War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.


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Ill-gotten pains

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By Khaled Diab

Children are the innocent victims and future perpetrators of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For their sake, a political solution must be found.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Two attacks in August have shocked Palestinians and Israelis alike. First, there was the firebombing of a taxi in the West Bank, believed to have been carried out by settlers, which injured six members of a Palestinian family, including two critically.

The second attack, widely described as a lynching, occurred just hours later in downtown West Jerusalem, where a mob set on a small group of young Palestinians, beating Jamal Julani to within an inch of his life. Some reports even suggest that Julani would have died had it not been for the intervention of an Israeli medical student, who resuscitated him.

Despite recriminations, these two tragedies have resulted in a rare moment of agreement between Palestinians and Israelis, the vast majority of whom are disgusted by the attacks, with even senior figures in the normally anti-Palestinian Likud strongly condemning the actions.

Much of the public debate has focused on whether these attacks were surprising and if they constituted “terrorism”, but one interesting aspect which has largely eluded discussion is the alleged perpetrators’ ages. In both incidents, the suspects who have been arrested so far are minors.

Although this may shock many, it is not really that surprising when one scratches a little beneath the surface. Adolescence is a tough phase to live through in the best circumstances. It is a period when the uncertainties of physical metamorphosis and its accompanying identity crises lead some to take shelter in the certainties of black-and-white beliefs, and it is also when hormonal upheavals can surge up into eruptions of aggression and recklessness.

Add to this a few measures of old-fashioned tribalism, stoked by deep-seated racism – as reflected by one suspect in the “lynching” claiming that Julani “could die for all I care – he’s an Arab” – and dehumanisation that decades of conflict create, and you have a highly combustible and volatile brew.

Moreover, the toxic political environment, in which young people seem to be guaranteed cradle-to-grave conflict, plays a significant role in poisoning young minds. Not only does this toxicity drive youngsters towards lashing out at the “enemy”, it might also be pushing them towards generally more aggressive and violent behaviour.

According to a new study – which was conducted by a team of American, Israeli and Palestinian researchers – there is a correlation between violent behaviour in Palestinian and Israeli children and their exposure to political violence, especially for those who witness it from a very young age. This phenomenon is “more severe” than a contagious disease, one of the American academics behind the study claimed.

“It is well known that there are victims in every war, but mostly we think of direct victims,” said Simcha Landau, one of the Israeli scientists involved. “But we found that children who are exposed to violence are indirect victims, and that exposure to violence has results on the ground.”

Other studies have revealed that, while the conflict affects Palestinian children disproportionately, neither side is immune to its psychological trauma. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder is, sadly, far too common among children on both sides of the Green Line. PTSD is particularly bad during periods of increased violence or in hotspots like Gaza, where the highest incidence is reported, and its Israeli neighbour Sderot.

As someone who grew up in peaceful societies, I can hardly fathom what childhood must be like for a Gazan child who has had to live through the incomprehensible devastation and terror of invasions and incursions, blockade and bombardment, demolitions and destitution. Likewise, I can only begin to comprehend the terrifying fear and confusion a child in Sderot – where the economic destitution suffered there is not a million miles away from that in Gaza – must experience when confronted with the regular whistling of air raid sirens, the long hours spent in bomb shelters and the barrages of inaccurate Kassam rockets – which, though puny when compared to Israel’s formidable arsenal, are nonetheless traumatic.

Although I have little sympathy for their elders, life for the offspring of radical settlers must, on so many levels, be horrendous. Not only have they, like children in general, no say in where they are born and little chance to move away even if they want to, they find themselves, inexplicably to their young minds, living in heavily guarded fortresses as unwelcome invaders and indoctrinated to hate their neighbours.

Despite the detrimental effects of political violence on children and its highly dubious efficacy in resolving this longstanding dispute, it remains alluring to influential groups on both sides. Why is this?

Part of the reason is the simple cyclical nature of violence – with one act begetting another, with every attack a “response” to an earlier atrocity or outrage – especially in such an apparently intractable context, where squaring the circle of conflicting Israeli and Palestinian demands has eluded all.

But beyond that there is an ideological and psychological underbelly. Although violence has been generally low intensity – the total death toll over the past century is less than a bad week in the trenches of World War I – it has been a terribly entrenched facet of the conflict, guaranteed to flare up into major confrontations at regular intervals.

