US Resisting Ban on Cluster Bombs
But a conference called by European governments in Brussels Tuesday is regarded as a step towards an international agreement on eliminating cluster weapons -- in which hundreds of small 'bomblets' are packed together.
Although an accord appears likely to be reached during 2008, activists are concerned over diplomatic manoeuvres by Washington to ensure that it will not be too stringent.
Representatives of the U.S., the world's number one user of cluster munitions, have been holding bilateral discussions with some European governments recently in a bid to water down any potential accord. The Bush administration has observer status at the Brussels conference, though it is a Europe-led initiative.
In February this year, a number of governments and humanitarian organisations joined forces in Oslo to urge that a legally binding international accord on banning these weapons should be finalised in 2008.
"Almost 90 countries have joined the Oslo process," said Stan Brabant from Handicap International, one of the groups most vociferous in opposing cluster bombs.
"We believe it is a very strong process, that it's unstoppable," he told IPS. "Have the U.S. efforts been successful? So far, not really. But we shall keep a very close eye on what they are doing."
Branislav Kapetanovic, a former member of the Serbian army, lost his arms and legs in an accident in November 2000 while he was trying to clear cluster bombs dropped by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) the previous year. His hearing was also damaged, and he was blinded for several months.
"These weapons are monstrous, and they cannot be controlled," he said. "A total ban is the only way to go. No exceptions, no excuses."
Cluster bombs were the focus of international attention again during the war in Lebanon last year. In the last 72 hours of that conflict, the Israeli defence forces used about four million cluster sub-munitions.
The weapon has a long history.
Cluster bombs were first used by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during the Second World War. In the intervening six decades, they have been found in at least 25 countries.
Over these years, some 5,500 people are officially known to have been killed, and 7,300 maimed by these bombs. But the real death toll is believed to be considerably higher. Virtually all of the confirmed victims were civilians.
Because cluster bombs can lie undetected long after they have been discharged, they are known to continue killing even when a war is over.
In Iraq, a minimum of 50 million sub-munitions have been used in U.S.-led operations between 1991 and 2006. About 3,000 casualties have been identified because of these weapons.
Within Europe, Britain, Germany and France have sought that the future agreement should provide exceptions for their weapons.
Britain, which dropped 755 cluster bombs on Serbia in 1999, was condemned for its stance by members of the European Parliament (MEPs) last week when they approved a formal resolution calling for a total ban on cluster bombs.
"Diplomatic moves by the UK government and others to suggest there are 'dumb' and 'smart' cluster munitions must be given short shrift," said British Liberal MEP Liz Lynne. "They all kill and maim."
Belgium, Norway, Hungary and Austria, on the other hand, have all taken steps to eliminate cluster bombs by introducing moratoria or bans on them.
Mark Hiznay, a specialist in arms issues with Human Rights Watch, said that Russia has also been opposed to international prohibition. Russia has been accused of explicitly targeting civilians in the breakaway republic of Chechnya with cluster bombs.
"Russia has articulated the view that these weapons are critical for it, now that it has downsized the military," he said, adding that Russia has used cluster bombs "extensively both overseas -- in Afghanistan -- and on its own territory in Chechnya."
Hiznay said that cluster bombs are a relic of the Cold War, and Russia should deem them obsolete now that the Soviet Union has been dissolved. This view, he said, is widely shared by military officers.
When arguments are made in favour of cluster bombs, "the military is not able to keep a straight face," he said. "These weapons are 20 to 30 years old, so they would have to get rid of them anyway."
The bombs which Israel dropped on Lebanon last year were made in the 1970s, and their failure rate was "predictably high", Hiznay said.
In the month after the Aug. 14 2006 ceasefire in Lebanon, cluster bombs caused an average of three casualties each day. Two casualties were caused each day on average for the remainder of the year. Many of the victims were simply walking through their village.
© 2007 Inter Press Service