The international Red Cross demanded Monday that the world immediately stop using cluster bombs because the indiscriminate civilian deaths caused by the weapons far outweigh any possible military advantages.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was stepping up its campaign against the weapons because of Israel's unprecedented use of the scattershot bombs during its monthlong war with Lebanon, the first major organization to do so since the fighting this summer. Russia and the United States also have resisted moves 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 Convention 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."
The U.N. Children's Fund has so far only called for "a freeze on the use, transfer and sale of the weapons," spokesman Michael Bociurkiw said.
However, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to issue a statement Tuesday to countries meeting in Geneva to discuss reducing conventional weapons stockpiles. Officials declined to say whether Annan would map out a new policy for the global body.
Cluster bomb projectiles — or submunitions about the size of an orange or a soft-drink can — are packed into artillery shells or bombs dropped from aircraft. A single cluster-bomb container fired to destroy airfields or tanks and soldiers typically scatters some 200 to 600 of the explosives over an area the size of a football field.
Human rights groups have estimated that Israel dropped cluster bombs containing as many as 4 million tiny bombs in Lebanon. Around 30 to 40 percent of the submunitions failed to explode on impact, U.N. officials have said.
Usually 10 to 15 percent — but in some cases up to 80 percent — of the devices fail to explode immediately. Those that do not explode right away may detonate later at the slightest disturbance, experts say. The impact on children is especially bad because the tiny bombs are usually an eye-catching yellow with little parachutes attached.
Lebanese casualties said to continue
Spoerri said the small bombs were continuing to kill innocent Lebanese civilians 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. "The ICRC believes that the time has come for strong international action to end the predicable pattern of human tragedy associated with cluster munitions."
The neutral agency previously called for a ban on the weapons’ being used in cities and villages after gauging the effects of the 1999 NATO air war against Serbia over the separatist province of Kosovo. Its call in 2000 for a moratorium on their general use has since been ignored by the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Complicating the problem is the growing risk that militant groups pose. Human Rights Watch also has cited cluster bomb use by Hezbollah against targets in northern Israel, spurring fears that the weapons are becoming more easily accessible for rogue militias and terrorists.
The bombs, a descendant of the "butterfly bomb" dropped by Nazi Germany on Britain in World War II, were first used by the U.S. in Vietnam. Similar weapons were used by Soviet and Russian troops in Angola, Afghanistan and Chechnya, where leftover duds also continue to inflict casualties.
The use of such weapons is not explicitly banned under international law, but an increasing number of human rights groups think it should be.
Protocol at issue
The Red Cross said an optional protocol to the 1980 U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons only makes countries responsible for cleaning up failed munitions. Even though it says nothing about restricting their use, the protocol has only been ratified by some 20 governments, and not by Israel or the United States.
A September move by U.S. Democrats to stop the Pentagon from using cluster bombs near civilian targets was defeated in the Senate.
U.S. officials attending the international conference starting Tuesday on controlling conventional weapons said they would resist any attempts to have cluster bombs put on the agenda.
"The U.S. does believe that this is a legally acceptable munition but, of course, it has to be used very carefully in terms of the rules of engagement," Tom Casey, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said in Washington.
American officials in Geneva, who refused to be quoted by name for policy reasons, insisted that cluster munitions have an important military utility, such as for attacking artillery positions or runways, armor columns and missile installations. They say improvements in the reliability of the weapons, and not an absolute ban, should be a priority.
Israel mum on initiative
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev had no comment on the Red Cross initiative, but said Israel used no munitions banned under international law during the Lebanon war.
Geneva-based officials from Russia were unavailable to comment Monday evening.
The Red Cross says casualty data from Kosovo showed that cluster bomb submunitions claimed five times as many victims among children under 14 as did land mines. While mine victims often survived, the stronger explosive force of cluster bombs means they were much more likely to lead to death.
A report last week by the campaign group Handicap International said civilians are 98 percent of cluster bomb victims, and a third of the casualties are children.
The study said cluster bombs have killed about 3,800 people and injured 5,500 more in 24 countries. Unofficial estimates put the real number of victims at 100,000, the Brussels, Belgium-based group said.