GENEVA – The international Red Cross called Monday for the abolition of cluster bombs, saying the indiscriminate deaths they cause – including children attracted by their bright color and the tiny parachute sometimes attached – outweigh any military advantages.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was stepping up its campaign against the weapons because of Israel’s use of the scattershot bombs during its monthlong war with Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. The United States and Russia also have resisted efforts to eliminate the weapons.
“The problems associated with cluster munitions are not new,” said Philip Spoerri, director of international law for the ICRC, guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war. “In nearly every conflict in which they have been used, significant numbers of cluster munitions have failed to detonate as intended and have instead left a long-term and deadly legacy of contamination.”
Cluster bomblets, which can be as small as a flashlight battery, are packed into artillery shells or bombs dropped from aircraft. A single container fired to destroy airfields or tanks and soldiers typically scatters some 200 to 600 of the mini-explosives over an area the size of a football field.
Human rights groups have estimated that Israel dropped as many as 4 million of the bomblets in Lebanon. As much as 40 percent of the submunitions failed to explode on impact, U.N. officials have said.
Those that do not explode right away may detonate later at the slightest disturbance, experts say. Children are especially vulnerable because the bomblets are often an eye-catching yellow with small parachutes attached.
Spoerri said the bomblets continue to kill innocent Lebanese every week. Much of the suffering, he added, could have been avoided had more accurate weapons been chosen.
“It is simply unacceptable that (civilians) should return to homes and fields littered with explosive debris,” he said.
No international treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, specifically forbid the use of cluster bombs. However, the Geneva Conventions outline laws protecting civilians during conflict. Because cluster bomblets often cause civilian casualties after conflicts end – much like land mines – their use has been heavily criticized by human rights groups.
The Red Cross, the first major organization to call for a ban since the Israel-Hezbollah war this summer, sought an end to the use of cluster bombs in cities and villages after the 1999 NATO air war against Serbia. Its call in 2000 for a moratorium on their general use has been ignored by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to issue a statement today to countries meeting in Geneva to discuss how to reduce the threat posed by conventional weapons.
An attempt in September by congressional Democrats to stop the U.S. military from using cluster bombs near civilian targets was defeated, and U.S. officials at an international conference starting today on controlling conventional weapons said they would resist attempts to put cluster bombs on the agenda.