It’s High Time to Ban Cluster Bombs

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"Cluster munitions always kill and maim civilians, during the fighting and long afterward," said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "A comprehensive prohibition is the only real solution. So-called responsible use of cluster munitions is a myth, and nations should resist efforts to weaken the ban."

ILLUSTRATION SHOWING cluster munitions being dropped from the air.
(DPA via Newscom).

In the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah two summers ago, as in the more recent conflict between Russia and Georgia last summer, large numbers of cluster munitions were deployed and thousands of unexploded ordnance still remain scattered in civilian populated areas.

The loss of life and limbs, in many cases by children, only reinforces the importance – and the urgency – in banning cluster munitions.

The United States meanwhile remains opposed to the ban of cluster bombs. Timed to be released on the first day of this meeting, Human Rights Watch has made public an 80-page report titled “A Dying Practice: Use of Cluster Munitions by Russia and Georgia in August 2008.”

It is the first such comprehensive report on cluster munition usage in the Caucasus war.

A field investigation by Human Rights Watch in August, September, and October 2008 documented dozens of civilian deaths and injuries from the use of cluster munitions, including casualties after the fighting ended. Unexploded submunitions continue to threaten civilians.

And despite considerable material evidence of Russian cluster munitions use, Russia continues to deny every using them.

Human Rights Watch found that Russia violated international humanitarian law with indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munitions attacks on populated areas in Georgia. It blanketed the town of Variani, for example, with cluster munitions over two days, causing 19 civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch identified Russian cluster munitions remnants in or near seven towns and villages.

The Georgian government acknowledged using cluster munitions, but claimed that it was aiming at invading Russian military forces and equipment in South Ossetia, in an otherwise unpopulated area.

“Cluster munitions always kill and maim civilians, during the fighting and long afterward,” said Bonnie Docherty, researcher in the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “A comprehensive prohibition is the only real solution. So-called responsible use of cluster munitions is a myth, and nations should resist efforts to weaken the ban.”

The new Convention on Cluster Munitions, which opened for signature in December 2008, categorically bans cluster munitions. It also requires nations to clear contaminated areas and to aid affected individuals and communities.

This is a great idea but hardly one that is likely to work. Does anybody really believe that Israel is likely to compensate the villagers of south Lebanon or the residents of Beirut’s southern suburbs, both Hezbollah strongholds, or for that matter that Russia will compensate the Georgians?

Human Rights Watch also documented casualties from Georgian cluster munitions in or near nine populated areas of Georgia south of the South Ossetian administrative border.

The United States is not the only major power to refuse to comply with the world-wide ban on cluster munitions. Along with the U.S. are China, Russia and Georgia – not particularly the best company to be associated with when one advocates the spread of democracy in the developing world.

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