Cluster Bombs: An Evil We Must Ban Outright

Welcome to Cluster's last stand - the final fight of a weapon that has shredded a hundred thousand legs and arms and eyes since it was lovingly created by the Nazis in the 1940s.

This week, the Austrian government has banned cluster bombs and begun to dismantle its stockpile of 10,000. Official delegates from 138 countries, representing two-thirds of humanity, are now on their way back from the turning-point conference in Vienna to prepare for a treaty in 2008 that will ban them outright. But a handful of superpowers - most notably Russia, the US and China - are clinging to their right to shred civilians, and the British government is dancing awkwardly between the two camps.

Cluster munitions are bombs that, as they fall, separate into dozens of smaller, bright yellow "bomblets", each about the size of a can of Coke. Every one carries flying shards of metal that can tear through a quarter-inch of steel. They fall as "steel rain" over an entire kilometre, and they cut up anything they hit.

These weapons are wildly indiscriminate. You can't aim them, any more than you can aim your handbag when you empty it out on to the floor. When the British dropped 2,000 cluster bombs on Basra in 2003, they landed on the roofs of schools and civilian homes as much as on Saddam's men. Worse still, many of the submunitions do not explode when they hit the ground; instead they stay there for year after year, waiting for someone - anyone - to stumble across them.

Children are particularly fond of picking them up, since they look like brightly-coloured toys. That's what happened recently to four-year-old Aya Zayoun. She found one of the 4 million bomblets dropped on Lebanon by the Israelis in the last 72 hours of the 2006 war, and she thought it was a toy bell.

Aya excitedly toddled into her living room to show it to her parents and big sister and brother - where it blew up, the steel ripping through all their flesh. They were lucky: they lost only limbs, not their lives. Some 255 Leban-ese civilians have not been so fortunate. Last month, there was a hailstorm for the first time since the war, and the hills of Lebanon echoed to the sound of hundreds of submunitions exploding.

They can wait patiently for decades. A few weeks ago, 17-year-old Choen Ha and two of his friends in Vietnam stumbled across four steel balls in the jungle. They took turns tossing them to each other, and then began to play marbles with them. Finally, one of them detonated. Choen was only saved by his family spending their entire life savings on his treatment; his best friend was shredded in front of him. The UN estimates that at the current clear-up rate, explosions like this will continue in Vietnam every week for another century. These bombs were dropped before I was born. They will still be killing after I am dead.

War is sometimes justified, to save life - but not if it needlessly slaughters as it goes, and leaves a legacy of death for generations. So how soon can we get a ban on these lingering people-shredders? Pessimists should remember that when a ban on landmines was first mooted in the 1980s, it was mocked as a utopian fantasy. Today, only the leper state of Burma is laying them anew.

There are two potential tracks to end cluster-bombs. One is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CWW), which almost every country is signed up to. The pro-cluster bomb states are adopting a "go slow, aim low" approach to these talks, obstructing any progress. Frustrated with this failure, last year Norway broke away and set up a rival Oslo Process, as they did with landmines. It now looks like they will get most of the world, but not the very worst offenders, to sign up to a ban next year.

The British government is the most high-profile cluster-bombing state to take part in the Oslo Process. At first, it looked like they wouldn't show - but at the last minute they did. Gordon Brown pledged to ban "cluster bombs that cause unacceptable civilian casualties". It looks like a heartening pledge, but it contains a whopping loophole - what is "unacceptable harm"?

Simon Conway, the former soldier who is now director of Landmine Action, says it seems like the British strategy "was made up on the back of a fag packet".

The British have started bargaining for a definition of cluster bombs that would simply exclude all the cluster bombs they happen to have left on the shelf. The army has a lot of cluster bombs with a self-destruct mechanism, where the bomblet supposedly disables itself after 15 seconds if it doesn't explode on impact. So the government proposed that cluster bombs with a "fail rate" of less than one per cent should be permitted. This definition has also been picked up by the Democrats in the US Congress, who are passing legislation with the same clause.

That still means a typical cluster-rocket strike would leave 40 landmine-style duds on the ground - and even that hasn't ever been achieved in practice. The cluster-bombs dropped on Leban-on were marketed by the Israelis as having a less than one per cent fail rate. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and British Explosive Ordinance conducted a detailed study, and found that it actually topped 10 per cent.

The British have also tried a different get-out clause. They argued that if a cluster bomb releases fewer than 10 submunitions, then it shouldn't be called a cluster bomb. It turns out that each CRV7 rocket stockpiled by the British army has - surprise! - nine submunitions. But this redefinition would be pure sophistry. It is fired from a rocket pod that can shoot 19 rockets at a time - meaning it can dump 171 pieces of submunitions on an area. And you can fit four rocket pods into a helicopter at once - so in practice, using these bombs, you could still be indiscriminately dumping 684 submunitions on an area at once.

If we set the bar this low, the ban will be worthless. Privately, the British government excuses its behaviour by arguing that it is necessary to set a lower standard so they can coax the US and Russia to sign up.

We would never have banned any unacceptable weapons with this strategy. When a treaty was created to ban dum-dum bullets in 1899, only nine countries signed up - but gradually, other countries were pressured to join. Similarly, the US has never signed up to the landmine ban - but since it was agreed firmly by the rest of the world in 1997, they have been shamed into not using them. If we hadn't shown that commitment, if we had filled it with loopholes and sub-clauses, the US would have seen it as a green light to carry on laying landmines regardless.

Next year we need a cast-iron ban. But if the British government carries on with its wriggling and writhing, we may end up with nothing better than a cluster-bomb con.


(c) 2007 The Independent

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