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March 3, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Cluster Munitions are Absurd

As any self-respecting conflict theorist will tell you, civilian casualties are a regrettable but unavoidable repercussion of war; the gruesome legacy of the twentieth century. The mind numbing statistics of non-combatant deaths since the proliferation of automatic weaponry are exactly that: mind numbing. After the initial shock of discovery in fifth form History the overwhelming impulse is to try to forget what you’ve ingested.

But remaining wilfully ignorant of the legacy of war is what allows us to repeat the same mistakes through badly-aimed nationalism, paranoia, and a denial of the potential alternatives. To quote Robert Fisk, the renowned author and war correspondent: “The only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” It remains a cliché to reiterate the idiocy of making hasty decisions that affect civilians worldwide, but it also remains pertinent to anyone possessing a basic concern for humanity, the altruistically minded, and any citizen of the Middle East. In a world of ICBMs, nuclear weaponry, and unprecedented anti-intellectualism lurking in the White House, it may seem something of a doomed enterprise to lament the blatant disregard for people’s lives in cavalier military adventures.

However, certain committed activists who congregated in Wellington last week would have you believe otherwise. The Ban Cluster Munitions campaign is an international movement to stop the production, use, transfer, and stockpiling of munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians worldwide. Its plan is simple: get as many countries around the world as possible to sign treaty to implement the campaign’s goals. A cluster munition is a weapon comprised of a container that is fired, launched or dropped by aircraft or land-based artillery and disperses large numbers of unguided submunitions. Their huge impact on civilians is due to two principal factors. First, the weapon cannot distinguish between military and non-military targets, and thus the casualty rate for civilians is extremely high when used in densely populated areas (for example central Baghdad, circa 2003). Second, many of the bomblets fail to explode on impact, littering affected areas with what are effectively antipersonnel mines waiting to explode long after the conflict is over. Many of the groups involved in this campaign worked together to end the suffering inflicted by landmines through the Ottawa Process in 1997 – the effect of cluster munitions is a similar kind of damage. Thanks to the propensity for contemporary conflicts to be fought in urban settings and the fondness that many military forces have for this weaponry, huge civilian casualties continue to define modern warfare. But it is the devastating legacy of unexploded bombs long after the conflict has ended that is the real impetus for this campaign. Children in particular are susceptible to grave injury and death from the carpet bombing tactics of large armies. Vaguely resembling toys, the bomblets (an unfortunate moniker given that it makes them sound irresistibly cute) are easily picked up or kicked around, and inevitably explode thanks to their comparable sensitivity to landmines. It is unacceptable that villages who in all likelihood were not directly involved in fighting continue to pay the price for the careless and wanton use of such munitions.

Take the Israel – Hezbollah war in August of 2006 as an example. Israel deployed 90% of its total cluster bomb strikes in the in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when they knew there would be an imminent resolution. The United Nations has estimated that around 1 million unexploded cluster bombs are still littered around Lebanon, with 200 recorded casualties since the end of the war. The toll continues to grow, and no doubt hundreds of lives were wrecked for the grievous offence of living close to an area controlled by Hezbollah. The only good that can be said to have come out of this conflict was the world’s attention being drawn to the idiocy of such munitions. Thomas Nash, the co-ordinator for the international coalition to ban cluster munitions (CMC) and ex-Victoria University student believes that Israel’s wanton carpet bombing in 2006 was “an important catalyst.” “It basically meant people couldn’t deny the humanitarian problem anymore, and once you admit there is a humanitarian problem, then the question is just ‘what am I going to do about it? That’s what this process is all about.’”

The process he refers to is the arduous task of bringing together a hugely diverse group of non-governmental organisations and states to agree on a treaty banning cluster bombs. Unsurprisingly, there is significant resistance to certain aspects of the treaty from states such as America, Japan, France, Germany, India and Australia. Of particular importance, according to Nash, was the proposal last week by Japan to issue an invitation to other countries to use cluster munitions, but ban their trade and manufacture. To all extents and purposes this would nullify the entire purpose of a treaty. Nash explains that what the CMC wants is a clear prohibition on any assistance of any kind, to any country, to do anything that would be prohibited by this convention –using, trading or producing. “That’s what the current draft text says. That’s what other international treaties like this do. It’s a strong precedent.” Other issues of controversy are the specific definition of banned munitions, and the time period in which the ban will be implemented. Some states are pushing for a huge elongation of the process, suggesting that it be drawn out over ten years. Nash also points out Australia’s merry stroll down the road of damaging its human rights image by continuing to act as the United States’ proxy at the conference. In particular it is their constant reference to the issue of ‘interoperability’ – the ability of signatories to the treaty to work alongside non-signatories in joint military activities. Australia is obviously thinking of its own joint military adventures, present and (hopefully not) future, with America, and wary of jeopardising their ‘special’ relationship with Uncle Sam. But as Nash points out, the entire point of the conference is to “stigmatise this weapon, not legitimise it. Australia has moved in some positive directions on this recently since the new government came in, and it’s very disappointing to see them being negative on this one issue.”

