What We Leave Behind
From Kosovo to Lebanon, Cluster
Bomb Casualties Continue to Mount
by Frida Berrigan
In These Times, December 11, 2006
In just one week in October, a series
of bomb scares swept across Germany. Outside of Hannover, 22,000
people were evacuated when three bombs were discovered. A few
days later in the same city, a weapons removal squad defused a
500-pound bomb found near the highway. Finally, a highway worker
was killed when his cutting machine hit a buried bomb on the main
highway into Frankfurt.
The bombs hadn't been planted by terrorists,
and they weren't the opening salvos of the next war. The culprit
was unexploded ordnance left over from a war fought more than
60 years ago. "We'll have enough work to keep us busy for
the next 100 to 120 years," the owner of a bomb-defusing
company told the New York Times.
The submunitions dispersed by cluster
bombs are a lot smaller than 500 pounds, but their use in every
major conflict since World War II ensures that bomb clearers the
world over will have work for decades--even centuries--to come.
From Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to the countries of the former
Yugoslavia, and onto Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon, modern battlefields
are littered with bombs that continue to kill long after wars
have ended. Ninety-eight percent of those killed or injured by
cluster bombs are civilians. And yet international efforts to
restrict the use of cluster bombs--modeled after landmine treaties
of previous years--are being undermined by lack of U.S. participation.
Worse, instead of destroying old cluster bomb stockpiles, the
United States is exporting them to allies around the world.
What is a cluster bomb?
Although varied in size and configuration,
a cluster munition is essentially a large canister--as long as
13 feet and weighing up to 2,000 pounds--packed with bomblets
or submunitions. Launched from the air by fighter planes, bombers
or helicopters, or shot out of artillery, rockets or missile systems,
the canister is designed to break open mid-air, spreading the
submunitions over areas as large as two or three football fields.
While some modern systems are outfitted with GPS or infrared guidance
systems, or "wind correction" kits to stabilize their
spin, most are free-falling or gravity devices. The bomblets--a
single canister can hold hundreds--ranging in size from a soda
can to a flashlight battery, are packed with shrapnel and an explosive
charge. They are meant to explode on impact with the ground, differentiating
them from landmines, which are triggered by the victim.
Militaries throughout the world value
cluster bombs because a single volley can impede or slow advancing
troops and destroy or render unusable airfields and surface-to-air
missile sites. But the weapons do not always work as designed.
Mine removal teams, post-conflict workers, military officials
and even the companies themselves admit that wind, weather and
soil conditions, as well as possible mechanical malfunction or
human error, can all drive the "dud rate" for these
weapons as high as 40 percent.
Cluster bombs are not singled out for
prohibition under international law, despite the fact that they
cannot distinguish between civilian and combatant and their effects
stretch beyond the duration of hostilities--two crucial litmus
tests for munitions under the Geneva Conventions that govern conduct
Israel's war against Lebanon: cluster
bombs on display
Lebanon provides an object lesson in how
these tenets of the Geneva Conventions are not upheld and how
implementation of existing law is inadequate to the challenge.
On August 14, 2006, Israel and Lebanon signed a peace agreement
ending their 34-day war, yet the body count continues to rise.
According to a November Handicap International report, since mid-August,
unexploded ordnance has killed 21 and wounded another 121 Lebanese
An Israeli Defense Forces spokesman insists
that "all of the weapons and munitions used by the IDF are
legal according to international law and their use conforms to
international standards." That is cold comfort for the family
of 11-year-old Ramy Shibleh, one of the post-war victims. He was
gathering pinecones outside Halta, a small southern town where
the Lebanese army had already cleared mines twice. But more bombs
remained, including the one that Ramy and his brother hit with
their cart of pinecones. Reuters reports that Ramy tried to toss
the rock-like object out of the way, but it exploded, tearing
off his right arm and the back of his head and killing him instantly.
His mother keeps the shreds of the yellow shirt Ramy was wearing
when he died. "He was only picking the pine nuts to buy the
toys he loved," she told reporters.
With its weapon industry and the billions
in military aid that it provides to Israel each year, the United
States is implicated in the war and its grim aftermath without
firing one shot or dropping one bomb. At least two of Israel's
cluster bomb and launch systems are U.S.-manufactured. Human Rights
Watch discovered remnants of the "M483A1" 155mm-artillery
projectiles, which each contain 88 M42 AND M46 submunitions. The
projectiles are known as "Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional
Munitions" (dual in the sense that they are anti-personnel
and anti-vehicle) and were developed at "the Army's Center
of Lethality"--the Armament Research, Development and Engineering
Center in Picatinny, New Jersey. The researchers also found M26
rockets fired from Lockheed Martin's Multiple Launch Rocket System
(MLRS). Each MLRS can fire up to 12 rockets at once, and each
rocket contains 644 M77 submunitions.
