People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 32

August 08, 2010


Treaty to Ban Cluster Bombs




WAR has been dignified under many guises throughout history, as a necessary evil or as diplomacy by other means or even as justified under the circumstances. But nobody has ever claimed there is such a thing as a humane war. When the last survivor of the First World War was being feted in London on the previous anniversary marking the end of the War, he only recalled its horrors and pleaded that war itself should not be glorified because it was the ugliest thing known to humankind.

Wars are of course still with us. However, the past century or more has seen many international efforts to eliminate or at least minimise the worst excesses of wars, insulate non-combatants and regulate or prohibit certain classes of weapons that are particularly heinous. No one is under any illusion that states, especially those with hegemonic ambitions, will give up altogether on military dimension of power projection. Yet huge strides have been made, under pressure of global movements and growing public opinion, to ban or control several weapons systems. Mustard gas, anti-personnel land mines, and hollow-point “dum dum” bullets that explode inside the victims’ body have all been banned. Treaties to ban chemical and biological weapons have become a reality although, despite several arms control measures, the scourge of nuclear weapons has not yet been eradicated. 

In this context, an important milestone was reached on August 1, 2010 when a new international treaty imposing a complete ban on cluster bombs came into effect.




The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which had been signed by 107 countries in Oslo in December 2008, entered into force, as per the terms of the convention, after the 30th signatory country ratified it in February this year. 37 nations have ratified the convention to date. Ratification by most of the other signatory states is expected before the first meeting of parties in December 2010 in the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, the most cluster-bombed country in history.  

The treaty requires all adherents “never under any circumstances” to (a) use cluster munitions; (b) develop, produce, otherwise acquire, stockpile, retain or transfer cluster munitions; and (c) assist, encourage or induce anyone to engage in any activity prohibited under this convention.

The CCM is almost unique among international arms control agreements in that, along with the treaty banning landmines through a very similar process, it has emerged out of an autonomous process which, while supported by the United Nations, was not initiated and brought about under UN aegis. In fact, it was the collapse of discussions on the issue of cluster bombs during formal UN disarmament talks in Geneva in 2006 that prompted several nations led to initiate what was called the Oslo process. Starting with an Oslo Declaration in February 2007, the process rapidly gathered momentum culminating in the adoption of the Treaty text in May 2008 by 107 nations including 7 of the 14 countries that have used cluster bombs and 17 of the 34 countries that have produced them.

Signatory states include 22 out of 29 NATO countries including Britain and Germany which have stockpiles of over 50 million cluster sub-munitions each. Unfortunately, the treaty has not been signed by the USA, the largest producer, stockpiler and user of cluster bombs, or by Russia, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, Brazil.




Cluster munitions are large bombs dropped from the air or fired on by artillery guns on land, that contain within them hundreds of smaller bombs or sub-munitions called “bomblets” for air-dropped munitions or “grenades” in artillery shells  (see the picture). Each of these sub-munitions explodes independently cumulatively causing enormous and often indiscriminate casualties over a very large area.



Cluster Bomb showing bomblets inside (from the Chile-Bolivia border)


Two main humanitarian problems have been associated with cluster bombs. First, because they are designed to cause such widely dispersed impact, they cause enormous civilian casualties when used near population centres. Second, given the hundreds and thousands of bomblets used, a substantial proportion of sub-munitions remain unexploded and act like mines, exploding unpredictably and causing death and injury even long after conflict situations have ended.

Cluster bombs have killed and injured thousands of civilians during the last several decades and continue to do so even today. The UN estimates that 60 per cent of cluster bomb casualties are injured while undertaking normal civilian activities, while one-third of all recorded cluster munitions casualties are children. Cluster bombs are believed to have caused more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have suffered civilian deaths even several decades after the massive carpet bombing by the US. Laos has lost an estimated 12,000 civilian lives since 1973 when the last cluster bomb was dropped by the US and sees 300 casualties each year even today!

It was in fact Israel’s massive use of cluster bombs during its invasion of Lebanon in August 2006 that provided the trigger for the intensive international campaign to ban cluster munitions. More than 200 civilian casualties were recorded in Lebanon during the year following the ceasefire. The United Nations’ Mines Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC) in South Lebanon identified 847 locations where cluster bombs had been dropped, contaminating 34 square kilometres of land, and estimates that as many as 40 per cent of Israeli cluster munitions used in Lebanon failed to explode, leaving anywhere from 563,200 to 1,126,400 unexploded bomblets in the southern part of the country.  Israel is estimated to have dropped cluster bombs containing 2.6 million to 4 million bomblets, around 90 per cent of which were fired during the last 72 hours of the conflict when Israel knew that a ceasefire was imminent, prompting observers to conclude that the cluster-bombing had been done deliberately for its post-war impact on civilian lives.

