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Cluster Headache

The treaty outlawing cluster bombs is a good thing, but now comes the tough bit: stopping armies from devising deadlier weapons to get round the ban

Robert Fox

Euphoria greeted agreement in Dublin last night of the treaty to ban cluster bombs. Credit for the success in getting a workable convention to be rid of these terrible weapons is being given to Gordon Brown. Not quite at the last minute, he decided that Britain would back the measure, and ordered the armed forces to destroy stocks of artillery and air-delivered cluster munitions.The move is laudable, but one wonders how much it has been thought through. I hope it isn't a bit of prime ministerial grandstanding by a man who is desperate to win all the domestic and international friends he can get.

For what the architects of this measure, like Gordon Brown, must now realise, is this: they've accomplished something good and fine, but now comes the really tough bit. Brown must persuade his allies, not least the US - and the more unscrupulous Europeans as well - to give up making these weapons, and to help clear up the mess they have left on more than dozen battlefields.

The point that the campaigners have established very well is that cluster weapons hurt the innocent as much as the fighting enemy. They are indiscriminate and lie around combat zones years after. Some are shaped with yellow domes like old-fashioned shuttlecocks. Known as "little bells", these are particularly attractive to children as playthings - and children make up a disproportionately large number of their victims.

The munitions, whether fired by artillery or shot from a helicopter or attack jet, carry inside them dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of smaller "sub-munitions", usually in the form of explosive bomblets. One artillery shell favoured by the British and Americans carried 640 separate "bomblet rounds", which would be scattered over an area the size of large football pitch. Others would shoot out shards of steel needles. The first victim I saw of this kind of killer - the updated version of the grape and canister shot of Nelson's day - was a young Argentine conscript felled outside the schoolhouse at Goose Green in 1982, his stomach and intestine less than surgically removed.

British and American aircraft and howitzers plastered the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait with millions these "sub-munitions" in just a few weeks in 1991, and many are still there. After hostilities ceased, a young Royal Scot was carrying out a running repair on the track of his Warrior personnel carrier when he scuffed a lump of sand next to his toolbox - inside the lump was one of the deadly yellow-domed little bells, and it killed him.

Four years later, in the last summer of the war for Bosnia, Serbian long-range artillery from the Krajina dropped several showers of bomblet rounds into one of the leafier parts of the Croatian capital Zagreb on a bright May morning. Clumps of bomblets lodged in the flowering chestnut trees, looking like a flock of yellow-crested parakeets. Streets were closed and an enterprising cop decided to knock some of the little yellow items out of the trees. As he did so one went off, and he was killed - the only victim killed by that day's bombardment.

The order to the British forces to destroy the M-85 artillery cluster round and the M-73 air delivered CBU (cluster bomb unit) will not end the argument either here in the UK or anywhere else. These are "area" weapons - they are not targeted precisely and were designed initially to stop ground troops moving across terrain. The problem now will be the notion of area weaponry at all - anything that covers a large area where combatants and civilians are mixed up. In the opening phase of the Anglo-American incursion into southern Iraq in March-April 2003, the British regiment of 155 self-propelled howitzers fired a two hour bombardment over the outskirts of Basra. "We won't be able to get away with that kind of area shooting for much longer," a senior artillery officer observed privately to me afterwards. "We can't go on doing that kind of thing when there are civilians about. It could soon become a war crime."


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There are going to be some pretty big practical challenges, too - particularly if the Ottawa convention banning landmines is anything to go by. The really bad news is the physical challenge of clearing all the unexploded munitions still lying around the world, of which plastic anti-personnel mines and the almost equally undetectable bomblets comprise a large share.

The UN calculates there are some 100 million landmines and similar devices in the world today - millions from 30 years of war in Afghanistan alone, not to forget those from the western desert campaigns of the second world war and a succession of four Arab-Israeli wars. The UN also estimates that for every 5000 mines cleared, one disposal expert is killed and two are injured.

The problem is those who don't sign up to the mines and cluster bombs bans, and those who actively seek to get round them by devising ever more deadly and undetectable munitions. China, Russia and the US did not sign up initially to the Ottawa convention, but they have not indulged or encouraged the use of landmines themselves ever since. These weapons are not the sole property of states and armies - shrapnel weapons are also tools of the guerrilla and terrorist.

Gordon Brown's move is interesting, not because it shows him in decisive mode when friends and foe accuse him of being a compulsive dither. It marks more clearly the difference between him and George W Bush, as well as his pal Tony Blair. The Bush regime's security doctrine says that the laws of war are there to be broken, in the higher cause of US security and "full spectrum dominance" as they so attractively describe their mission to run world security. Bush and Blair were united in their view of executive exceptionalism.

By backing the new cluster munitions convention, Gordon Brown has shown he believes in the new laws of war. By ordering the army and RAF to get rid of their shells and bomb canisters he has shown that they should be obeyed.

Robert Fox, has worked as a journalist and broadcaster since 1967, and is defence correspondent for the Evening Standard.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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