“Lethal piñatas”: keeping cluster bombs from kids

ññññññclusterbomber.gifFive-hundred delegates from 122 countries converged on New Zealand this week in a bid to rid the world of cluster bombs. In the end, though only 82 states signed the Wellington Declaration — the draft of a treaty to ban cluster bombs, sweep lands free of them, and assist survivors — the conference was a qualified success.

New Zealand Disarmament Minister Phil Goff informed the Associated Press that more progress toward banning cluster munitions was made in the five days of talks than during five years of U.N. negotiations. Even Jody Williams, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work leading to the ban of land mines, told ABC in Australia, “We’re extremely pleased by the outcome of the conference.”

Earlier, though, she accused representatives of Australia Britain, Canada, France, Germany, and Japan of “fronting for the U.S.” She feared they might neuter the proposed agreement to make it palatable for the US, which, along with Russia, China, and Israel, shunned the conference.

It seems like just yesterday, thanks in part to America’s only woman Nobel Peace laureate, that the elimination of land mines was the feel-good story of the decade. Yet, nature abhors a vacuum and it wasn’t long before they were replaced by cluster munitions as the world’s most barbaric weapon this side of nuclear bombs.

That leads us to our first question: Doesn’t zeroing in on a particular bomb assume that others are acceptable? Why not go to the root of the problem and work to prevent the conflicts — or even all war?

Because submunitions (miniature bombs nested inside the mother bomb) dropped by the US in Iraq, “some shaped like tiny bottles with short ribbons and others that are yellow with tissue parachutes, litter gardens and roof tops,” according to UNICEF. The cute little “bomblets,” as they’ve been called, are child magnets.

Such as 11-year-old Afghan, Soraj Habib, who, after picking one up, lost both legs. Now 16, he offered himself up to the delegates at Wellington as living proof of the need to ban the cluster munitions.

Banning them may only be a stop-gap measure until war can be averted. But any opportunity to reduce the killing of children, their mothers, and all civilians, needs to be seized, like yesterday.

But isn’t the campaign against cluster bombs just a cover for those opposed to Israel? While we’re at it, why does Israel always get singled out for using them against Lebanon?

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a minister in Angela Merkel’s German government, was one who felt the sting of being labeled an anti-Semite. After referring to the cluster bomb as “a sort of lethal piñata,” she asked the United Nations to investigate its use by Israel in civilian areas of Lebanon.

Israel, in fact, showered Lebanon with four million submunitions, one million of which may remain scattered across the landscape. Live, they constitute what’s been called a landmine-like contamination.

Do cluster bombs really pose as grave a danger as land mines?

“There is a common misperception that cluster munitions are sophisticated weapons,” writes Stephen D. Goose in the recent Arms Control Today. Representing Human Rights Watch and the Cluster Munition Coalition, he was also an organizer of last week’s conference (as well as Jody Williams’s husband). Neither the bomb nor the submunitions, Goose explains, are precision guided.

In fact, it’s not well known, but, besides Lebanon, they caused more civilian casualties than any other weapon during the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 and our invasion of Iraq.

Just how widespread is their use and manufacture?

They’re stockpiled by 76 countries. “The United States alone,” explains Goose, “has an estimated one billion submunitions.”

Thanks to the national deficit and the cost of Iraq, the the figure one billion no longer defies comprehension. Imagine if each individual bomblet achieved its objective of maiming or killing a person, or damaging a piece of infrastructure?

How did this conference come about?

A precedent was set in 1996 when the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) failed to ban land mines. Canada rose to the occasion and successfully challenged the world to impose a ban in a year.

In 2006, the same organization came up short again, with cluster bombs. This time Norway took up the gauntlet. The Oslo Process will, if all goes according to plan, culminate in a signing ceremony in Oslo.

Meanwhile, what gives with the countries that weren’t in attendance? After all, if this were a nuclear accord, they’d be called rogue nations.

Let’s take a look in the mirror. The Bush administration insists that cluster bombs are weapons too indispensable to surrender. Also, they claim — if you’ve heard this before from Republicans, stop me — existing international law is sufficient to deal with the dangers.

Still, at the UN’s CCW meeting in June last year, the US indicated it was open to future negotiations, but only within the confines of the CCW. Turns out we were just trying to avoid the Oslo Process operating outside the CCW.

By the November 2007 CCW meeting, we were reduced to using the tantrum defense: If the use of cluster munitions were banned or limited, certain missions would require our forces to drop many times more non-cluster bombs to achieve the same results.

In other words, if even more civilians are killed and infrastructure damaged, it would be the fault of those who seek to ban cluster bombs.

Can we expect a new president to see the error of our ways and, however late to the party, sign the treaty?

In the autumn of 2006, Diane Feinstein (D-CA) submitted an amendment (No. 4882) to a Pentagon appropriations bill to the Senate. It banned neither the manufacturing, stockpiling nor the use of cluster bombs. It merely forbade their use in “any concentrated population of civilians, whether permanent or temporary, including inhabited parts of cities or villages, camps or columns of refugees or evacuees, or camps or groups of nomads.”