This is partly because modern Jewish and Arab nationalism were born at a time when violence and militarism were glorified and fetishised, and they haven’t been able to move beyond this significantly. Even though non-violence has made significant headway, it has not yet laid down deep roots, with Israeli pacifists making exceptions for futile acts of destructive violence that they regard as legitimate, such as the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, and Palestinian advocates of non-violence stressing to their critics that armed resistance targeted at non-civilians, though legitimate, has become ineffective.

Perhaps paradoxically, the fixation on violence is borne out of a sense of weakness and vulnerability on both sides. Though Israel enjoys unchallenged military superiority, the historic weight of enduring regular oppression, pogroms and the Holocaust, not to mention (diminishing) regional rejection, casts a long shadow over the Israeli psyche. Ideologically, this sense of insecurity has translated into Zionism’s determination to create the muscular, tough Jew and the conviction among many Israelis that overwhelming force is the answer to everything, and those who question the wisdom of this are dismissed by hawks as weak ditherers and self-haters. In violence, there is redemption for past weakness and prevention of future catastrophe.

In a similar vein, Palestinians for centuries have lived like strangers on their own land, ruled from distant imperial capitals and controlled by oft-cruel governors who cared little for their well-being and treated them like chattel to be profited from, especially during the brutal death throes of the once tolerant Ottoman Empire. When the British took over Palestine, instead of granting it independence, and promised it too, at least in part, to the Zionists, this led to the conviction among Palestinian radicals that “what was taken by force can only be regained by force”, and the humiliating string of defeats has made the redemptive power of force all the more alluring in the minds of extremists, especially since moderates have so far failed to deliver any significant successes.

 However, these beliefs and attitudes are highly destructive because in a political conflict of this nature only enlightened political solutions can work, while violence only begets more violence as it draws new generations into its unforgiving vortex. For the sake of the children and future generations, Israelis and Palestinians must unequivocally reject violence, not because they are cowards, but because they are brave. It takes true courage to lay down your arms and open your arms to embrace your long-time enemy in peace.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2012.

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Where ‘no’ means jail time

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 Ray O’Reilly

Though Dubai may be the Middle East’s self-styled party capital,in the UAE, women who say they have been raped can find themselves behind bars for adultery.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

A Brisbane woman, Alicia Gali, is suing Australian embassy staff for failing to warn the 29-year-old that a complaint of rape in the United Arab Emirates could mean she ended up in jail for adultery of all things.

And that is exactly what happened. She was hauled off by police, held and eventually sentenced to 12 months in prison. She served eight months of that before being “pardoned” and released. Gali returned to Australia in March 2009 and, according to reports, has been trying to pick up the pieces of her life.

When informed of the incident in June 2008, the Australian embassy staff reportedly advised Gali to simply “reconsider her need to be in the country” and it was also suggested she not contact the media once it became apparent that making the complaint would land her in as much trouble as the rapists.

Gali has since criticised her employer, Le Meridien, for not being more clear that, without coroborating statements from four adult male witnesses to the crime, she could be charged with adultery and face prison if she filed a complaint.

“These countries don’t have the same laws as us,” Gali told News.com following her ordeal. She warned women against going to the UAE. “I was the victim. I’d had something wrong done to me and I was being punished,” she lamented.

The UAE was set up in 1971 as a federation of seven emirates – Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaima, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. It occupies the area previously known as the Trucial Coast. UAE has a federal judicial system as well, but Dubai and Ras Al Khaima chose to maintain their own.

The UAE follows a form of civil law jurisdiction which is heavily influenced by French, Roman, Egyptian and Islamic (or Sharia) law. Islamic courts work alongside civil and criminal courts primarily concerning civil matters between Muslims. Sharia courts hear family matters, such as divorce, child custody, child abuse cases and inheritance disputes, and the principles of Sharia are applied when the UAE’s codified law doesn’t cover the situation at hand.

“The Sharia court may, at the federal level only (which … excludes Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah), also hear appeals of certain criminal cases including rape, robbery, driving under the influence of alcohol and related crimes, which were originally tried in lower criminal courts,” according to the US Consulate website for Dubai/UAE.

