A call to abolish cluster bombs

Like land mines, they can plague affected areas for years, and should be banned.

"Watch out! Watch out!" shouted my Lebanese colleague as I approached an unexploded cluster bomb near a soccer field in the southern Lebanese village of Soultaniye. As I tried to get a close-up photograph, he warned me to proceed cautiously so my shoes wouldn't inadvertently sprinkle dirt on the bomblet or otherwise disturb it, causing it to explode.

This close call came during a recent Amnesty International mission to assess the impact on civilians of this summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel. At the United Nation's Mine Action Coordination Center, I learned of Hussein Qaduh, a student who had been critically injured in a cluster-bomb explosion the previous evening.

One of his friends showed me where Hussein had been injured. More than a dozen unexploded bomblets still lay on the playing field and the path beside it; the adjacent wall and houses bore the signature pockmarks of exploded cluster bombs. Strewn across the spot where Hussein fell were stained pages from a notebook that villagers used to try to stem his bleeding. In the nearby village of Majdel Silim, villagers were eager, even insistent, to show me where bomblets had landed – on balconies, outside front doors, in trees and gardens, and even inside homes. A mother whose son had suffered cluster-bomb injuries pointed to the tree branches above us.

Tragically, the problem of unexploded ordnance, especially cluster bombs, has emerged as perhaps the conflict's most enduring legacy, one that will hamper southern Lebanon's recovery for years. The United Nations has identified more than 750 sites where cluster bombs were fired, with estimates indicating that at least 1 million unexploded cluster bomblets litter the villages, fields, gardens, and orchards of southern Lebanon.

This is especially devastating because most families in southern Lebanon are heavily dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. If farmers cannot tend to their fields soon, they may miss this year's harvest, as well as the planting or cultivating cycle for next year's crops.

Cluster munitions are not banned weapons, but their use in civilian areas violates the international ban on the use of indiscriminate weapons. According to the UN, 90 percent of the cluster bombs were dropped in the last 72 hours of the war – when all parties knew a cease-fire was imminent.

Reports last week that Hizbullah fired cluster bombs at civilian areas in northern Israel suggests these weapons are spreading to nonstate armed groups, further multiplying the danger they pose.

After initially denying that it used cluster bombs, Israel later said that all weapons they use are legal. But the military purpose of their use in these circumstances is inexplicable. Although Israel has provided some maps of the affected areas, the UN says it has still not provided specific coordinates that would expedite clearing. (An Israeli official told the German newspaper Der Spiegel that granting the request could jeopardize Israeli intelligence about Hizbullah.)

The US State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls is investigating the use of American-made cluster munitions in southern Lebanon, apparently to determine whether their use violates the terms in the (secret) agreements for their use. A congressional investigation into the munitions' use after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon pressured the Reagan administration to ban sales of cluster weapons to Israel for six years.

Last month, Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Dianne Feinstein of California submitted an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill designed to prevent cluster-bomb use in or near populated areas. It failed.

Senators Leahy and Feinstein should reintroduce their amendment next year. Ideally, this bill would include a ban on the use of all cluster bombs that have high failure rates – which leads to the danger zones of unexploded bomblets – and a ban on the stockpiling or transfer of these submunitions. It deserves the support of every senator.

As with the movement that led to the 1999 global treaty banning land mines, there is mounting international pressure to stop the use of cluster munitions altogether. Belgium has already banned them, Norway has imposed a moratorium, and other countries back a convention to prevent their use. The Review Conference examining the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons meeting next month in Geneva is a key opportunity to build momentum for the international ban.

The stakes for civilians in Lebanon are high. They will suffer the effects of these weapons for years to come. But if action is taken now, the impact could be reduced. That's why Israel must share the coordinates of the areas it cluster-bombed with the UN Mine Action Coordination Center. The center also needs greater funding to clear the land of this contamination.

The human cost of using cluster bombs in this summer's conflict should provide enough impetus to abolish these indiscriminate killers once and for all.

Curt Goering is the senior deputy executive director for policy and programs at Amnesty International USA.

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