There are renewed hopes of an international treaty on cluster munitions – although the only way forward is to ban these devastating bombs.
Thundering noise, then deafening silence – this is the normal reaction of audiences every time I show a cluster munitions strike. The clip in question leaves the tank unscathed and the fields around it in flames. It is not entirely representative, not because the vehicle survives, but because it does not portray a built-up area, nor the deadly souvenirs left behind and the human pain they inflict.
Cluster munitions have been used every year since 1965, most recently in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. They release up to several hundred small bombs, so-called submunitions, leaving a fatal footprint hundreds of metres wide. Within this circle of menace, cluster submunitions indiscriminately kill and injure. A large percentage of submunitions (up to 30%, say manufacturers) do not explode upon impact and lie in houses, schools, fields or orchards – places where people need to go every day.
In Lebanon, I have pussy-footed around unexploded cluster submunitions in girls' bedrooms in Yohmour. I have witnessed local officials in Kfar Sir urging a woman to hurry out of the tobacco field full of cluster submunitions, dangerously retracing her footsteps among the lovely yellow tobacco flowers which make the battery-size weapons invisible.
What do you say to a boy who lost both legs while collecting scrap metal in Herat, Afghanistan? What do you tell the parents of the boy in Laos who was injured while helping his father in the rice paddy? They cannot even afford transport to the nearest hospital, let alone the actual treatment.
These are not isolated cases, but have been daily tragedies in 25 countries for the past three decades. This is why Handicap International Belgium decided to undertake a global report of the one issue rarely addressed: the human impact of cluster munitions.
Although cluster bombs are supposed to hit military targets, research revealed that 98% of casualties are civilians – the overwhelming majority struck while making a living or playing. When confronted with this result, a US military representative responded simply: “Why are you surprised?”
Exactly, why should we be surprised?
Most cluster munitions have been dropped in or near civilian areas – 440 million submunitions in just nine countries – and governments have skirted the human impact issue since the Vietnam war. Most of the thousands of casualties we have recorded occurred where few count the dead and injured. It is safe to say that we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.
This might finally change. Some 50 states are meeting in Lima, Peru, from 23 to 25 May to discuss the text of an international treaty on cluster munitions, a groundbreaking process which began in February in Oslo.
Discussions will focus on definitions and technical fixes. But there are no smart cluster munitions. Those fitted with self-destruct and neutralisation mechanisms fail just as often as those without, as young boys throwing rocks at those submunitions in Iraq (US BLU-97) or Lebanon (Israeli M85) found out to their lifelong cost.
For them and the other uncounted, unacknowledged and unassisted casualties, it is time not only to ban cluster submunitions but also to provide them with the assistance they and their families deserve, not the pittance they currently get for a life or a future lost.
The true spirit and character of a new treaty will be judged by how it helps those who have paid the price to rebuild their lives and look forward to a better future. Assuring a secure and productive “circle of life” is the responsibility of us all.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 24 May 2007.