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Philip C. Winslow: Cluster Weapons: On the Way Out

May 19, 2009

Philip C. Winslow

Ten years ago this spring an historic international treaty came into force banning antipersonnel land mines. Although the U.S. has not joined the 156 nations who ratified the treaty, American forces have not used antipersonnel mines since 1992, and have destroyed three million stockpiled mines; call it a reluctant phasing out of an indiscriminate weapon that U.S. forces have used since the Civil War.

Now a world movement to ban cluster weapons is gathering pace. It’s possible that this time around the U.S., which has not used cluster munitions since 2003 in Iraq, will join, helping make the weapons and their explosive sub-munitions a military artifact. So far 96 nations have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) and seven have ratified it. The treaty will enter into force on the thirtieth ratification.

Civilian deaths and disabilities from antipersonnel mines have been well documented. The unnecessary suffering and a persistent international campaign brought about the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Treaty. Cluster munitions casualties are less well known, in part because the weapons have been used in fewer countries, about 30. But where they have been used, the terrible wounds and denial of land access have led arms control experts, doctors and civil society groups, under the umbrella of the Cluster Munition Coalition, to demand that this weapon be added to the list of prohibited weapons along with antipersonnel mines, dum-dum bullets, poison gas and blinding lasers.

Although antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions are in different military categories, they have one thing in common: catastrophic results for the civilians who come across them. America’s massive bombing of Laos from 1964 to 1973 still claims casualties today. One is Ta Douangchom. “I was living in a village called Ka Oy . . . in southern Laos. I was a farmer. One day, I was 28 years old at the time, I went out with my two sons to look for food and found a strange object. It looked green.” You can read the rest of Ta’s story here.

Cluster munitions were widely used in the Second World War, first by Germany and the Soviet Union. The U.S. used them as incendiaries against Germany and Japan. During the Cold War, they were designed to stop Soviet tanks that might pour through the Fulda Gap into the plains of Europe, and to kill or injure personnel in or around the tanks.

The bombs and shells and their sub-munitions are multi-stage weapons of intricate design dropped by airplanes or fired from artillery pieces. The Federation of American Scientists illustrates a variety of air-dropped weapons and how they work. The astronomical numbers of the sub-munitions’ pellets, shards and fragments make them lethal over a wide area and infinitely difficult to clean up safely.

Eric Prokosch, in his classic book The Technology of Killing, describes one type the U.S. used in vast quantities in Southeast Asia:

“The CBU-24 (CBU = ‘cluster bomb unit’) consists of a[n] … dispenser … containing some 640 to 670 1-lb., spherical BLU-26 bomblets. Dropped from an airplane, the CBU-24 opens in the air, releasing the bomblets, which are aerodynamically designed to scatter in a pattern. When the bomblets hit the ground they explode. Each bomblet has some three hundred 7/32-inch steel balls embedded in its casing. The use of one CBU-24 results in some 200,000 steel balls shooting in all directions over a wide area.” (Later bomblets contained double the number of balls or fragments.)

However, not all the bomblets explode on impact, and the much-touted self-destruct or self-deactivate mechanisms on recent models often don’t work. The failure or “dud” rate, consistently higher than manufacturers and militaries claim, means the bomblets become de facto land mines.

Prokosch, who exhaustively researched antipersonnel weapons, found that from 1966 to 1971, the Pentagon ordered 482,970 CBU-24-series bombs and bomblet-filled units, “making a total of approximately 285 million ‘guava’ bomblets– nearly seven bomblets for every man, woman and child in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. . . . It was, in effect, a war against civilians, even if the people in charge of the bombing could claim to be trying to minimize civilian casualties.”

In 2006, Israel airdropped or fired about four million sub-munitions of various types on south Lebanon in the last three days of its month-long war against Hezbollah. The average dud rate for Israel’s sub-munitions of all types was 25 percent, according to Human Rights Watch. One Israeli-made artillery-delivered sub-munition, called the M85 and fitted with a self-destruct mechanism, was claimed in tests to have a failure rate of 1 – 2 percent. However, experts found that the M85s dropped on Lebanon had a failure rate of 10 percent, Human Rights Watch said. Since 2006, the sub-munitions and other unexploded ordnance in south Lebanon have killed 27 civilians and 14 de-miners and wounded hundreds of others.

The exploding “bombies,” as some villagers call them, produce wounds different from those caused by antipersonnel mines. Robin Coupland, the medical adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross and a former ICRC surgeon who treated land mine victims in Cambodia, Thailand, Angola and Afghanistan is well acquainted with blast and explosive wounds. “The injury [from cluster munitions] is an explosive injury, with fragments, that affects the parts of the body closest to the device,” Coupland explained. “When picked up [the bomblet] is closer to the chest and face.” The veteran surgeon also pointed to the compound nature of the problem: “Cluster munitions tend to be used in high-impact conflicts. Hospitals will be paralyzed and overwhelmed just when they are needed most. Infrastructure is destroyed, and staff can’t get to work.”

Arms-control experts and non-governmental organizations believe that the treaty could be ratified by enough countries and come into legal force sometime in the next year. They say that U.S. participation is possible.

“We are hopeful that the Obama administration will join both the Mine Ban Treaty and the Convention on Cluster Munitions,” Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, told me. “As a senator, Mr. Obama was supportive on both issues, and we believe he can carry that support forward as Commander-in-Chief. Joining the treaties would be a logical part of the new administration’s desire to re-engage productively in multilateralism . . . and consistent with its focus on humanitarian issues.”

Militaries, mindful of the uncertainties of warfare, are reluctant to give up weapons that offer battlefield advantage. In June 2008, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a memo to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others that cluster munitions are “legitimate weapons with clear military utility.” The memo also said that after 2018 the U.S. will no longer use cluster sub-munitions with a dud rate greater than 1%. The Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs know that the sub-munitions threaten friendly forces moving through contaminated areas. They are also well versed in international humanitarian law and the requirement to protect civilians.

A ban on cluster munitions would be another milestone in an evolutionary process that has gone on since the Crimean War. But despite advances aimed at limiting suffering on and off the battlefield, civilians caught up in armed conflicts are losing, and more than ever before. When they encounter these small weapons– in the fields and roads of Kosovo, Serbia, Chechnya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan or Sudan– their stories usually start, and often end, with simple statements:

“I was working in the fields, ploughing the soil with a weeding hoe.”– Pham Quy Thi, Quant Tri Province, Vietnam.

“I came across a strange object on the road, it looked like a can.”– Ahmed Najem, Basra, Iraq.

“I was injured by a sub-munition on the street in the centre of city while going to the bank during working hours.”– Mina Zunac, Zagreb, Croatia.

Philip C. Winslow is a journalist and foreign correspondent. Over a career that has spanned more than twenty-five years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War

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