It should be noted that more secular Arab countries recognise and prosecute rape as a punishable crime for the perpetrator, although the social taboo attached to it leads many victims to remain silent. For instance, in Egypt, men found guilty of rape (though marital rape is not illegal) face sentences ranging between three years and life, though it is estimated that only 10% of rapes are ever reported. Tunisia, where marital rape was made illegal in 2008, probably has the most supportive legal system for rape victims in the Arab world

Punishing the victim

Gali, a salon manager at Le Meridien Al Aqah Beach Resort in Fujairah, said the last thing she remembered about the incident was having a drink at the staff bar when another employee put ice in her drink. Later that night, hotel security staff were alerted that screaming could be heard from Gali’s room. Investigating the noise, they found the woman naked and unconscious with several men in the room.

Gali says she woke up the next day confused and in pain. She took herself to hospital and was informed by medical staff that she had been sexually assaulted. When she was discharged from hospital she was asked to go to a police station to make a statement.

That’s when it started going all wrong.

“I realised when I was put in a police car that I was being taken to jail,” she is reported to have said. “I didn’t even know what the charges were until five months into my sentence!”

Fast-forward a couple of years and today Gali is looking to understand what happened and is keen to get answers from the Australian government and her employer as to why she didn’t have more information and warnings about the treatment of women in rape cases in the UAE.

If not ill-advised Gali was certainly ill-informed about the world that she was entering. A world where men make and (apparently) break the rules. The UAE, and especially Dubai, appears to be suffering from a split personality. Considered by many of its neighbours as the ‘liberal and tolerant’ emirate (interpret that as you wish), Dubai seems to have a love-hate relationship with the West. Love the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, Palm Island parties … hate the women, Dunkin’ Donuts, parties!  

According to a blogger on Escape-Artist, Dubai is setting itself up as the tourism and party town of the Middle East, but with the party comes the party people and inevitably the sleeze: “It’s already the prostitution capital of the Middle East. Brazen Russians in short skirts and halter-tops frequently solicit right on the street. There are thousands of girls who have come from the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe to ‘work’. Then there are the fun-loving girls who fly out from Europe (and the States) to hook up with affluent guys,” the blogger comments in a post entitled ‘Sex in the city’.

“What’s interesting – and a little irritating – is that a lot of local guys have no problem with being married and having girlfriends on the side (not an attitude restricted only to local guys). Local women, on the other hand, are not even allowed to chat on the telephone with a man outside the family,” the writer continues.

On the Australian embassy’s UAE site, under ‘Services for Australians’ emergency contact information is provided and a statement that: “One of the main functions of the Australian embassy is to provide a range of services (within limits) to Australian citizens.”

The ‘within limits’ is linked to a page on its smarttraveller.gov.au website which spells out what the limits are: “Consular staff cannot use their position to influence unduly or bypass local laws or processes, even when these would appear by Australian standards to be unfair or unnecessarily arduous. While consular staff can sometimes use their knowledge and understanding of the local environment to facilitate support, they must work within the legal and administrative constraints applying in their host country.”

The UAE embassy site has assorted information about passports, travel information, some tax and repatriation information and a section called ‘Living in UAE or Qatar’. No obvious or apparent mention of how to deal with UAE customs and laws or warnings to young female travellers about the risk of sexual abuse.

However, if you follow the link to the ‘Latest travel advisories and other traveller hints’, then the ‘Travel advice’ page, then scan down to the ‘United Arab Emirates’ and on that page under the ‘Local laws’ section it states: “When you are in the UAE be aware that local laws and penalties, including ones that appear harsh by Australian standards, do apply to you. If you are arrested or jailed, the Australian Government will do what it can to help you but we can’t get you out of trouble or out of jail. Custodial sentences would be served in local jails.”

It continues: “The UAE is a Muslim country and its local laws reflect the fact that Islamic practices and beliefs are closely applied. Legal and administrative processes may be substantially different from those in Australia. If you are arrested, you may face a significant period of detention before your case comes to trial. You should familiarise yourself with local laws before you travel. […] Common law relationships, homosexual acts and prostitution are illegal and subject to severe punishment. Adultery is also a crime.”

It also states: “It is illegal to harass women. Harassment includes unwanted conversation, prolonged stares, touching any part of the body, glaring, shouting, stalking or any comments that may offend.”