The enormous number of civilian casualties due to cluster bombs used in Lebanon by Israel prompted even the US State Department to investigate the use of US-made cluster munitions. The classified report to Congress stated that Israel may indeed have violated end-use agreements when it used the US-made cluster bombs in Lebanon, but no follow-up action was initiated and the State Department’s own “Country Report on Lebanon even avoided any mention of the US role in providing Israel these weapons.



AND EXCEPTIONS             

As we have seen, many of the major countries manufacturing and stockpiling cluster bombs have not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. In Asia, only 5 countries have signed the treaty, including Afghanistan which has been a major sufferer, with an Afghan bomblet-victim amputee being a leading mascot at campaign meetings. In South America, while Brazil and Argentina continue to abstain, Chile has signed and ratified the CCM and is an aggressive champion of the treaty. Chile has historically been one of the early and major manufacturers of cluster munitions, having even supplied these to Iraq during the first Gulf War. Its border with Bolivia continues even today to contain numerous unexploded bomblets left over from earlier conflicts with Bolivia.   

As usual in such cases, countries opposing a ban cite national security as the main reason. Chile however, in an oblique criticism of Brazil and Argentina, argues that security strategies should be evolved that exclude such barbaric weapons.

Countries that have not joined the ban prefer to pursue less stringent regulations and controls under amendments to the 1980 UN Convention on Convention Weapons and the global Arms Trade Treaty which are currently being negotiated. The US, for instance, argues that a total ban on all types of cluster munitions is not called on grounds of both military tactical necessity and technological advances.

The CCM indeed itself provides for some exceptions. The treaty allows cluster munitions that have less than 10 sub-munitions each weighing more than 4 kg but less than 20 kg, with capability to detect and engage a single target and containing electronically timed and activated self-destruct and self-deactivation mechanisms. But arguments by the US and others seem designed to circumvent even such exceptions.

A common argument by US Defence Department spokespersons and armaments manufacturers is that future conflicts are likely to involve non-state actors who often use civilians as human shields for military targets, for example on the roof of a building. In such circumstances, they argue, a unitary weapon would cause more civilian casualties whereas precision cluster bombs could take out targets only on the roof.

The US Congress is currently considering a Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act (S 594) which prohibits use of cluster weapons in or near civilian areas and bars the manufacture, sale or transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate above one per cent, that is only one in every hundred bomblets would be left unexploded. But there is widespread scepticism over the credibility of manufacturers regarding such claims. 

US-based Textron Defence Systems has developed an “advanced cluster weapon” with 40 individual projectiles supposedly capable of destroying enemy tanks across a 30-acre swathe of battlefield. This company, which actively sponsored much US opposition to the CCM treaty, is now mounting a campaign along with the Pentagon and other US government departments to secure acceptance for such munitions under the UN treaty. The bomb contains 10 canisters with built-in sensors which release four separate bomblets each with its own rocket motor and targeting system. It is claimed that just two of such bombs destroyed 24 Iraqi tanks in 2003. The bomblets also contain self-destruct mechanisms with a short time-delay of failing to hit their designated targets.

It is reported that the US Air Force has already bought 4,600 such bombs at a cost of several billion dollars, and Turkey, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates are among other buyers. According to US sources which this writer has not been able to independently verify, Textron is also reportedly in the final stages of reaching a deal with India for 510 of the weapons at an estimated cost of $375 million.

So many big and important countries being non-signatories might make the CCM treaty appear hollow, but the reality is likely to be quite different. The Landmines treaty, too, was notoriously not signed by the USA, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, but all these nations face growing international pressure and opprobrium that has hugely reduced the use of landmines by these countries.

Campaigners say that evolving international norms have their own logic and exert considerable influence towards compliance by the US and other states. Once 120 to 150 countries sign on to a Treaty, however voluntary, it gradually acquires the force of customary international law.  Public pressure in the US, including from the US Congress, has forced the US to scale back the use of cluster bombs by the US. The US not used cluster bombs anywhere since 2003 when it last used such weapons in Iraq while NATO has imposed a ban on cluster munitions in Afghanistan since 2007. The Landmine Treaty is another example and even Israel which did not sign that treaty has stopped using them.

On the eve of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days, when the world renews its efforts work for the complete and universal elimination of nuclear weapons, it is well worth remembering that trying to bring about an international arms control agreement is an uphill task, difficult and frustratingly slow. But political will and determined activism can and do make things happen. The coming into force of the Treaty to ban cluster weapons is a time to remember this.