Another fierce critic of Australia’s position and the lamentable foot-dragging of several other Western nations on the ban is John Rodsted, a freelance photojournalist and activist who worked extensively on the landmine campaign. He puts their stance in perspective: “If the US starts to use poison gas, do we accept that? If the US decides to torture, do we accept that? Australia signed the landmine treaty, if the US starts to use landmines, do we accept that? No we don’t.” Rodsted believes that the ‘bizarre’ scenarios proposed where the use of cluster bombs would be necessary to protect troops on the ground were “thought up in an air conditioned office somewhere . . . [the policy makers] should try a bit of reality, spend some time in Afghanistan, Laos or Lebanon, see what its like to live in a place affected by clusters”. In particular bureaucrats and the military would do well to acknowledge that children make up forty percent of cluster bomb casualties, like Afghani survivor Soraj Habib. Six years ago the ten year old Habib picked up a yellow can on the side of the road, thinking it was food, when it exploded, tore off both his legs, killed his cousin and injured four members of his family. Habib’s injuries were so grave his doctor recommended he be given a lethal injection. It is situations like his which fuel Rodsted’s commitment to applying the same pressure for cluster bombs as for the landmine campaign – “landmines and cluster bombs were the two things we were up against all the time. No matter what you looked at in the issue of development after a war – rebuilding houses, agriculture, getting food and education going – you can’t do any of that if you’re stuck with the legacy of landmines and cluster bombs.” Rodsted and his fellow campaigners in the field are “sick to death” of the time it has taken for governments to take a stand on the issue, and the insidious moves to water down the treaty so that certain countries can continue to use clusters, their clusters.” “You don’t have half murder. You don’t have half rape. You’re not ‘a little bit dead’. They’re either part of this, or they should take their folders, their delegation and head home.”

In the context of working on disarmament, the New Zealand government is about “as close to an NGO as you can get” according to Nash, who nevertheless left the shiny world of diplomacy to work with “the guys that were speaking the truth, that were free to speak their minds and make change”. We can collectively pat ourselves on the back for having elected a government committed to making this treaty work, despite the conspicuous absence of global bigwigs China, Russia and the United States. At the most confrontational of the conference’s public events, Green MP Keith Locke drew a chalk outline of himself alongside nearly a hundred others on the ground of Civic Square, symbolising the plight of cluster bomb victims in the middle of a sunny, peaceful Wellington. It was an inspired event, drawing in crowds of local suits, children and the conference delegates themselves. Conference attendee and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams proved to be something of a media spectacle when she also energetically lay down to have her outline marked out. Shame that some local counsellors found the chalking obscured their view of the square’s intricate brickwork the following day. . . .

Williams’ talk on Tuesday night was hugely inspiring and terrifyingly under-attended. Speaking in memoriam to disarmament campaigner John Head, who died last year, Williams highlighted the hard work and responsibility that came with her status, adding that “When you get the Nobel Prize, you don’t suddenly become Mother Theresa”. She reiterated a constant theme running throughout this campaign – peace is not an easy task. “Peace is not just serenity, not just the absence of conflict. Real peace is when human security replaces national security. Peace as I’ve lived it is not easy, it is hard work every single day”. We would all do well in paying heed to her emphasis on human responsibility as a natural partner to the human rights so cherished by liberal democracies. Williams believes that if civil society is in the debating room of global issues such as disarmament, “it is next to impossible to play verbal, rhetoric games with us.” We, as the future makeup of civil society in New Zealand, need to be in the room. Signing the petiton is an excellent start, but to paraphrase Mr Amstrong, your first small step in the giant leap that mankind has to take in making human, not national, security, our global goal.

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