In the ‘Travel tips’ section of smarttraveller.gov.au, under the ‘Sexual assault overseas’, the Australian governments offers a number of tips to avoid becoming a victim of sexual assault. And the site states: “Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. Try not to blame yourself. The perpetrator is the only one responsible for the assault. No one deserves to be raped or assaulted.”

(That’s one for the books, then!)

And after some further research and surfing, your reporter could not find an express mention that filing a complaint for rape without four male witnesses to back up your story may well land the victim in jail for adultery.  

Gali’s story highlights something of a disconnect in this part of the world between materialism and Westernism. It is a poignant reminder that the swish hotels and (fake) beaches can lull a visitor into thinking they are in a Western land. But this can be illusionary, and travellers and guest workers may quickly fall foul of UAE laws. Dubai’s party and glitz blitz can never mask what lurks beneath.

Note: This article was updated to clarify the location of the incident.
This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.
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The human cost of cluster bombs

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By Katleen Maes

Cluster bombs continue to hurt people and their livelihoods years after they were dropped.

September 2008

Lebanon: 21-year-old Fayz is sitting in his living room, staring at the leg he cannot use anymore because the nerves have been cut as a result of a cluster submunition explosion. Fayz has undergone several operations and is waiting to receive rehabilitation and psychosocial and educational support. His case is similar to that of many young people injured in the aftermath of the 2006 conflict with Israel. Except that Fayz was injured while herding sheep in the Western Beka’a valley almost 12 years ago. He has received no assistance to enable him to overcome his trauma or return to school.

Cluster munitions are imprecise weapons, designed to strike a greater surface area than many other conventional weapons by dispersing smaller, but still lethal, submunitions. Scattered on the ground, these submunitions create a large footprint. Within that footprint, they kill and injure both military personnel and civilians. Even in optimal test conditions, up to a quarter of submunitions fail to explode on impact. In real-life situations, failure rates are consistently much higher.

Cluster munitions: creating a lost generation in Lebanon?

The 2006 conflict in Lebanon drew widespread attention to the effects of cluster munitions on civilian populations. However, it was not the first time that Lebanon had been hit by these weapons. Prior to 2006, Israel had used cluster munitions in Lebanon in 1978, 1982, 1996 and December 2005. According to UN and media reports citing Israeli Defence Force (IDF) commanders, approximately four million cluster submunitions were delivered in the July–August conflict, most of them in the last 72 hours of the war.

Overlapping footprints, the clearance of visible cluster munitions (disturbing the footprints) and incomplete surveying make it impossible to estimate the total number of cluster munitions delivered, or the overall failure rate. However, it is clear that estimated failure rates are higher than the official figure of 5–23%. The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in South Lebanon (MACC-SL) estimates that between 32% and 40% fail overall. This would mean that the recent conflict added approximately 1.5 million unexploded submunitions to the mines and ordnance already on the ground from previous wars.

As of 15 January 2007, there were at least 555 recorded cluster munitions casualties in Lebanon, of which 122 were killed and 433 injured. Children make up 24% of casualties; most of them, 114, are boys. A total of 338 casualties were recorded prior to 12 July 2006, and 217 casualties were recorded between 12 July and 15 January 2007 (53 of whom were children under 18). These recorded totals do not include up to 175 unconfirmed cluster munitions casualties during or shortly after the conflict.

Most people left south Lebanon prior to 10 August, undoubtedly reducing the number of civilian cluster submunitions casualties during the conflict. Due to the nature of the conflict, the use of different types of weapons and difficulties with data collection, it is impossible to determine how many people were injured or killed by cluster submunitions during strikes. In the aftermath of the war, reporting was only possible from accessible areas, and it is also understood that most Hizbullah casualties due to cluster submunitions are not included in the data. In the post-emergency phase, a retroactive survey should be conducted to provide appropriate assistance to cluster submunitions survivors as part of a larger group of people with disabilities (PWD), and to determine the impact of cluster munitions on civilians during conflict (to see if this weapon can rightfully be used in war) and in its immediate aftermath.

