Once, the world's armies used land mines as an essential weapon in their armories. But a grass-roots campaign, bolstered by the late Diana, Princess of Wales, achieved an international ban.
Today, they are outlawed as barbarously indiscriminate by a treaty in force since March 1999. And according to a report by anti-land-mine campaigners published yesterday, nations are complying.
Now another weapon is being targeted. Building on the momentum and moral foundation created by the land-mine effort, humanitarian groups are turning their sights to the cluster bomb, a munition central to US and NATO military strategy.
In the past 12 months alone, 151 civilians (many of them children) were killed by the unexploded cluster bombs dropped by NATO planes over Kosovo during the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, according to a report published this week by the Red Cross in Geneva, which called for a moratorium on the use of cluster munitions.
The report is the latest salvo in a burgeoning international protest against cluster bombs, which almost always litter wide areas with unexploded "bomblets" that remain lethal long after the end of hostilities.
"Cluster munitions are so abhorrent, so inherently indiscriminate, and so likely to cause unnecessary suffering that they should be banned," recommended a study published last month by the Central Committee of the Mennonites, a pacifist Protestant denomination.
US officials, however, are wary of such arguments. Post-war civilian casualties are "an item of concern," says Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Vic Warzinsky, but "cluster bombs are a useful munition that serve a useful and valuable military purpose ... I wouldn't anticipate that we would unilaterally forgo using this munition."
The challenges facing any effort to ban cluster munitions were illustrated yesterday, by a report finding that 250 million land mines remain stockpiled in 105 countries. Still in the past year, some 10 million antipersonnel mines have been destroyed (roughly 5 percent of the current world stockpile) and, perhaps more significant, trade in this weapon has been almost completely halted, said the Nobel laureate International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. "We have turned the tide in the battle against mines," its report said. The report is to be presented to a meeting next week of the 138 countries that signed the 1997 Ottawa Treaty. The United States, China, and Russia are among those that have not signed. Yugoslav forces laid some 50,000 mines in Kosovo and Russian troops engaged in heavy mine-laying in Chechnya, the report said.
Bombs 'waiting for civilians'
Cluster bombs, used by all the major military powers, are metal canisters dropped from aircraft that release dozens or hundreds of "bomblets" over a wide area. Intended to explode on impact, these bomblets are designed to destroy tanks and armored vehicles or to kill surrounding infantry. Ten percent of the 290,000 bomblets dropped over Kosovo failed to explode, however, according to figures NATO gave the United Nations Mine Action Coordinating Center in Pristina.
That means an estimated 30,000 unexploded cluster munitions remained after the conflict. "The problem with cluster bombs is that they are used in such large numbers, and with a guaranteed failure rate, that they effectively leave thousands of antipersonnel mines waiting for civilians to come and step on them," says Steve Goose, head of the arms division of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Dropped from high altitudes, the unguided bombs did not always hit their targets in Kosovo, so even NATO officials cannot say where they landed. This means they left unmapped minefields "for victims to stumble upon," says Rachel Stohl, a researcher with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank.
Even worse, US-made cluster bomblets are bright yellow, roughly the size and shape of soda cans, making them especially attractive to children. In Kosovo, children under 14 are nearly five times more likely to be killed or injured by a cluster munition than by a land mine left by retreating Yugoslav forces, the Red Cross report found.
One solution, suggested Peter Herby, who wrote the report, would be an insistence that all cluster bomblets contain automatic self-destruct mechanisms. This would not be complex, experts say.
"It would take an electronic timer, which is not technically difficult and not that expensive," says Chris Martin, spokesman for Hunting Engineering, the British firm that made the cluster bombs that Royal Air Force planes dropped on Kosovo. The US military is also understood to be studying such plans. "We strongly regret that unexploded ordnance can lead to civilian casualties even after a conflict has ended, and we are examining ideas to help address this issue," says a State Department official, who declined to be identified.
The Red Cross "is hesitant to rely only on technical solutions," Mr. Herby cautions: "They have to be part of a broader approach." The Red Cross urged that until an international treaty can be drawn up - banning the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas and assigning responsibility for clean-up of unexploded ordnance to those who used them - "the use of cluster bombs should be suspended."
Groundswell of attention
This is a call that is catching on. Human Rights Watch urged an end to the use of cluster munitions back in February, the leading British anti-land-mine campaigning group called for a moratorium last month, while the Mennonites demanded an outright ban. "We are already seeing a groundswell of attention to this matter," says Mr. Goose, who attributed it to "the prominence and success of the land mine campaign." Though he does not expect the world to agree to a total ban, "some sort of restrictions will be put in place."
Herby is also optimistic. In talks with government officials, he says, the Red Cross has found "widespread recognition that there is a problem. We've been quite encouraged that on all sides there is a willingness to look for solutions, to minimize casualties."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society