Editorial: Halt the scourge of cluster bombs

When the House of Representatives passed its $576 billion defense appropriations bill June 16, one amendment that did not pass was the one introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers, which would have barred the United States from sending cluster munitions, also known as cluster bombs, to Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration had urged House members to reject the amendment and in an odd display of bipartisanship, 200 Republicans joined 16 Democrats to defeat the amendment.

Why was the amendment defeated? Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Committee on Defense, offered this explanation from floor debate: "The Department of Defense strongly opposes this amendment. They advise us that it would stigmatize cluster munitions, which are legitimate weapons with clear military utility."

A House vote is not required to stigmatize cluster bombs. Use of these monstrous devices by the United States has taken care of that.

Cluster bombs are large casings containing multiple smaller submunitions, or bomblets, that when dropped from an airplane or shot through artillery or rockets scatter hundreds or thousands of miniature explosives and fragments over very large areas. The bombs explode above the ground to increase the lethalness. The fragments can penetrate even armored tanks, according to a data sheet available from the sole U.S. manufacturer authorized to export cluster bombs, Textron Systems of Wilmington, Mass.

Seventeen countries are believed to be manufacturing cluster munitions: Brazil, China, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Poland, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Slovakia, Turkey and the United States, according to Cluster Munition Coalition, which monitors the manufacture, distribution and use of these weapons.

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The military may think them "legitimate" but they are by nature indiscriminate and because they are imperfect, endanger innocent civilians for an indeterminate period. The Defense Department addressed these two issues in 2008 directives guiding the export of cluster bombs.

Cluster bombs of exportable quality must have a failure rate of less than 1 percent, and Textron and the Defense Department assure us their bombs meet that requirement. That is important, because cluster bombs are known to kill and maim long after they have been deployed.

To this day, parts of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are still infected with unexploded cluster bombs dropped by U.S. forces 50 years ago. Old bomblets dug up in fields or that surface in village commons and school grounds can explode and still kill and maim. Other countries heavily contaminated with unexploded cluster munitions include Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq and Syria.

Also under the 2008 directive, countries that receive U.S.-made cluster bombs must agree that they "will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians."

However, Human Rights Watch has documented around 30 uses of U.S.-made cluster bombs in the last year in Yemen, targeting civilian areas and leaving behind unexploded ordnance, including six cases involving CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons, made by Textron and approved for export. Saudi Arabia is a recipient of U.S.-made cluster bombs and has been waging an air campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels since March of last year. (See the full report at www.hrw.org/news/2016/05/06/yemen-saudis-using-us-cluster-munitions.)

In early June, the U.N. human rights office said that 3,500 civilians have been killed and 6,300 wounded in Yemen since Saudi Arabia's bombing campaign began. The U.N. Children's Fund counts more than 900 children killed and more than 1,300 wounded in attacks on markets, hospitals and residential areas. The U.N. and other humanitarian agencies say the Saudi airstrikes account for 65 percent of the civilian casualties.

Not all of those deaths and injuries are tied to cluster bombs, but the House vote must be seen in light of the U.N. reporting. Furthermore, the House vote came just days after U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, under intense pressure from Saudi Arabia, removed the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from the U.N.'s 2015 "Children and Armed Conflict" report. That report had listed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen under "parties that kill or maim children" and "parties that engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals."

The international community is working to ban cluster bombs. An international treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, prohibits the manufacture, distribution, use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. It was adopted and open for signatures in 2008, and entered into force in August 2010 after it was ratified by 30 states.

To date, 108 states have signed the treaty and 100 have ratified it. Countries that have not signed the convention and have worked against its adoption are Brazil, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia and the United States.

It is time that the convention was universally adopted and the scourge of cluster bombs halted.

The effort to ban cluster bombs is modeled on the successful international campaign to ban landmines. Both began as grassroots efforts by nongovernmental groups that work directly with the causalities of these most indiscriminate weapons. Learn how you can help at stopclustermunitions.org or www.clusterconvention.org.

This story appeared in the July 15-28, 2016 print issue under the headline: Halt the scourge of cluster bombs .

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