Cluster munitions are large surface weapons. In Lebanon, they were used by Israel against a non-regular armed force (Hizbullah) in a small but relatively densely populated area, contaminating places where civilians need to go on a daily basis, such as roads, farmland, gardens and homes. Most incidents immediately after cluster munition strikes occur in or near the house, when returnees investigate damage and try to make their homes habitable again. Several months after the conflict, some people were still living in tents in front of their houses because failed submunitions litter their homes. In the longer term, a large percentage of casualties occur while farming, herding animals or carrying out other livelihood activities. In addition to the loss of life and the economic damage, cluster munitions exact a high psychosocial and educational cost. People feel unsafe every step they take, the secure bastion of the home is not always safe, schools are damaged or opened late and many children are not free to play where they want.

The 2006 conflict resulted in a soaring cluster submunition casualty rate of just over two people per day until the end of the year. The average casualty rate in the years prior to the conflict had slumped to a low two per year. At the beginning of 2007, casualties dropped to an average of three a week, according to MACC-SL. The reduction of casualties is mainly due to the impressive clearance capacity in Lebanon, which has been able to provide a rapid response to the emergency. It is estimated that this will take until the end of 2007. Afterwards, pasture lands will be cleared and pre-conflict clearance can be resumed. However, 70% of southern Lebanon’s economy is based on agriculture, which means that cluster submunitions will continue to cause casualties at a steady rate.

Cluster munitions: between the immediate and the long term

Throughout the conflict, Lebanon’s medical and humanitarian infrastructure, though stretched to its limits, held up, with the assistance of a vibrant civil society and international organisations. With nearly 15 years of experience in the country, Handicap International (HI) scaled up its post-conflict activities. HI prioritised equal partnership relations with long-standing local partners. A partnership approach needs to be truly equal in order to ensure sustainability, capacity-building and local ownership. This is crucial as cluster submunition survivors often need life-long support. A varied, accessible, rights-based package responding to the needs identified by the survivors, their families and communities is a necessity to fully (re)integrate them into society. Otherwise, there is a real risk that these new cluster munitions victims – meaning the affected individual, their families and communities – will end up as many mine and ERW victims before them: one of the most impoverished groups in society, facing double discrimination. So, rather than building new structures, HI chose to strengthen existing ones by supplying materials and technical advice, and assisting with coordination issues faced by local agencies. At the same time, HI has worked to ensure the financial and physical accessibility aspects of aid and reconstruction efforts, and trained community de-miners to assist in cluster munitions clearance efforts.

In parallel, HI set up disability information and referral points, to respond to the specific and general needs of PWD – medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support, economic support and equal rights. HI is also in charge of optimising the coordination of international aid efforts. In partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs and local partners, and supported by the European Commission, a telephone platform and online database of available local and international aid services was set up.

The issue of the rehabilitation and reintegration of explosive remnants of war (ERW) survivors cannot be separated from the broader context of development in the affected country. In these efforts, non-specialist agencies would benefit from liaising with national and international agencies dealing with cluster munitions or mine action in general. Most countries affected by cluster munitions have got a mine action infrastructure under UN or government auspices, and in cooperation with national and international NGOs. These agencies, in a first stage, need to be consulted to provide security and risk prevention briefings to non-specialist staff. These centres, like for example the MACC-SL and the Landmine Resource Centre, will be able to provide up-to-date information on casualties, mine risk education (MRE) and demining, and circulate this to all stakeholders upon request.

Secondly, development agencies should coordinate their crosscutting response with the technical experts and community liaison staff of the specialised agencies, to ensure complementarity of specialised and general assistance. Reconstruction sites, for example, need to be declared mine/ERW-safe before reconstruction starts. Education or psychosocial support programmes can include a standard MRE module. And reconstruction planning should take accessibility requirements for people with disabilities into account. Many large organisations, such as UNICEF, UNDP, the ICRC and the large NGOs (like HI), already integrate a standard mine/ERW component into their operations in severely affected countries, even if the focus of their work is more general.

Cluster submunitions: a worldwide generational problem

Cluster munitions have been used in 24 countries and areas, and their use is suspected in at least a dozen more. In 2006, cluster munitions were deployed in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, and are thought to have been used in Afghanistan. Apart from intermittent international protest, the issue of cluster munitions and the humanitarian impact – just like the items themselves – lay largely dormant until the Lebanon conflict.