While the Israel Defense Force (IDF) is
responsible for the vast majority of the millions of cluster bombs
used throughout the war, recent reports from Human Rights Watch
assert that Hezbollah shot a hundred or more Chinese-made rockets
packed with cluster submunitions. During the war, three civilians
in northern Israel were wounded, but as of this writing, there
have been no reports of post-conflict casualties from these Hezbollah
The State Department is investigating
Israel's use of American-made cluster bombs during the war in
Lebanon--in particular, whether Israel broke a secret agreement
made with the United States in 1967 not to use cluster bombs against
civilians. In their October 2006 report "Foreseeable Harm,"
Landmine Action disclosed the conditions of the agreement, including
the stipulation that Israel was to use cluster munitions "only
for defensive purposes, against fortified military targets, and
only if attacked by two or more 'Arab states.' " Additionally,
the secret provisions prohibit use of the bombs except against
"regular forces of a sovereign nation" and in "special
wartime conditions," according to the administration and
congressional officials. The arrangement gave the IDF greater
latitude than the typical regulations that require foreign governments
to use U.S.-origin military items solely for internal security
and legitimate self-defense.
There have not been any follow-up reports
in the media on the status of the State Department's investigation,
or its conclusions. Calls to the Office of Defense Compliance
by In These Times requesting more information were not returned.
But it does not take months of careful study to conclude that
the IDF flagrantly violated U.S. law as well as the secret agreement
made to skirt that law, to say nothing of the Geneva Conventions.
And then there is the timing. During the
last three days of the war--as the final touches on the peace
agreement were being made--Israel dumped an estimated 1.2 million
bomblets throughout Lebanon, a country smaller than Connecticut.
Jan Egeland, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian
Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, was decidedly undiplomatic
in his assessment: "What is shocking and, I would say, to
me, completely immoral is that 90 percent of the cluster bomb
strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we
knew there would be a resolution."
With their failure rate of up to 40 percent,
more than one of every three bombs may not detonate immediately--lying
in wait for children, trucks and livestock.
While the IDF has not explained their
decision to saturate southern Lebanon with bombs, an October 6
New York Times article posits that Israel wanted to inflict as
much last minute harm on Hezbollah as possible, or slow the repopulation
of border communities. An unnamed Israeli commander of a rocket
unit in Lebanon told Haaretz on September 12 that the saturation
bombing with cluster weapons was "insane and monstrous; we
covered entire towns in cluster bombs."
The saturation bombing has effectively
crippled agriculture. Farmers' fields and orchards are now minefields
and their crops are rotting on the stalk. The summer tobacco,
wheat, and fruit, as well as late-yielding crops like olives,
cannot be harvested and winter crops, like lentils and chickpeas,
have not been planted because farmers cannot plow their fields.
Many of the two to three daily casualties are poor farmers desperate
to feed their families from fields that are now de facto minefields.
Rida Noureddine, an olive and wheat farmer
whose land is littered with cluster bombs, feels the frustration
of many southern Lebanese who are dependent on the land. He told
the New York Times, "I feel as though someone has tied my
arms, or is holding me by my neck, suffocating me because this
land is my soul."
Cluster bombs in the eyes of the world
With the spotlight on Israel's use of
cluster bombs in Lebanon and the failure of international law
to stop the carnage there, the call for a ban on cluster bombs
similar to the prohibition on landmines is growing louder. Belgium
instituted a ban and Germany announced their troops will no longer
use cluster weaponry. Australia and Norway have declared a moratorium.
Sweden, Mexico, the Vatican and the International Committee of
the Red Cross are all calling for a ban.
The model for their efforts is the Landmine
Ban or "Ottawa Treaty," which entered into force in
March 1999. The treaty prohibits the manufacture, trade and use
of anti-personnel mines, obliges signing countries to destroy
stockpiles within four years and clear their own territory within
10 years, and urges governments to help poorer countries clear
land and assist landmine victims. Non-governmental organizations
like Landmine Action and the Mennonite Central Committee argue
that once a cluster submunition hits the ground, it is essentially
a landmine and should be barred under the treaty.
