Monday, November 13, 2006

Cleaning Up Cluster Munitions

With the U.S. congressional election last week producing a complete turnover in the objective balance of power in each chamber, it was easy to miss the renewed call by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for “urgent action” on the issue of restricting or banning the use of cluster munitions in wartime.

Annan spoke on November 7, the opening day of the latest gathering in Geneva of the Review Conference on the Convention on Prohibitions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects – whose short title is the “Convention against Inhumane Weapons.” Ever the diplomat, the UN Secretary General spoke of “recent events” – but everyone knew that he was directing attention to the July-August 2006 34 day war between Israel and Hezbollah that was fought primarily from Beirut south into the northernmost 20-25 miles of Israel.

The shooting ended some 90 days ago, but the killing and the maiming continue – from unexploded ordnance in general and unexploded cluster sub-munitions that littered the terrain, particularly in southern Lebanon. In the final two days before the ceasefire took effect, the Israeli Defense Force fired thousands of munitions, each containing 200 or more smaller explosive devices, into civilian areas between the Litani River and the Israeli-Lebanese border in an effort to restrict the movement of Hezbollah fighters and supplies. For its part, Hezbollah fired similar munitions into northern Israel, but far fewer as their source of supply – thought to be Iran through Syria – was much more limited.

A report by the UN Mine Action Coordinating Center surveyed the extent of the problem in southern Lebanon. Based on their on-the-ground survey – this was not a New York UN Headquarters armchair estimate – the Center concluded that a million cluster sub-munitions were delivered by Israeli air, artillery, or surface-to-surface missiles, with most of them aimed at villages and towns in south Lebanon. The density of the bomblets found in southern Lebanon is higher than in Kosovo or in Iraq.

Just as the density of cluster sub-munitions depends on the quantity of the larger “carrier” munitions fired or dropped from aircraft, so too does the number of sub-munitions that do not explode when striking the ground, natural or man-made objects, or people or animals. Typically, the “dud” rate runs around 15-30 percent, but in some munitions, because of misfiring, age, or damage, the dud rate can be 80 percent. And it is these “duds” – because they can still be set off by vibration, pressure, or just being handled – that wreak the greatest damage on civilian populations after the shooting stops. In fact, some anti-mine and anti-cluster munitions groups contend that the high “dud” rate is intentional as their presence reduces agricultural production, consumes resources for clearance operations that could be used for other pressing post-conflict needs, and in the long term places additional burdens on survivors who are maimed and must be cared for by government, friends, and family.

Cluster munitions are manufactured in 34 countries, but 73 (or more) countries have these weapons in their arsenals. As with landmines, which are banned by treaty (although the U.S. still refuses to sign that treaty), the first step to control the use of the more than 4 billion cluster munitions is to ban the sale or transfer of these munitions. To date, other than Hezbollah, no non-state organizations have employed these weapons – probably because they have no means of delivering the sub-monition payload. Banning all transfers of both the weapons that might employ these munitions as well as the munitions themselves would help preclude this development.

Other critical steps in addition to ending the transfer of cluster munitions are ending the production of new cluster munitions and the destruction of existing stockpiles. But as with landmines, the U.S. is likely to oppose a complete ban and argue that continued use of cluster munitions in non-urban areas is a defensive tactic employed to protect friendly forces from enemy attack or to channel enemy forces away from militarily important areas or into “kill zones.”

While the U.S. and some other manufactures will oppose a total ban, momentum is growing among the majority of countries to add cluster munitions to the list of weapons deemed “indiscriminate” in any usage. The land mine treaty has left the U.S. as the only NATO country not to be a signatory country. Under the terms of that treaty the U.S. cannot stockpile landmines with deployed U.S. forces in Europe or even transit landmines through other NATO countries without violating international law.

Significantly, just five days after Annan’s speech in Geneva, a new treaty came into force – the so-called “Explosive Remnants of War” agreement. Under its terms, warring parties are obliged to remove unexploded munitions – shells, mortars, rockets, grenades, and cluster sub-munitions – from battlefields after the end of hostilities. In a way, this is a more daunting task than cleaning up landmines in that warring parties occasionally noted where landmines had been employed. With shells and rockets, while there may be some idea of what direction they were launched, the absence of any knowledge about where the munitions actually landed increases the threat to post-conflict indigenous civilians, humanitarian and relief workers, and peacekeepers.

So far, 26 countries have ratified the treaty. That leaves 165 to go. But three years after the treaty was agreed, the ball is rolling. And for the U.S., the change in Senate leadership provides a new opportunity for action.

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