HI research reveals that there are serious humanitarian problems with cluster munitions. Unlike the initial blasts, the effects of unexploded submunitions are more discriminate: they kill and injure almost exclusively civilians (98%). The research recorded more than 11,000 confirmed cluster casualties. But the real number could as high as 100,000 given that 91% casualties occurred in countries with incomplete or no data collection mechanisms, such as Iraq.

More than half the casualty toll occurs while people go about their normal daily business. Casualties are mostly male (84%), and nearly half of them are under 18 years of age. The number of casualties occurring while carrying out livelihood activities shows the direct economic impact on cluster-contaminated communities. In many of these countries, men are the traditional breadwinners. Since adult males and boys represent the majority of casualties, the socio-economic loss both in the immediate term and for the future cannot be underestimated.

Cluster munitions: bringing HI back to its roots

HI is exploiting its field and research experience in the area of victim assistance and data collection to provide a better understanding of the human cost of cluster munitions. In mid-2006, this resulted in Belgium becoming the first country to ban the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. But it was the Lebanon crisis that triggered a worldwide public and media interest in the campaign. Some 350,000 people have signed HI’s petition calling for a ban. Spurred on by the Belgian ban, resolutions for a moratorium were tabled or passed in Australia, Austria, Denmark, France and Norway, and calls for a moratorium were issued in European Union and UN forums.

On 5 November 2006, local members of the Cluster Munition Coalition organised the first ‘Say No to Cluster Bombs’ day in Beirut, which was co-sponsored by HI. Hundreds of schoolchildren attended MRE sessions and tried walking with artificial limbs, and people signed a petition which was sent to Geneva, where the Third Review Conference of the UN Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW) was convened the following week. At the CCW, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated: ‘Recent events show that the atrocious, inhumane effects of these weapons … must be addressed immediately so that civilian populations can start rebuilding their lives’.

During the conference, some states recognised that the CCW framework will not respond to the human tragedy caused by cluster munitions, just as it could not respond effectively to the landmine crisis ten years earlier. It has become clear that treaty negotiations outside the UN framework are inevitable. These will be led by Norway, which will try to extend the new model of diplomacy created by the Mine Ban Treaty: a fast-moving multilateral dialogue with extensive civil society input. On 22 and 23 February 2007, the Norwegian government invited 48 states, as well as UN and civil society groups, to Oslo to start a process towards an international ban. At the end of the meeting, 46 governments supported a declaration for a new international treaty and a ban by 2008. This conference was the first of a series during 2007 (the next meeting was scheduled for May 2007, in Lima, Peru). The declaration states that a legally binding international instrument will be agreed by 2008 that will ‘prohibit the use, production, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians, and establish a framework for cooperation and assistance that ensures adequate provision of care and rehabilitation to survivors and their communities, clearance of contaminated areas, risk education and destruction of stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions’. The cluster bomb treaty was approved by more than 100 countries in May 2008.

Cluster munitions: a call for action

Within this legal framework, HI will be part of a treaty drafting committee. Drawing lessons from the Mine Ban Treaty, it is important that affected individuals, their families and communities are provided with an efficient and accessible rights-based assistance package, based on a twin-track approach which takes account of the specific requirements of survivors and the general development needs of the affected society. The international community is required to commit adequate material and technical resources, while acknowledging that the final responsibility in achieving appropriate assistance lies with the national governments themselves.

Through continued research into the human impact of cluster munitions, HI will ensure that the plight of casualties, as well as the economic, social and psychological cost of these weapons, is fully acknowledged and documented, not only in Lebanon but in all affected countries. The research results will be disseminated to support national campaigns and to feed relevant information back into field operations. In addition, HI will work closely with national campaigns and build their capacity.

The human cost of cluster munitions cannot be seen as old news – these weapons are spreading through new conflicts, destroying lives, disrupting communities and denying vulnerable populations access to the resources needed for economic recovery for generations to come.


Fatal Footprint: The Global Human Impact of Cluster Munitions

Handicap International’s Aid Coordination Platform

Handicap International’s Campaign Against Cluster Munitions

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines

Human Right Watch’s resource library on cluster munitions

This article first appeared on the Human Practice Network website. This is an archived item from Diabolic Digest.

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