Activists Condemn Both Syria and the U.S. for Use of Cluster Bombs

While the focus at the G-20 and in Washington remains on the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons, concerns grow over the continued deployment — both by Syria and the U.S. — of deadly cluster munitions

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Hamid Khatib / Reuters

A boy holds unexploded cluster bombs after jet shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad in the al-Meyasar district of Aleppo, Syria, on Feb. 21, 2013

U.S. Congress debates on Monday whether to authorize a punitive strike on Syria for crossing President Barack Obama’s “red line” and using chemical weapons. But as the threat of war looms, another controversial weapon is coming into the spotlight. When rumblings of a U.S. strike emerged last month, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) issued a strong warning: the international community must not let the U.S. use cluster munitions in an attack.

“It makes absolutely no sense to use banned weapons to retaliate for the use of another banned weapon,” Sarah Blakemore, director of the international civil-society campaign, said in the public letter on Aug. 28.

While reports suggest the U.S. military is more inclined to use sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, the U.S. is, along with Syria, one of only a handful of countries in the world to have used the weapon since 2009, according to the Cluster Munition Monitor 2013 report released by CMC last week. Most of the world condemns cluster munition for its potential, like chemical weapons, to indiscriminately harm civilians. The bomb splits into dozens of dispersed explosives that, if they fail to explode, turn effectively into land mines long after the attack.

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Representatives from the 112 signatories to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will gather on Monday in Lusaka, Zambia, to discuss the implementation status of the treaty, enacted in 2010, that bans the use, production or sale of the weapon. In 2012, member states, including France, Germany and the U.K., destroyed 173,973 cluster munitions and 27 million submunitions, the CMC report says. The U.S. and Syria are among the minority of the world’s nations not to be signatories.

Syria has been among the worst recent transgressors of the international norm, according to the report. In the year starting July 2012, Human Rights Watch identified 152 locations in Syria where at least 204 cluster munitions were used. Thailand, Burma, Sudan and Libya before Gaddafi’s fall have also reportedly used the weapon. None of those countries are signatories of the Convention on Cluster Munitions.

The CMC report also cites photo evidence from Amnesty International that indicates the U.S. used cluster munition on Dec. 17, 2009, in a strike on a village in Yemen that killed more than 40 civilians, though neither the U.S. nor Yemen have confirmed the allegation. Activists are hoping that the pause in reports since then, including during strikes on Libya, indicate that the U.S. won’t resort to using cluster munitions on Syria.

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“These were not used in Libya during operations so it’s difficult to know if the U.S. is seriously considering the use of such weapons in this scenario,” says Jeff Abramson, program manager at the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor. “It’s a possibility, and that’s why the Cluster Munition Coalition has sent letters indicating we want to make sure the U.S. doesn’t do that.”

The U.S. has acknowledged the “important contributions” of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons while forging its own regulatory path that does not lay a blanket ban on the weapons’ use. Instead, Department of Defense policy aims to limit the use of cluster munitions that could fail to initially explode more than 1% of the time.

In line with that policy, the U.S. continues to export cluster munitions to other countries, including deliveries to Saudi Arabia and South Korea, but only cluster munition that meets the 1% standard, according to the CMC report.

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Human Rights Watch, which per its own policy has not taken a position on a potential strike on Syria, warned the U.S. against using its cluster weapons in a press release last week linked with the CMC report.

“Syria’s extensive cluster-munition use is casting a somber shadow over the real progress that the convention is making to put an end to the human suffering that these weapons cause,” Mary Wareham, arms-division advocacy director at Human Rights Watch and a final editor of the CMC report, said in the statement. “Any U.S. use of cluster munitions in Syria would only make the humanitarian crisis worse.”