Weapons of Mass Destruction

Written by Nicholas Olczak. Posted in News, Opinion, Politics

Published on May 05, 2009 with No Comments

By Nicholas Olczak

May 5, 2009

When Suraj Ghulam Habib was six years old, she saw what she thought was a can of food buried in the ground near her home in Afghanistan.

The can exploded when she touched it. Habib lost both her legs in the blast and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

“Cluster bombs have shattered my dreams,” she says.

Habib is one of the thousands of innocent civilians who are victims of the use of cluster munitions by different military groups across the world. The horrific side effects of these weapons – which scatter small bomblets over a wide area – have led to an outright ban under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

So far, 98 countries have signed up to the ban, but there remain glaring exceptions. China, Russia, Israel, India, and Pakistan, have all refused to sign the treaty. Despite its long tradition of championing human rights, a United States signature is also absent.

It is now crucial that the United States begins to take a leading role in the abolition of these devastating weapons.

“Those who only pay lip service to dealing with these inhumane weapons need to get serious,” says the head of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Sylvie Brigot, “unless and until all countries in the world join the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions [they] will continue to claim the lives and limbs of innocent civilians.”

First used in the second world war, cluster munitions are multi-purpose bombs which eject up to 2,000 smaller ‘bomblets’ over a wide area. During an attack, these tend to damage both military targets and civilians indiscriminately.

After a period of conflict has finished, it is common for unexploded or ‘dud’ bomblets to remain behind and become de facto landmines. These kill, cripple, and blind unsuspecting and undeserving victims – especially children who mistake their bright colours for toys or food.

Yet rather than help to curtail such cruel effects, the US has been one of the most active states in propagating cluster bomb use.

The US has exported hundreds of thousands of cluster bombs to at least 28 different countries across the world. Although legislation passed last month finally brought an end to these sales, this was too late to prevent huge numbers of casualties.

The US military has also used cluster bombs extensively itself. Human Rights Watch reports that during just the first week of the Afghanistan campaign, US bombers dropped over 50 CBU-87 bombs, each containing 202 sub-munitions.

Villagers became afraid to leave their homes because yellow canisters – like that which crippled Habib – lay unexploded in the streets. “Afghanistan remains one of the most mine- and unexploded-ordnance-infested countries in the world,” says the head of the International Commission for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, Pierre Wettach.

United Nations concern at the use of these weapons in Afghanistan did not stop the United States from again employing cluster bombs during the Iraq war. Analysts estimate over 10,000 have been used, creating an untold number of civilian casualties –which the military euphemistically calls ‘collateral damage.’

The Pentagon has dismissed data presented by the International Red Cross and Sweden which showed the human impact of cluster munitions. This continues a long Pentagon tradition of refusing to critique weapons, even brutal ones, which offer it tactical gains. The United States also stubbornly refuses to allow international rules to limit is military freedom.

Such a United States stance on cluster weapons has helped to set a dangerous precedent for other countries. When Israel employed cluster weapons during its 2006 attack on Lebanon, the foreign ministry argued this was justified because NATO had also recently used such weapons.

In recent weeks, Obama has shifted America’s nuclear policy, promising he will move towards an end to all nuclear weapons. He must now do the same for cluster bombs, rapidly signing up to the complete ban already accepted by most states.

To do this he should de-bunk the myth that cluster weapons are vital to troop operations and security. Reports show that cluster bombs injured and impeded American troops in the 1991 Gulf war, while in Iraq generals were reluctant to use them.

Although a change in policy on cluster munitions is likely to meet with opposition, and bring calls that Obama is soft on national security, he can justify it by pointing to the need for the United States to contribute moral leadership in world affairs.

More Info

Legacy of the Bombs – Afghanistan (YouTube)

Nicholas Olczak

Bio Nicholas Olczak is a freelance writer who comes from (the original) Boston in England, but who normally chooses to travel the world. He has contributed to publications in Hong Kong and the USA and enjoys delving into anything political or cultural. He currently lives on one of San Francisco's many hills.

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