Published on
The Guardian/UK

Put the Bombs Away

Cluster bombs are dangerously inaccurate. Barack Obama should ban them, even if it means going against the Pentagon

Lionel Beehner

In the fog of war, the use of cluster bombs just makes things foggier. Turns out Georgia - which always pleaded its innocence in the face of Russia's invasion last summer - used cluster bombs against its own people. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, the cluster munitions were Israeli-made, which should come as no surprise since Israel used similar bombs against Lebanese civilians in July 2006. Both countries are strong allies of the US, which has refused to adopt the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

On this issue, the US, Israel and Georgia (neither of which has signed the convention) form an axis of arrogance. Cluster munitions scatter unexploded bomblets like buckshot across a swath of land the size of a city block. They are often dropped by parachute, making them susceptible to unpredictable wind patterns. And many do not explode on impact - in parts of Georgia their failure rate was as high as 35% - thus posing a long-term threat to civilians, especially children who mistake them for soda cans or toys (a third of those maimed from cluster bombs are children). Duds also pose problems for farmers, who lose their harvest for fear of going into their fields.

But arms manufacturers love them. Cluster munitions are small, cheap and easy to make. Military honchos approve of their use because they leave a large imprint and are versatile, if not very accurate. Against hard-to-find enemies, they say it makes more sense to drop a thousand one-pound bombs than one thousand-pound bomb.

But the collateral damage from these bombs is too high to ignore. The UN estimates that dozens of countries remain littered with unexploded ordnance. In the Balkans, cluster bombs used by Nato forces had an abnormally high failure rate. The use of cluster bombs during Israel's 2006 war with Hizbullah left dozens dead or maimed on both sides of the conflict. Hizbullah fighters used them against Israeli civilians as well. And as many as 18 Georgian villagers may have died from Tbilisi's use of cluster munitions this past summer. To be fair, Russia also dropped cluster bombs in the conflict, killing at least five, including a Dutch cameraman, in the town of Gori, despite Moscow's denial.

The answer to this dilemma is not to manufacture smarter bombs or to phase out the use of outdated munitions - we've seen how that movie ends before - but to ban their use. The next US administration should immediately press Congress to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The treaty, which has over a hundred countries' signatories, prevents states from using, storing or selling cluster munitions.

Like previous efforts to ban and clear landmines, it will require baby steps. But the US must show leadership on this issue, and that might require Barack Obama to overrule his military commanders on the ground, something he may be loathe to do (though in Congress, Obama did vote for the ban). He may also make enemies in the process, as he will have to cudgel such stalwart allies as Georgia and Israel, not to mention hard-of-hearing countries like Russia and China, to also sign and ratify the treaty. These countries should provide data about the bombs' coordinates, types and numbers to make it easier for organisations to clear them at a later date.

I don't buy the argument that this ban will tie the Pentagon's hands during a time of war. In fact, it will send a signal to the world that the US is serious about reducing the harm of war and clearing the fog. All the goodwill in the world after Obama's victory will do nothing to rescue our reputation if America is still killing Afghan and Pakistani civilians or sanctioning the use of cluster bombs.

This should be a no-brainer for the next administration.

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Lionel Beehner is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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