A variety of legal instruments and institutions, such as the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act, exist to minimize harm to noncombatants during wartime. But once the guns go silent, there are few covenants in place to protect civilians from the remnants of war: antipersonnel landmines, unexploded cluster munitions, and fallout from dioxins like Agent Orange. That is beginning to change, thanks to forceful lobbying from human rights groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross. Efforts to ban landmines reached a climax in 1997 with the inception of what hasbecome known as the Ottawa Treaty, signed by all but a small handful of states (notable dissenters include China, Russia, and the United States).
The latest push underway is to curb the use of cluster bombs, as this new Backgrounder explains. Cluster bombs are commonly used munitions that explode (GlobalSecurity.org) over a wide area. Humanitarian groups are against them because they leave behind hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unexploded bomblets that effectively become landmines (HRW). Handicap International estimates that cluster bombs have killed around 3,800 civilians and maimed thousands more in over twenty-four countries (AP). At a recent conference in Geneva to review the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a new treaty went into effect requiring that countries clean up (Malaysia Sun) unexploded munitions and other ordnance from weapons like cluster bombs. A new UN report finds that twenty-six countries are littered with cluster bombs and other remnants of war.
But efforts to enact an Ottawa-like treaty restricting the use of these bombs have failed to get off the ground (AP). Military experts say these munitions, though inaccurate and unreliable, are too effective and embedded to be banned from combat operations. Even most human rights groups privately admit a moratorium may be unfeasible and may settle for a prohibition against the use of these bombs in population centers or a phaseout of older models which typically have higher dud rates.
The issue took on renewed importance after last summer’s conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Both sides were accused of dropping cluster bombs and endangering civilians. The United Nations Mine Action Coordination Center estimates as many as one million unexploded cluster submunitions, most of them made in the United States, remain in southern Lebanon. The Israelis claim they directed their bombs only at “legitimate military targets” but have opened an investigation (NYT) to determine whether the military properly followed orders restricting their use. Hezbollah also stands accused of firing as many as 4,000 rockets with cluster munitions against Israeli population areas. The United States has come under fire for its widespread use of cluster bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. In each case, human rights groups say innocents were killed or maimed by these bombs.