The Campaign to Ban Cluster Bombs

The Campaign to Ban Cluster Bombs

A global push is underway to ban cluster bombs after their use in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, as well as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, has left hundreds of noncombatants maimed or dead.

November 21, 2006 9:32 am (EST)

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International law does not ban the use of cluster bombs, though humanitarian groups claim they have killed or maimed hundreds of innocents in recent armed conflicts. Cluster bombs scatter hundreds of bomblets over a large area but with limited accuracy and high failure rates. After last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, in which both sides were accused of killing civilians with cluster bombs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on countries to ban cluster bombs and destroy their stockpiles. A proposal to limit their use during wartime came under review at a November 2006 conference in Geneva on the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a 1980 agreement that seeks to protect military troops from inhumane injuries and prevent civilians from being wounded or killed.

Why are some groups trying to ban cluster bombs?

Human rights groups say increased use of the bombs from the Mideast to Afghanistan is putting more civilians in harm’s way. Groups pressing a ban say the fallout from cluster bombs covers a swath of land the size of a city block and they often leave behind unexploded ordnance. Many do not explode on impact and, like landmines, pose long-term threats to civilians. “The issue of proportionality and discrimination is what’s basically at stake,” says John E. Pike, director of Handicap International, a UK-based anti-cluster-bomb group, estimates civilians make up 98 percent of those maimed by these bombs’ munitions, one-third of them children. These bombs’ failure rate can be anywhere from 1 percent to 10 percent or even higher (The cluster bombs used by the British military in Bosnia during the 1990s, for instance, had an abnormally high failure rate). Pike says “there’s always going to be a dud rate” given that submunitions are small, cheap, and easy to manufacture, though the U.S. military is reportedly developing newer versions with higher success rates.

How do cluster bombs work?

Cluster bombs can be surface delivered but often are dropped by parachute, making them susceptible to wind and unpredictable weather patterns. They scatter hundreds of soda-can-size submunitions like buckshot, and some contain shrapnel to pierce armored tanks and penetrate concrete. Others, equipped with phosphorus or napalm, are designed to start fires. Then there are “smart” cluster bombs, like the CBU-103, which use guided circuitry to locate targets or WCMD—a wind-corrected munitions dispenser—to navigate weather changes and minimize collateral damage (these were used by Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan). Many of the munitions are left on the ground as unexploded duds and become de facto landmines (though more clearly marked). In places like Afghanistan, they were mistaken for toys by children. 

Why are cluster bombs used?

Military officials like them because they leave a large “footprint” and are highly versatile, if not accurate. “There is some category of targets where cluster bombs are the preferred ammunition,” Pike says. For example, he says, they are highly effective against soft, or unarmored, targets like airfields or an infantry battalion walking down the road. Dropping one 1,000-pound bomb may not find enemies in a foxhole, says Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists. “But if I drop a thousand one-pound bombs,” he says, “a certain fraction will find people in a foxhole. It’s many times more effective to take my explosive package and divide it up into smaller subdivisions.” British, like U.S. military officials, say cluster bombs play a legitimate role in wartime and are effective; eliminating them, they say, would put British soldiers in the field at a disadvantage (though fresh signs are emerging the British may eventually support the ban).

How can such bombs be banned?

Through small steps, experts say. Several states have introduced a new protocol to the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The protocol aims to prohibit cluster bombs in or near populated—or “mixed use” (military-civilian targets)—areas and urges countries to eliminate their stockpiles and phase out older-style cluster bombs, which seem to have higher failure rates (i.e. Many of Israel’s U.S.-made munitions were reportedly Vietnam-era). UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for a temporary freeze on their use and European states like Belgium and Norway have already banned them (Belgium also has a bill before its parliament that would bar investment in countries that produce antipersonnel mines, a tactic human rights groups say might work to stigmatize producers of cluster bombs).  A separate treaty, which came into force on November 19, 2006, requires countries to clean up unexploded munitions and other ordnance from weapons like cluster bombs.

What is the likelihood of a ban taking effect soon?

Not very likely. “Cluster bombs are so incredibly effective as weapons, it will be very hard to get countries to keep their militaries from using them,” says Oelrich. No majorbreakthrough emerged from the November 2006 Geneva conference. Experts say without the backing of Washington, Moscow, and Beijing—which, according to Handicap International, stockpile a quarter of the world’s four billion cluster bombs—there is little hope for an international moratorium. Even the European Union, against the wills of many of its members, indicated it would not back a ban on cluster bombs. Still, humanitarian groups remain optimistic. “We have reached a tipping point, on cluster munitions,” says Steve Goose director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division. “It’s no longer a small group of isolated states calling for a new treaty.” In Geneva, twenty-four states supported a proposal to curb the use of cluster bombs and several countries’ individual parliaments are considering banning their usage. Early next year, the ICRC will hold an expert meeting on the subject of cluster bombs.

Have attempts to ban similar munitions worked?

Yes. Experts point to the largely successful efforts in the 1990s to ban antipersonnel landmines. Previous attempts—the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons and an additional protocol revised and approved in 1996—were deemed insufficient because neither called for outright bans. But the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, signed by 154 states, calls for a permanent ban on the development and stockpiling of landmines within four years of a state’s accession (some exceptions are made for mines used for training purposes) and has resulted in the clearing of hundreds of thousands of landmines. Absent from the treaty are China, Russia, and the United States.

What is the history of cluster bombs?

First used in World War II, cluster bombs came into fashion during the 1960s and 1970s and were used by U.S. forces during aerial attacks in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Around the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union developed cluster bombs capable of carrying chemical weapons like sarin or tear gas. Dozens of nations now own or have used cluster bombs. Humanitarian groups say their use has risen in recent years, beginning with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s use of the bombs in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s up through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they were used by U.S.-led forces. Most recently, Israel used them heavily in southern Lebanon and Hezbollah fired them on northern Israel in last summer’s war.

What role did cluster bombs play in the Israeli-Hezbollah war?

They left dozens dead or maimed on both sides of the conflict. The reason, says Oelrich, is because the “fighting in southern Lebanon was often in villages and towns where people were living.” Israel dropped up to four million submunitions on Lebanese soil, one million of which remain unexploded “duds,” according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Center. Throughout the thirty-four-day conflict, the United States resupplied Israel’s arsenal of cluster bombs, which prompted an investigation by the State Department to examine if Israel had violated secret agreements it signed with the United States governing their use. Hezbollah, meanwhile, fired thousands of cluster munitions—a Chinese-made Type 81 122mm rocket—into northern Israel, a number of which targeted civilian populations, according to human rights groups. Experts say the collateral damage from the conflict galvanized a number of nations to throw their support behind a ban on cluster bombs.

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