WASHINGTON - A senior U.S. official said Wednesday that a proposed treaty banning cluster bombs would hurt world security and endanger U.S. military cooperation on humanitarian work with countries that sign the accord.
Stephen Mull, an assistant secretary of state, briefed reporters at the State Department to explain why the United States was not attending a gathering in Ireland of representatives of more than 100 nations working on a treaty to ban the bombs blamed for killing or maiming civilians as their mini-bombs explode months or years after they are dropped.
Cluster bombs are fired by cannon or dropped from aircraft and release hundreds of smaller explosives in the air that are supposed to explode upon impact. In Israel's 2006 war against the Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, the bomblets' failure rate was around 30 to 40 percent, and the United Nations said up to a million unexploded bomblets were left after hostilities ceased.
A critic of the U.S. position, Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview from Dublin that it was outrageous for Mull to link U.S. military humanitarian work with the United States' "failed policy on cluster munitions."
Mull, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, said a draft of the treaty would criminalize military cooperation with the United States or other countries that have cluster bombs and do not sign the document.
That would hinder humanitarian work of the type the United States is involved in now in Myanmar and China, he said. American warships and planes often are used to respond to earthquakes, typhoons, cyclones and other disasters around the world.
"This would have very grave implications," Mull said. "With one stroke, any country that signs the convention as it is now and ratifies it, in effect would make it impossible for the United States or any of our other allies who rely on these weapons to participate in these humanitarian exercises."
Mull said it is crucial for the U.S. military to be able to respond to humanitarian disasters quickly and with as few impediments as possible.
Mark Hiznay, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's arms division, said from Dublin that it is premature for the United States to criticize a treaty that is still being negotiated.
"There are a lot of countries here trying to solve the problem," Hiznay said, including many that produce and use cluster bombs. "If the United States was really very concerned about it, they'd be here in Dublin standing up for their interests; they're not."
The negotiations in Ireland, begun in Norway last year, seek to impose maximum restrictions on cluster bomb manufacturing, sales and storage. But myriad arguments loom over defining what a cluster bomb is and whether to exempt the most technologically reliable or precise systems.
The three biggest producers of cluster bombs - the United States, Russia and China - oppose ban proposals and have veto power on the U.N. Security Council. None of the three is represented at the talks in Dublin.
Washington says the weapons have an important military use, although it wants their use regulated. The United States favors U.N.-organized talks in Geneva that seek nonbinding rules for using cluster bombs and cleaning up their consequences.
© 2008 Associated Press