Clusters of Death

Growing international demands to suspend the use of cluster munitions, which scatter hundreds of small “bomblets” over a wide area and are blamed for thousands of civilian deaths around the world, appear to be falling on deaf ears among the governments that stockpile them.

“The war in Iraq has sharpened the call for action on cluster munitions. … Over a thousand Iraqis were injured or killed during the bombing and its immediate aftermath by cluster sub-munitions, or bomblets,” said Virgil Wiebe, a legal adviser to the U.S.-based Mennonite Central Committee, one of the leading groups working for a moratorium.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that some cluster munitions should simply be banned,” he told Tierramérica. “These fail to explode on contact so often that they create minefields every time they are used, and ongoing civilian casualties are virtually guaranteed.”

In November, the Cluster Munitions Coalition (CMC), comprising 85 groups from 42 countries met at The Hague in the Netherlands to call for a moratorium on the use, production and trade of cluster munitions, “until their humanitarian problems have been resolved.”

The coalition includes prominent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The CMC gathering was timed to coincide with a meeting in Geneva of the parties to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a treaty that bans or restrict the use of various types of weapons that are deemed to cause unnecessary suffering or affect either soldiers or civilians indiscriminately.

A new fifth protocol was approved at the meeting that would address some of the after-affects of cluster bombs, but does not deal with targeting or use.

Only one country, Sweden, has ratified the new protocol so far. None have endorsed the call for a moratorium.

At least 57 nations currently stockpile cluster munitions, primarily the United States, Russia and China.

The “worst culprits” include the BLU-97 Combined Effects Munitions, used widely in Iraq and Afghanistan by the U.S. air force, and the Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) used by the U.S. army in Iraq, Wiebe said.

The effects of cluster munitions were detailed in a December 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, which found that they caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq during March and April of that year.

“The U.S. government has not officially replied to our report,” said Mark Hiznay, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s arms division.

“We have been engaged in lobbying efforts in Congress, to address the issue through the president’s budget request” by blocking funding for new cluster munitions, said Hiznay.

However, he noted that this does not address the more than one billion sub-munitions that the U.S. has already stockpiled.

One of the main dangers of cluster bombs lies in the so-called “dud” munitions that fail to detonate, and can be picked up by curious civilians, often children.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that more than 1,000 children have been injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the Iraq war.

The British group Iraq Body Count has documented at least 200 civilian deaths in Iraq from cluster munitions, contradicting assertions in April by the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Richard Myers, that “there’s only been one recorded case of collateral damage from cluster munitions noted so far.”

In one of the most high-profile incidents, on March 31, 2003, a U.S. cluster munitions attack on al-Hilla in central Iraq killed at least 33 civilians and injured 109.

It is a “terrible shame” that only “small numbers of representatives raise this in (the British) parliament from time to time,” John Sloboda, the spokesman for Iraq Body Count, told Tierramérica.

Sloboda stressed the importance of greater media coverage of the problem, although an analysis last year by the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that among the U.S. media at least, the issue has been largely off the radar screen.

Teams from the U.S. military and the State Department are now working to clear dud munitions from some sites in Iraq, and say they have tried to warn Iraqis about the dangers of unexploded sub-munitions by speaking at schools and town councils and putting up educational posters.

In recent years, Washington and London have also unveiled a new generation of cluster munitions that they say are more accurate and have failure rates of less than one percent. Both countries insist that cluster munitions are legitimate weapons, and refuse to remove them from their weapons arsenals.

Douglas Karas, a spokesman for the Pentagon (U.S. Defense Department) told Tierramérica that the air force used “wind-corrected munitions dispenser munitions” in Iraq, which he said “are very accurate to ensure they function against intended targets,” and have “fail-safes” so they do not dispense if the target is missed.

Further questions about civilian victims and the proposed moratorium were not addressed by Karas or by other Pentagon officials who Tierramérica consulted.

Read more by Katherine Stapp