The United States is not among the 151
states that have ratified the Landmine Ban, and the Bush Administration's
February 2004 landmine policy reserves the right to use so-called
"self-destructing mines" through 2010. Israel, Burma,
North Korea and 36 other countries also remain outside the international
consensus banning landmines.
Another possible tool for anti-cluster
bomb campaigners is the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional
Weapons (CCW). As ratified, the Convention prohibits or restricts
the use of weapons that cause excessive injuries or have indiscriminate
effects on people--including weapons that leave undetectable fragments
in the human body, mines and booby-traps, incendiary weapons (such
as white phosphorus used by the United States in Iraq and Israel
in Lebanon) and blinding laser weapons.
In November 2003, a fifth protocol, addressing
"Explosive Remnants of War" like cluster weapon duds,
was added. So far, only 26 nations have signed on to Protocol
V and agreed to negotiate responsibility for clearance, provide
risk education to the local population, improve the reliability
of munitions through "voluntary best practices," and
continue to implement existing international humanitarian law.
These are useful measures, but they do not address the use of
cluster bombs, just what to do after they have landed. In addition,
ratification by many more countries--especially by countries like
Israel and the United States that are using these weapons--is
needed for the effort to be more than symbolic.
The CCW's Third Review Conference ran
from November 7-17 in Geneva. The International Committee of the
Red Cross (ICRC) and other key NGOs and nations see an immediate
freeze on the use of inaccureate and unreliable cluster munitions
as a worthy outcome of the meeting along with elimination of stockpiles
of legacy systems, and a complete ban on the use of cluster munitions
against military targets in populated areas. ICRC will hold an
"international expert meeting" in 2007 as a first step
toward a new global pact on cluster weapons. Against the backdrop
of Lebanon's suffering, there is broad support for these steps.
But maintaining the sense of urgency will not be easy, especially
in the face of diplomatic foot-dragging by key states like the
United States, which says Protocol V is an adequate response to
cluster weapons (even though the United States has not yet ratified
the measure). In advance of the meeting, the State Department
asserted support for Protocol V, but cautioned that it is not
interested in "negotiating new rules on cluster munitions
or other explosive remnants of war."
Concerted and genuine support from the
United States (as a world leader and one of the largest manufacturers
of cluster bombs) for banning cluster bombs won't bring Ramy back
to his grieving family, and it won't restore Rida's orchards and
livelihood, but it could ensure that future generations do not
share their suffering.
U.S. cluster weapons: vital, versatile
While the United States has not ratified
the landmine treaty or the CCW, and does not indicate any willingness
to accept even partial responsibility for this summer's brutal
war, the Pentagon is concerned about cluster weapons. In an October
2004 report to Congress, the Department of Defense described cluster
munitions as "vital" and "versatile," but
military officials admit they are "keenly aware of and interested
in reducing our cluster munitions dud rates and improving the
accuracy of the delivery methods." Consequently, the Pentagon
recently adopted the "Cohen Policy," named after former
Defense Secretary William Cohen, which requires the military to
only purchase new cluster weapons that have a 1 percent or smaller
Human Rights Watch estimates that the
U.S. has a stockpile of 1 billion "old, unreliable and inaccurate"
cluster munitions. Some of the so-called "legacy" weapons
have been dismantled, but the Defense Department continues to
transfer cluster weapons and delivery systems to allies around
the world. The Defense Department analyzed various submunitions
and found failure rates of 3 to 23 percent under test conditions,
but military officials and others acknowledge that these rates
can be exacerbated by environmental factors.
The Army, Marines and other military services
are requesting hundreds of millions of dollars for new cluster
weapons and the retrofitting of existing systems to conform to
the Cohen policy. Weapons manufacturers have adapted to the new
policy, and their promotional material emphasizes the "limited
footprint" and "targetable" nature of their weapons.
In vivid military jargon, weapons manufacturer Textron describes
the CLAW (Clean Lightweight Area Weapon) as "the next generation
smart soft target munition." (For those not familiar with
the lingo, a soft target is a person.) The Rhode Island-based
company boasts that a "single 64-pound munition has the footprint
and effectiveness of a 1,000 lb. legacy cluster bomb."
The Cohen policy and the new weapons it
has spawned ensures that despite whatever progress is made in
Geneva and at other international fora to ban cluster bombs, the
eight U.S. companies that produce cluster weapons, including recognizable
names like Textron, General Dynamics, L-3 Communications, Lockheed
Martin and Northrop Grumman, will continue to manufacture the
systems and the military will keep using them.
