More than 100 countries reached agreement Wednesday to ban cluster bombs, but the United States and Israel were not among them.
Like the United States and Israel, Russia, China, India and Pakistan -all save Israel, major producers or users of the weapons — did not sign the agreement or participate in the talks. But the British, another producer, ultimately supported the international agreement pressed by Norway and worked out in a Dublin, Ireland, nation-conference. France, which had already decided to destroy its cluster bomb stocks, is enthusiastic about the agreement. “I welcome the announcement of this agreement which embodies our determination and resolve to end the untold humanitarian tragedy that is caused by the use of cluster bombs,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement quoted by www.chinaview.cn Thursday.
Cluster bombs are fired from various sized shells from aircraft and ships and they drop by the dozens like little parachutes after an initial explosion of their holding shell. They eventually detonate themselves near the ground to spread their deadly metal over a wide area. But, many mis-manufactured ones turn out to be duds. Their weird shapes typically attract the attention of curious children and adults who pick them up and later are often wounded or killed when the bomblets eventually blow up.
Over the past decade and a half there have been numerous alarming news stories about hundreds of arbitrary civilian killings and maimings resulting from the use of cluster bombs. The most recent press reports were inspired during battles two years ago. It was than that the Israelis dropped an alarming 4.6 million sub-munitions on southern Lebanon. Up to 1 million duds failed to explode and remained on the ground as de facto landmines, threatening the lives of civilians. They also led to the accidental deaths of two Lebanese soldiers and the critical wounding of a third who were trying to defuse the bomblets sprayed over a wide area. All told 40 were killed and 218 wounded, many being civilians, the Agence France-Presse reported in April.
Scores of news reports said the United States has been supplying Israel with cluster bombs for three decades. The United Nations reported that an average of 30 duds a day was being discovered on the ground in Lebanon, and endangering civilians. In January 2007, news reports said a US State Department investigation concluded Israel likely violated pacts it had with the US over the manner in which the weapons were used.
As a former long time investigative reporter for The Hartford Courant, since retired, I, along with Karen Wagner, another reporter, wrote about a dozen stories 16 years ago about the deadly hazards of these munitions to soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
As it turned out, more Connecticut service members were either wounded or killed in that war by accidental handling of cluster bomb duds than by any other means. They picked them up as souvenirs, kicked or stepped on them. An undisclosed number of Iraqi civilians were also maimed or killed.
One young woman, who was fatally injured by a bomblet, was punished with a smirch on her record after her death by the Army, causing a bitter complaint from her family. As it turned out, neither she, nor any of the other National Guard troops had been trained, educated or properly warned about the danger of handling these duds. It cost the US and the allies millions of dollars to pick up duds from the battlefields after the war.
The Courant articles were almost immediately followed by a U.S. General Accountability inquiry and by Connecticut Republican U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays’ call for a congressional inquiry into future Army plans for U.S. use of the bomblets, also known as “metal rain.”
At that time, U.S. Army weapons experts were admittedly aware that the rocket system, carrying the bomblets, was faulty. Their own tests before the war showed that the rocket-launched bomblets had a dud rate as high as 23 percent, far higher than the 3 percent to 5 percent rate that the Army deems acceptable, the GAO’s conclusions said. But little was ever done by Congress or any other branch of government to curtail the manufacture of this weapon.
After the war, bomb specialists from the U.S. and allied forces spent several million dollars carefully picking up the dud bomblets to keep soldiers and civilians out of harm’s way.
Pentagon officials should have been very aware of these hazards. They had a special unit in Florida, which was called upon repeatedly to pick up bomblets from the recent widows of military veterans who collected them as souvenirs and stashed them away in their homes.
Even more shocking about the story-line was the fact that many of the munitions were faultily manufactured in various U.S. plants, and the Pentagon decided to use them anyway even after threatening legal action against at least one manufacturer. In 1988, the Department of Defense found the quality of those munitions from its most modern plant in Mississippi to be so deficient that 50 percent to 60 percent of the plant’s bomblets had to be destroyed in subsequent years.
A fellow veteran reporter I have known for a long time, George Krimsky, formerly with the Associated Press now with the Waterbury Republican, told me that he too had experiences with writing about cluster bombs.
Here is what he said:
“In 1978, when Israel first invaded Lebanon, I was AP’s Middle East news editor, based in Beirut.
Lebanese civilians were reporting cluster bombings in the south (from airplanes then), but Israel emphatically denied it. So, I went down there with a photographer, and we found hundreds of the nasty little buggers in farmyards, fields, all over the place.
After my story ran, with photos, Israel recanted, admitting they had used them. Congress raised such a fuss, the bombings stopped, at least for the moment.”
“As a memento of the time,” said Krimsky, “I have half a cluster bomb here at home, which I use as an ashtray.”
So the news stories over decades about the bomblets come and go, but the bomblets’ killing of innocent people keeps popping up as a continuous scandal, seemingly never rectified.
So it is more than curious why, under all these circumstances that the Pentagon, various US presidents and the Congress continue to permit the use of these deadly bomblets, thousands of which become unexpected snares killing unknowing civilians worldwide.
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