Fri, Nov 10, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Cluster bombs: the hypocrite's arms of choice

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The central mystery of the modern state is this: The necessary resources, both economic and political, will always be found for the purpose of terminating life.

The project of preserving it will always be a struggle. When did you last see a soldier shaking a can for a new rifle, or a sponsored marathon raising money for nuclear weapons? But we must beg and cajole each other for funds whenever a hospital wants a new dialysis machine.

If the money and determination expended on waging war with Iraq had been used to tackle climate change, our carbon emissions would already be in free fall. If as much money were spent on foreign aid as on fighter planes, no one would ever go hungry.

When the state was run by warrior kings, this was comprehensible -- they owed their existence to overwhelming force. Now weapons budgets and foreign wars are, if anything, an electoral liability. But the pattern has never been broken.

In Geneva on Tuesday, at the new review of the conventional weapons treaty, the British government used the full force of its diplomacy to ensure that civilians continue to be killed -- by blocking a ban on the use of cluster bombs. Sweden, supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, has proposed a convention making their deployment illegal, like the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But the UK, working with the US, China and Russia, spent the past week trying to prevent negotiations from being opened at all.

UNSURPRISING

Perhaps this was unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain's two principal allies -- the US and Israel -- in the "war on terror." And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.

Cluster munitions are tiny bombs -- generally about the size of a soft-drink can -- packed inside bigger bombs or artillery shells. They scatter over several hectares and are meant to destroy tanks and planes and to wipe out anti-aircraft positions. There are two particular problems with them.

The first is that the bombs, being widely dispersed, cannot be accurately targeted. The second is that many of them don't detonate when they hit the ground. Officially, cluster bombs have a failure rate of between 5 percent and 7 percent. In reality it's much higher. Between 20 percent and 25 percent of the cluster munitions NATO forces dropped during the Kosovo conflict failed to go off when they landed. The failure rate of the bombs dropped by the US in Indochina was roughly 30 percent. Of the cluster bombs that Israel scattered over Lebanon, 40 percent did not detonate.

The unexploded bombs then sit and wait to be defused -- leg by human leg. They are as devastating to civilian populations as landmines, or possibly worse, because far more of them have been dropped.

Even 30 years or more after they land -- as the people of Vietnam and Laos know -- they can still be detonated by the slightest concussion.

A report published last week by the independent organization Handicap International estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs.

Of the known casualties, 98 percent are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking by or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys. Handicap's report tells terrible and heartbreaking stories of children finding these munitions and playing catch with them, or using them as boules or marbles. Those who survive are often blinded, lose limbs or suffer horrible abdominal injuries.

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