The United States may well be the largest
producer, but it is not alone. Human Right Watch asserts that
33 other countries produce more than 210 different types of cluster
munitions. And at least 12 other countries have transferred cluster
munitions to as many as 58 nations.
U.S. bombs at work
In its 2004 report, the Pentagon acknowledged
"the potential danger to non-combatants posed by UXO [unexploded
ordnance]" and declared that it had "developed strict
rules of engagement and targeting methodologies, intended to minimize
risks to civilians in or near the zone of conflict." But,
in a world far removed from law, policy and dud rate calculations,
cluster weapons continue to do what they are designed for.
A quick look at some of the war zones
of the last 20 years should be enough to make anti-cluster bomb
campaigners out of just about anyone.
According to Handicap International, in
1999, the United States and allies dropped more than 2,000 cluster
bombs on the territory of former Yugoslavia, where the stated
aim was humanitarian intervention. Human Rights Watch documented
that cluster strikes killed 90 to 150 civilians and injured many
more, constituting up to 23 percent of the total civilian deaths
in the conflict, even though cluster bombs amounted to just 6
percent of bombs dropped.
A few years later in Afghanistan, the
goal was different, but the results were similar. From October
2001 to March 2002, in a bid to topple the Taliban, the United
States dropped about 1,228 cluster bombs, representing about 5
percent of the U.S. bombs dropped during that time period. According
to Handicap International, there were 121 casualties due to cluster
bombs during the same period, but it is impossible to link them
all to the United States, as both the Soviet Union and the Taliban
had used cluster munitions in previous wars. In an October 2001
incident, a U.S. cluster bomb apparently intended for a nearby
military base fell on the small community of Qala Shater, causing
11 to 13 deaths. Casualties included a 17-year-old boy named Najibullah
who died in front of his home and 70-year-old Faqir Mohammed.
Iraq: a steel rain's gonna fall
Over the last 15 years, Iraq has borne
the brunt of U.S. cluster bomb use. During the First Gulf War,
Handicap International estimates that the United States dropped
47,167 air-delivered cluster munitions containing more than 13
million submunitions. In one day alone--February 21, 1991--U.S.
military personnel fired a total of 220,248 M77 submunitions from
the Multiple Launch Rocket System made by Lockheed Martin. During
the war, the company's signature system was dubbed "steel
rain." The 1991 "air war" lasted just 43 days,
but in the years that followed more than 4,000 civilians have
been killed or injured by cluster munition duds. Iraqi civilians
were not the only casualties--at least 80 U.S. soldiers have been
injured by cluster munitions.
In 2003, one of the earliest reported
uses of cluster weapons during Operation Enduring Freedom was
also one of the most gruesome. U.S. cluster weapons fired on the
al-Hilla community killed 33 and injured another 109. According
to Amnesty International, "Injured survivors told reporters
how the explosives fell 'like grapes' from the sky, and how bomblets
bounced through the windows and doors of their homes before exploding."
In the period between "shock and
awe" and "mission accomplished," the U.S. and U.K.
forces dropped between 1,300 and 1,500 cluster munitions from
the air, and another 11,600 from land-based systems. The death
toll from these assaults has been difficult to calculate. Handicap
International places at least a portion of the blame for that
difficulty on the Coalition Provisional Authority, saying that
"[d]uring the 2003 conflict and its aftermath, the CPA strongly
discouraged casualty data collection, especially in relation to
cluster submunitions." The report goes on to note that, as
of September, there is still no data collection mechanism for
tracking new casualties in Iraq.
Ban it all
Indiscriminate weaponry like cluster bombs
hides who is responsible and removes culpability. Without responsibility,
how can there be law? The big bomb releases the little bombs,
which might kill a soldier tomorrow, a farmer next month, or a
child a year from now. Cluster bombing is different from strafing
a village, massacring a family or executing a suspected militant.
Hands and consciences remain clean while bodies are shredded and
pulped. There is no My Lai massacre or No Gun Ri atrocity with
cluster weapons. Rather, a permanent state of terror is created
where all human activity is dangerous and costly.
Recent experience in Lebanon, Iraq and
elsewhere demonstrates the grave and lasting consequences of cluster
bombs, and reveals the shortcomings of existing international
law and its enforcement. Weapons that indiscriminately kills long
after hostilities have abated is an anathema to international
law--and human decency. It is time to ban them all.
Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate
with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy
Landmine & Cluster Bomb watch