Britain has joined the US, China and Russia to block a proposed ban on cluster bombs in the wake of extensive use of the weapons during the war in Lebanon.
A group of countries, led by Sweden, is urging a worldwide ban on cluster bombs at arms talks in Geneva. Each bomb contains hundreds of small "bomblets", many of which fail to explode until picked up by inquisitive children or stepped on by civilians.
The location of an Israeli cluster bomb is marked with red paint near the village of El Maalliye in southern Lebanon. Photograph: Sergey Ponomarev/AP
Israeli forces dropped an estimated 1m cluster bomblets in southern Lebanon this summer - 90% of which were dropped in the last three days of the conflict, a new report from Landmine Action said yesterday. The weapons have left a trail of unexploded munitions that is killing between three and four civilians each day and impeding relief work.
In just one month, the UN identified more than 500 areas hit by cluster bombs, the report said.
Richard Moyes, policy and research manager of Landmine Action, which supports the proposed ban, said Britain's refusal to back a ban was "incredible". "Unfortunately, it is not surprising because the UK has been one of the biggest users of the munitions, in Kosovo and in Iraq," he added.
Mr Moyes said he did not want to speculate on why Israel had dropped so many cluster bombs in the last days of the war in Lebanon that ended in August. One theory was that Israel hoped it would make it more difficult for Hizbullah to fire its rockets from southern Lebanon.
Aid agencies and human rights groups, such as Landmine Action, have repeatedly called for an international ban on the use of cluster weapons
Most Israeli cluster strikes hit built-up areas. Landmine Action says when the research for its report was undertaken a month after the ceasefire, water and power supplies had been blocked, and schools, roads, houses, and gardens were still littered with unexploded devices.
The report says: "In many affected areas, farmers have not been able to safely harvest what was left of this summer's tobacco, wheat, and fruit; late-yielding crops such as olives will remain too dangerous to harvest by November and winter crops will be lost because farmers will be unable to plough their grains and vegetables."
Simon Conway, the director of Landmine Action, said: "Every day women and children are killed or injured as they sift through the rubble of their former homes by cluster munitions that failed to go off. If they were any other kind of product, they would have been recalled."
The Foreign Office confirmed that the UK is opposing the diplomatic push led by Sweden in Geneva to change the certain conventional weapons treaty.
It said: "The UK believes existing humanitarian law is sufficient for the conduct of military operations, including the use of cluster munitions, and no treaty is required. The UK remains committed to improving the reliability of all munitions with the aim of achieving lower failure rates and leaving few unexploded ordnance in order to minimise the humanitarian risk." It said this had been longstanding British policy.
Sweden is supported by various countries, including Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, as well as the Vatican and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Cluster bombs have been used in most conflicts since the Vietnam war. Belgium has banned them and Australia and Norway have declared a moratorium on their use. Germany has said its forces will stop using them.
The Foreign Office minister, Lord Triesman, told peers in a debate this month that "cluster munitions are legitimate weapons when used in accordance with international humanitarian law".
He added: "They provide a unique capability against certain dispersed and wide-area military targets, for which other munitions are not necessarily practical." He said Britain expected the Israeli government to investigate any "well-founded allegations of the misuse of munitions by their armed forces".
The British embassy in Tel Aviv was pursuing the matter with the Israeli authorities, Lord Triesman said.
According to the UN's mine action coordinating centre, Israeli forces fired 1,800 rocket systems, each with 12 individual rockets, into south Lebanon.
The high failure rate meant that 450,000 cluster bomblets were left on the ground, according to the Liberal Democrats.
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said: "There is now an irrefutable case for a comprehensive international ban on the use, production, and transfer of cluster munitions."
· Cluster bombs are usually dropped from medium to high altitudes and consist of dozens of bomblets in an outer casing. They have anti-armour and anti-personnel capabilities
· They do not have precision guidance. With a 5% dud rate, unexploded bombs become landmines
· According to Human Rights Watch, Nato aircraft dropped nearly 2,000 during the campaign in the former Yugoslavia in 1999
· They also estimate that 1,600 Kuwaiti and Iraqi civilians were killed by the estimated 1.2m duds left after the 1991 Gulf war
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