Every evening, 14-year-old Phan Van Rot set fish traps in the stream outside his home on the coast of central Vietnam. The following day he would collect the fish on a string and take his catch to the house.
One morning, after heavy rains breached a dam upstream, he noticed something peculiar in the water: a round brown object. He bent down and reached for it. Just as he lifted the small but heavy ball from the sandy stream bottom, it exploded.
It was a cluster bomb. It took his left hand above the wrist and his left leg below the knee. Shrapnel perforated his abdomen. The date was July 5, 2002 -- more than a quarter-century after the war in Vietnam ended.
You can change Rot's name, the place of his accident and the date, but the result will be the same. In the past hour, it probably happened again somewhere else. Perhaps in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq or Chechnya.
Cluster bombs, invented in World War II and now standard air-dropped munitions for many nations, leave a lethal legacy. According to one estimate, 98 percent of cluster bomb casualties are civilians.
Aside from the "collateral damage" they cause in wartime, most "brands" of cluster bombs do not reliably explode when intended, while others are designed like landmines to go off on the ground so the enemy is denied access to territory, roads, utility installations and so on.
Their recent use in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah last summer was another wake-up call to the havoc they wreak. In the last three days of the fighting, 4 million cluster bombs were dropped. At least one in every four did not explode. The ones that remained caused 161 casualties among civilians, including 19 deaths, by Christmas -- initially at a rate of three accidents a day.
Given their high failure rates and controversial deployment, there is a growing movement afoot to restrict the use of cluster bombs. It's time to end the kind of post-conflict suffering I see every time I travel to Southeast Asia for Clear Path International, our non-profit organization that assists landmine and bomb victims. In the past two years, we have assisted more than 200 new accident survivors like Phan Van Rot in central Vietnam alone, many of them victims of cluster bomb accidents.
In February, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced legislation to restrict federal funds for the use, sale or transfer of cluster bombs except for clearly defined military targets. The bombs would also have to be 99 percent reliable or more. Currently, dud rates range from 5 percent to 40 percent.
The bill was referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The two senators hope a similar bill will be introduced in the House.
Our state's delegation should support this legislation, which comes at a time when other countries are seeking even tighter restrictions. In Olso last month, 43 countries signed an agreement calling for a ban on the munitions by 2008. The United States (not even invited), Russia and China were absent.
With all the laser-like precision technology supposedly available these days, why do armies still insist on using a shotgun approach to warfare using products that could have been improved decades ago and leave a deadly mess for generations?
Imbert Matthee is president of Clear Path International, which has offices on Bainbridge Island and in Vermont.
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