Last week in Dublin, Ireland, 111 nations voted for a proposed treaty to prohibit use of cluster bombs. The Bush administration did not send a representative. Widely used since World War II and launched from land or air, these munitions break into a hail of bomblets, saturating an area with tiny explosives in all directions. One cluster can cover the size of two football fields.
Many world leaders and all human rights organizations say the use of cluster bombs is immoral. They essentially are antipersonnel weapons, intended to kill and maim people rather than destroy machinery, equipment and buildings. They are at their most lethal when used in heavily populated areas, which seems to be the favorite tactic of nations that use the bombs most.
They kill indiscriminately, not distinguishing military personnel from innocent civilians. Unsuspecting children are of special concern. Because many of the bomblets fail to explode when they land, casualties continue to mount long after combat stops. Bomblets, no bigger than a candy bar, look harmless, but they explode when mistakenly disturbed or picked up. Thinking the munitions are toys, many children are killed and maimed.
The United Nations reports that the United States has used the bombs in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Russia used them in Chechnya, and Israel used them most recently in its 2006 war with Lebanon, especially during the final 72 hours of conflict after an agreement to end the war had been reached. The remaining bomblets are still killing and maiming Lebanese civilians. The United States supplies most of Israel's cluster bombs.
No serious negotiator or head of state believes that we will stop fighting wars altogether, but the signatories in Dublin believe that nations must, as a Financial Times editorial aptly states, "refine the laws of conflict in the face of technologies that have made warfare progressively more destructive."
This is not a new sentiment. All mainline nations agreed to stop using chemicals and biological weapons. And evidence shows that the 1997 Ottawa agreement to stop planting land mines is working. Although the United States did not sign the Ottawa agreement, it, along with Israel, has refrained from using land mines for fear of international outrage.
The Dublin draft accord asks nations to never use cluster munitions under any circumstances and to destroy existing stocks within eight years. Besides the United States, the world's largest manufacturers and users of cluster munitions, Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan, snubbed the Dublin conference.
The U.S. spokesman commented: "While the United States shares the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin, cluster munitions have demonstrated military utility, and their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of our soldiers and those of our coalition partners at risk."
Israel, like its U.S. ally, also offered a lame excuse. The surprise in Dublin was that Britain signed the accord after years of siding with the Americans and the other big makers and users of the deadly munitions.
For the United States, and perhaps for the rest of the world, one ray of hope emerged when Sen. Patrick Leahy spoke at the conference, not as a Bush representative but as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He said that "anyone who has seen the indiscriminate devastation cluster weapons cause across a wide area must recognize the unacceptable threat they pose to civilians. … As I have said many times, among the first tasks of our next president will be to reintroduce America to the world. We need to reject the 'us vs. them' unilateralist approach that has so diminished our image and our leadership."
Leahy is right, but depending on who is elected in November, America may continue down the path of atrocity. To his credit, Sen. Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, supports outlawing cluster bombs. Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton do not.
As Leahy suggests, America needs to reintroduce itself to other nations — this time as a beacon of humanitarian leadership and morality.