Nations Working to Ban Cluster Bombs
Seconds later, an explosion of ball bearings shot into his skull from one of more than 4 million cluster bombs fired into southern Lebanon by the Israeli military. The boy died a few hours later.
Since the end of the conflict, Hadi and 29 other Lebanese civilians have been killed and more than 200 injured by triggering some of the unexploded cluster bombs in southern Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that about 1 million of these bombs - mostly produced in the United States - failed to explode on impact, leaving roads, schools, homes and fields littered with lethal explosives. Most of the bombs were fired by the Israeli military in the last three days of the conflict after a cease-fire had been declared.
Military experts say hundreds of cluster bombs - also known as submunitions - can be contained within a single shell, exploding in midair before showering an area the size of several football fields with fragments. These same experts say the bombs are especially effective against airfields, tanks and enemy convoys.
But because cluster bombs also have a high failure rate, human rights groups have long cautioned that unsuspecting civilians - especially children - are most vulnerable, because the slightest touch can inadvertently detonate unexploded bombs.
These small bombs caused more civilian casualties in the 2003 invasion of Iraq than any other weapon, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international network of 200 nongovernmental organizations campaigning to ban its use.
82 nations on board
Last month, 122 nations met at a Cluster Munition Coalition meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, to work out final discussions for an eventual treaty banning cluster bombs. The draft, which has been endorsed by 82 nations, would bar signatory nations from producing, using or stockpiling cluster bombs.
Supporters say the final treaty, which is expected to be signed in Oslo, Norway, later this year, would be the most significant advance in disarmament since the 1997 ban on anti-personnel mines.
But for U.N. minesweepers in southern Lebanon, 13 of whom have died during the painstaking task of destroying unexploded cluster bombs, the ban can't come soon enough.
"This was unprecedented and one of the worst, if not the worst, use of submunitions in history," said Dalya Farran, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center for South Lebanon.
In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch said Israel dropped 4.6 million cluster bombs on southern Lebanon, more than in recent wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.
To be sure, cluster bombs have been used in warfare since World War II and are standard air-dropped bombs for many nations. At least 14 countries and a small number of nonstate militias - Hezbollah, for example - have used cluster bombs in at least 30 nations and territories, while at least 76 nations have stockpiles, according to Human Rights Watch.
Cluster bomb manufacturers say the failure rate is typically between 10 and 15 percent. But the United Nations says it is between 20 and 30 percent and was even higher in southern Lebanon due to Israel's use of Vietnam War-era and Chinese bombs, whose date of effectiveness had long since expired.
"By their nature, cluster bombs are very likely to fail," said Farran, the U.N. spokeswoman. "They are not accurate and not reliable."
Farran said the mine removal campaign in Lebanon is far more daunting than that in Kosovo, an area comparable in size. "In a 2 1/2-year program, (the U.N. Mine Action Service) cleared 25,000 submunitions, and that was 90 percent of the problem," she said. "In Lebanon, in a year and a half we have cleared 137,000 submunitions."
U.N. mine technicians say they are finding an average of 10 new sites monthly to add to nearly 1,000 existing locations. As a result, initial estimates that most unexploded cluster bombs would be cleared by the end of last year have been revised to the end of this year.
Part of the problem is Israel's refusal to cooperate with U.N. requests to supply information that would help mine removers find unexploded bombs. Last month, the Israel Defense Force finally gave the United Nations an estimate of the number of cluster bombs it believes are in southern Lebanon but withheld precise location coordinates, which are logged in computers.
Israeli air force officials say that their military dropped cluster bombs to destroy launch sites used by Hezbollah to fire more than 4,000 rockets - including cluster munitions - into northern Israel, and that their use was in accordance with international law.
"Israel's use of cluster munitions ... was in direct response to acts of aggression perpetrated against its citizens, sovereignty and territorial integrity by the Hezbollah terror organization," said Aryeh Mekel, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But Israel's state-ordered investigation into the war - the Winograd Commission - acknowledged in January that cluster bombs were dropped in populated areas and caused post-conflict civilian casualties. The commission expressed concern about the military's "lack of clear orders, discipline and effective controls."
The Geneva Convention outlaws the use of weapons in civilian areas, and an initial report by the State Department in January found that Israel had broken a military sales agreement by using U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas.
In 1982, the Reagan administration imposed a six-year ban on the sale of cluster bombs to Israel after a congressional investigation found Israel had used the weapons in civilian areas during its invasion of Lebanon that year.
The recent Human Rights Watch report said Israel violated international humanitarian law by its "indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munitions attacks." But it also acknowledged that Hezbollah had fired cluster munitions into populated areas of Israel in violation of international law.
U.S., Russia, China resist ban
Meanwhile, major arms-producing countries such as the United States, Russia, Israel and China oppose any ban on cluster bombs, arguing that they are a viable option for self-defense. None was present at the Wellington conference, and none is expected to attend or sign the upcoming Oslo treaty.
The United States, the world's largest producer of cluster bombs, has been lobbying allies that support the treaty to create loopholes, according to several participants at the Wellington conference.
In an off-the-record briefing with journalists last month in Geneva, a senior U.S. official said that as long as states involved in conflicts use cluster bombs responsibly, their use shouldn't be banned, according to the Reuters news agency.
Despite opposition, Cluster Munition Coalition officials say the treaty has built unstoppable momentum and will be signed by more than 82 countries in Oslo.
"It is now a question of negotiating the strongest treaty possible in order to create the stigmatization of this weapon, as we did with anti-personnel mines," said Simon Conway, director of Landmine Action, in London. "That way, even if the U.S. and others do not sign the ban, they will find it very hard to justify using these weapons in the future."
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle