US should ban bomblets and get on the right side of history

OPINION: US policymakers should put their weight behind banning cluster bombs rather than being apologists for them.

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A clumsy person shoots himself in the foot; a foolish person, having shot himself in the foot, then shoots his other foot to make them look the same.

In the 1990s, the United States did the diplomatic and humanitarian equivalent of shooting itself in the foot over the land mine issue. President Bill Clinton got the anti-land mine campaign moving when he went to the United Nations in 1994. Calling attention to the damage these weapons cause, he stated: "To end this carnage, the United States will seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel land mines. The United States will lead a global effort to eliminate these terrible weapons and stop the enormous loss of human life."

Three years later, we were on the outside looking in as the world celebrated the signature of the Ottawa Convention to ban antipersonnel land mines, now signed by every Western Hemisphere country except the US and Cuba, and every NATO member except the US.

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As US ambassador to Angola, a country plagued by up to a million land mines, I urged our government to take a more forthcoming stance. The transformation of the US from visionary to spoiler involved many missteps and miscalculations, but I firmly believe that had we engaged early with creative diplomacy, our stated objections – including the need for land mines on the Korean border – could have been addressed.

A decade later, we are about to shoot our other foot. Around the world, there's a growing movement to eliminate the use of cluster munitions. These weapons are dropped from or shot into the sky, separate into dozens of small bomblets, and explode on the enemy. But these weapons have such a wide and uncertain dispersal pattern that, when used in urban areas, they virtually assure that civilians will also be victims. And many bomblets – up to 40 percent in last summer's fighting in Lebanon, for example – don't explode on contact, and remain active on the ground after the conflict ends.

Some bomblets are shaped like soda cans; others look like shiny metal balls; and still others are painted an inviting orange. Curious children too often lose their limbs or lives picking them up. Even experienced demolition experts often lose their fight against these weapons: For example, among the first casualties in NATO's Kosovo peacekeeping operations were experts trying to dismantle unexploded bomblets.

Seventy-five countries around the world have cluster munitions in their arsenals, with the US among the leaders. And while there is probably a military utility to the weapons, this alone is no excuse to keep using them, especially in a world where 90 percent of the victims of conflict are civilians. For example, mustard gas and other biological and chemicals weapons have long been banned under the understanding that humanitarian concerns often trump military utility.

While they recognize the danger of these weapons, US policymakers are increasingly apologists for them. At the Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva last month, Bush administration officials said that the threat to civilians from cluster munitions is "episodic" and "manageable within current response mechanisms" – presumably unless you're a child attracted by the bomblets. They said it "only" took two years to clear the high-risk affected areas in Kosovo after 1999, but also admitted that eight years later, unexploded bomblets remain. They cited 10 countries threatened by cluster bombs – Afghanistan, Albania, Cambodia, Iraq, Laos, Lebanon, Montenegro, Serbia, and Vietnam – as well as Kosovo, leaving out another 20 countries so affected.

Separately, the US State Department has said that Israel may have illegally used US-made cluster bombs in Lebanon, but welcomes that it will take "only" a year and a half to largely clean up the remnants. The Bush administration urged the convention to consider voluntary pledges by warring parties to use fewer cluster munitions, to increase reliability of bomblets, and to educate civilians about the risks.

But there's a much easier solution: Ban these killers. Already some 70 countries have come together in Oslo and Lima, Peru, to set the framework for a treaty to ban new cluster bombs, destroy stockpiles, clear contaminated areas, and assist accident victims. A treaty text has been drafted, and new negotiations are set for Vienna in December, and Wellington, New Zealand, and Dublin, Ireland, in the first half of 2008.

In the US, senators led by Dianne Feinstein and land-mine ban hero Patrick Leahy have introduced legislation banning the use, sale, and transfer of cluster munitions that have a failure rate higher than 1 percent, and banning the use of cluster munitions in heavily populated areas.

There's still time for President Bush to get on the right side of history by having his administration engage actively in the Oslo Treaty process and support US legislation to restrict or eliminate these weapons. Hopefully, when history repeats itself and governments and activists are celebrating the adoption of a treaty to eliminate cluster munitions, we will be among those toasting.

Donald Steinberg is the vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group and former US ambassador to Angola.

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