorium on their use, manufacture and sale, pending an in-depth review of their legality and impact.
A global threat
www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/cluster.htm Federation of American Scientists information