Senator Feinstein couldn’t have made voting for the bill more pain-free. Senator Obama voted yea, McCain, predictably, nay.

No sense piling on Hillary Clinton at this point. But her nay vote on amendment 4882 might have been the other vote she’ll never live down. But we’ll never know because Obama failed to call her out on it.

Perhaps, like Hillary, he feared appearing soft on defense. More likely, though, he sensed that it’s hard enough for Americans to acknowledge that our government has opened the floodgates to the devastation of Iraq, as well as tortured, in our name. That’s quite enough national shame for one era, thank you.

In the interim, all Americans of conscience owe a debt to Norway, New Zealand, and the 80 other countries which signed the Wellington Declaration for helping to keep the torch of humanity burning during America’s dark years.

8 replies »

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  2. I know you won’t like this, Russ, but I can’t support the banning of cluster bombs (and I can’t support banning land mines either). But I like Feinstein’s amendment to prevent their use in populated areas.

    Of course, even without a damnable signing statement, there’s a pretty good idea that this kind of amendment would be struck down by the SCOTUS if it ever got there as being an unconstitutional infringement on the authority of the President as CIC.

    Generally, as I’ve said previously, I’m of the opinion that the best way to wage war is to make it fast and brutal, and to win fast. Modern wars are trying too hard to be “moral”, with guided munitions intended to reduce the slaughter. I appreciate that the military and government want to make war easier to stomach, but if it were harder to stomach, then we might do it less. And there’s not much that’s harder to stomach than seeing the devastation of Dresden, or Hiroshima, or any number of napalmed Vietnamese villages, or the highway of death in Gulf War I.

    I approve of the idea of trying to apply rules and international law to warfare, but in every conflict I can think of that was fought with one side trying to adhere to international law and the other side not, the side that fought all-out won. It sucks badly, but there it is.

  3. Brian, you need to meet my nephew in the Special Forces. For better or worse, he sounds just like you!

    The history of war demonstrates, though, that a country’s decision to terminate a conflict isn’t decided on the basis of civilian casualties, but on damage to its military. The US is one of the few exceptions to the rule.

    Which would make it a good candidate to use land mines and cluster bombs againt, right?

  4. I smell an unintended consequence coming on. Cluster bombs are used when the military objective requires destruction of fairly soft targets over a big area. Before the advent of cluster bombs, those targets would be attacked with saturation bombing using dumb iron bombs or with dumb artillery.

    In saturation bombing, the amount of explosive you need to put on the target to achieve the same effect is much larger than in a cluster bomb attack of equal lethality. Consequently, the chance of mis-drops, long or short rounds, and really big unexploded ordnance goes way up. I’m not at all sure that the danger to nearby civilians would be reduced if you banned use of cluster bombs, even in fairly close proximity to populated areas. Indeed, you might easily have more unintended deaths. Yes, it’s tragic (and newsworthy) when you have maimed kids. It’s even more tragic–albeit less newsworthy–when the kid’s entire family is vaporized in the mis-drop of a 500 lb. or 1000 lb. iron bomb.

    I also have a non-rhetorical question for you: My understanding is that cluster munitions can be set to explode on contact or to have delayed fuzing that explodes later or when handled. The delayed versions serve pretty much the same purpose as anti-personnel mines. Do you have any idea whether anybody has characterized the risk to kids and other civilians in terms of the fuzing of the cluster munitions? It’s quite possible that the bulk of the bad stuff that’s happening is the result of delayed-fuzed bomblets.

    I’d think that it would be fairly straightforward to get international agreements against delayed fuzing, along the same lines as the Ottawa Treaty. Of course, the major arms producers wouldn’t ratify such an agreement, just as they didn’t the Ottawa Treaty. That doesn’t mean that its existence wouldn’t be a powerful deterrent to the use of delayed fuzing.

  5. Actually, Russ, your point about the damage to the military vs. civilians is an argument to continue using cluster bombs – if they’re the most effective weapon at destroying the military forces of your enemy, then you’ll get your enemy to surrender faster by using them.

    After participating in the comments over at The Atlantic, I have come to realize why I disagree with you and other supporters of weapon bans – I look at the nature of war very differently than you do. I see it as one of the worst things that humanity can ever engage in, something that’s so horrible, so immoral, so evil (I try not to use “evil” too often lest it lose it’s meaning, but I think it’s appropriate here) that the instant you choose to/are forced to engage in war, the only way to restore yourself to anything resembling decency is to win (or lose) the war fast and then restore civility to both warring parties again.

    I should probably sit down at some point and write up my thoughts on the nature of warfare in a careful, coherent manner. I wouldn’t expect you to agree, but at least we might come to a better understanding of why I think that allowing the use of horrible and immoral weapons might actually be more “ethical” than banning them. It’s a screwed up idea, I know, but then everything about war is.

    There is, however, one thing you and I can probably agree on entirely – we’ve got to have a good way to ensure that mines and cluster munitions are cleaned up after the war is over.

  6. Yeah, war is the real issue, not weapons. Thanks for reminding me to check back over at Yglesias’s blog, Brian.

    Would really like to read a post by you on the subject.