Representatives from world governments are in Dublin for a conference that seeks to secure a treaty that outlaws the use of cluster bombs. Human rights activists say the weapons are killing and maiming many people around the globe - including in Africa, where the bombs have been used in a variety of conflicts since the 1960s. The proposed ban on cluster munitions is supported by more than 100 countries, but opposed by some of the biggest manufacturers and stockpilers of the weapons, including the United States, United Kingdom, China, Russia, India and Israel. It’s expected, though, that the Dublin conference will reach agreement on what will be the most important disarmament treaty since the Ottawa convention to prohibit landmines more than 10 years ago. VOA’s Darren Taylor reports.
Cluster bombs are dropped from planes and each one releases “hundreds – sometimes even thousands” of individual “bomblets,” each about the size of a can of soft drink, says Steve Goose, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, who’s monitoring the proceedings in Dublin.
Many “bomblets” are found by children, who play with them, causing them to explode.
In Africa, activists say thousands of people are killed or disabled every year when they activate unexploded cluster bombs. The weapons were widely used by both Ethiopia and Eritrea during their border war in the 1990s, and are still employed by Sudan’s armed forces. Goose says people living in all regions of Africa – including in Sierra Leone, Uganda and Zambia – lose their lives and limbs to cluster bombs.
“The problem with these weapons is that they are indiscriminate in that they have a very wide area effect and cannot directly target the military objectives but hit civilians as well,” says Goose. “Many of them fail to function as they’re supposed to; they do not explode on impact and instead remain dangerous, acting like anti-personnel landmines.”
“The problem with (cluster bombs) is that they get used in such huge numbers” and “contaminate” areas, leaving such areas dangerous for many years after a conflict has ceased.
Goose explains that the weapons were first used during the Indo-China war in the 1960s, “and they’re still busy cleaning up the mess there.”
Some of the world’s major manufacturers of cluster bombs, including the U.S., argue that the “new generation” form contains self-destruct mechanisms, and should therefore not be outlawed. But Goose says this isn’t a valid excuse for not banning the weapons.
“There aren’t many cluster munitions out there that actually have self-destruct mechanisms. There are literally billions of (‘bomblets’) in the stockpiles of about 75 countries, and only a tiny fraction of those have these self-destruct mechanisms. But even those don’t work well. Self-destruct mechanisms themselves fail way too often.”
The makers of cluster munitions often argue that their “so-called smart” bombs remain unexploded on impact and therefore a danger to people in less than one per cent of all cases. However, Goose says this has been disproved “time and again.”
“This was a claim, for example, of the Israeli manufacturers of the cluster munitions that they used in south Lebanon in 2006. Yet an independent assessment of that done by the Norwegian defense research establishment concluded that the failure rate (of cluster bombs) was greater than 10 per cent.”
But, says Goose, even if less than one per cent cause harm to people, it remains an “unacceptable humanitarian problem caused by these newer, high-tech cluster munitions.”
According to Goose, human rights activists gathered in Dublin are “extremely confident” that the “smart” cluster bombs will also be banned.
The Cluster Munitions Coalition, of which Goose is a founder, is a collective of international NGOs that’s lobbying for the weapons to be banned. It lists South Africa and Egypt as African producers of the weapons.
“We still list both of those as producers until they give assurances that they will never produce again,” he says.
Both South African and Egyptian government representatives are attending the Dublin conference.
“South Africa is here as a full participant in the negotiations, and Egypt is here as an observer without voting rights,” says Goose, pointing out that neither country has yet issued a statement in the Irish capital.
“In the past, at other conferences, South Africa has had the position that cluster munitions that have a failure rate of less than two per cent should not be prohibited, that these are somehow safe enough to protect civilian populations. We think that is a very discredited argument – in no small part because of the horror that was caused in south Lebanon from cluster munitions that were supposed to have an even lower failure rate than that.”
Activists say South Africa and Egypt have a duty, and an ideal opportunity in Dublin, to protect their fellow Africans from cluster bombs, and that this should outweigh any financial advantages enjoyed by the countries as a result of their production of such weapons.