Congress Takes Action on Cluster Bombs, Child Soldiers

WASHINGTON -- Human-rights and humanitarian groups are hailing provisions of a major appropriations bill approved by Congress this week that bans the export of most U.S.-made cluster bombs and U.S. military aid for foreign governments that use child soldiers.The two provisions -- which were tucked into a mammoth 560-billion-dollar 2008 omnibus spending bill -- marked important victories for the groups, which have made both issues a major legislative priority.

On child soldiers, the bill provides that no military aid can be provided to governments whose "...armed forces or government supported armed groups, including paramilitaries, militias, or civil defense forces... recruit or use child soldiers."

Governments that could be denied aid under the bill include Colombia -- which receives several hundred million dollars' worth of U.S. military aid each year -- Chad, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda, all of which have been accused by the most recent State Department annual human rights Country Reports of recruiting children as soldiers.

As for cluster bombs, the bill bans their transfer to any foreign nation unless they have at least a 99-percent reliability rate and the importing country has pledged in writing that it will not use the weapon in civilian areas.

This ban was prompted by Israel's planting of hundreds of thousands of cluster munitions in populated areas of southern Lebanon in the last days of its 2006 war against Hezbollah. The U.N. denounced Israel's action -- which has reportedly caused more than 200 civilian casualties since the end of the war -- as "completely immoral".

"An export moratorium is a good first step," said Lora Lumpe, coordinator of the U.S. Campaign to Ban Landmines and a lobbyist at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. "We will work in the coming year to make the export ban permanent and to prohibit the U.S. military's use of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians."

The omnibus bill, which covered everything from bridge repair to financing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, was approved by both houses of Congress earlier this week and is expected to be signed by President George W. Bush within the next few days.

The bill, which extended a 1992 ban on the export of anti-personnel landmines through 2014, also provided nearly 80 million dollars for humanitarian de-mining programs around the world and another four million dollars for projects to protect the rights of persons with disabilities resulting from landmines, cluster munitions and other weapons.

The ban on U.S. military aid to governments that use child soldiers could have its greatest impact on Colombia, which receives far more U.S. military aid than any other Latin American country. Worldwide, it is currently Washington's sixth biggest recipient of military aid, behind Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, and Afghanistan.

With such a large investment, the administration is likely to resist cutting off military aid to its closest ally in the Andean region. The provision's wording offers two major loopholes.

Under its terms, the aid could go forward if the secretary of state certifies to Congress that the government "has implemented effective measures" to demobilize child soldiers from its ranks or from those of government- supported militias, and to prevent their future recruitment. In addition, the secretary of state may waive the ban if she determines that it is in the U.S. "national interest" to do so.

In the case of Colombia, President Alvaro Uribe, who has sought to demobilise all right-wing paramilitary groups, has vowed to eliminate the use of child soldiers. But, the problem persists, according to human-rights monitors.

Despite the loopholes, rights advocates say they see passage of the ban as an important step forward. "It certainly gives the U.S. another tool to fight the use of child soldiers around the world and it also gives the Pentagon and the State Department a greater stake in doing so," said Tom Malinowski, the head of the Washington office of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Malinowski also praised the provision on exporting cluster munitions, saying that its language "reflects the growing consensus around the world that this weapon needs to be banned."

Indeed, passage of the legislation came just two weeks after representatives of 138 governments gathered in Vienna to work out a global treaty that -- like a similar 1997 agreement, the so-called Ottawa Convention on anti- personnel land mines -- would prohibit the production, stockpiling, export and use of cluster munitions.

The Bush administration has so far boycotted those negotiations, which are called the "Oslo Process" after the capital of Norway where the initiative was launched earlier this year.

"With this law, Congress helps move the U.S. closer to the position of most of its NATO partners and other U.S. allies," according to Ken Rutherford, co- founder of the Landmine Survivors Network.

The U.S. exports cluster bombs -- munitions that, when exploded, saturate a specific target area with hundreds of sub-munitions, "bomblets" -- to 28 countries, including Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel.

Washington has a stockpile of nearly one billion sub-munitions, according to HRW. One system widely used and exported by the U.S. is the M26 rocket, which is fired by the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). One MLRS volley launches 12 M26 rockets that eject nearly 8,000 sub-munitions over a 200 x 400 meter area in which any living thing exposed at the time of fire would almost certainly be killed or gravely wounded.

Moreover, the M26 rocket, like many other kinds of cluster munitions, has a failure rate of 16 percent. Thus, one volley could result in more than 1,000 "duds" or unexploded sub-munitions -- which, due to their size and bright colouring, may be attractive to children -- littering the area long after the volley has been fired or hostilities have ceased.

Such unexploded munitions have caused thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Laos, Lebanon, and Vietnam, as well as southern Lebanon, in recent years.

"This law recognizes the need to prevent cluster bombs from being used in civilian-populated areas," said Colby Goodman, who directs the Child Soldiers and Arms Transfers program at the U.S. section of Amnesty International (AIUSA). "Congress has taken an important step to protect innocent lives and to demonstrate respect for international humanitarian law," according to AIUSA.

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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