The 10th anniversary of the Mine Ban Treaty, which falls on Tuesday, reminds us that the advocates of arms control do occasionally have real achievements to celebrate. Ten years after that landmark treaty, the UK government now needs to find the courage to call an end to the use of cluster bombs.
The UK was an influential supporter of a ban on the manufacture, sale and export of anti-personnel mines. As a result of that treaty, the use of these abhorrent weapons has all but ceased. An estimated 39 million of these devices have been destroyed internationally. The world is a safer place as a result. This is more than gesture politics: it is real and effective disarmament.
A ban on cluster munitions is the natural next step – since cluster bombs are, in their evil effects, identical to anti-personnel mines. Whether dropped from aircraft or fired from rockets, the result is the same: they kill civilians, and especially children, whose curiosity and energy make them vulnerable to unexploded bomblets. Their bright colour (often yellow) and toy-like appearance act as lures to the innocent. An American general in Afghanistan described it as "unfortunate" that they were of the same colour as air-dropped food parcels.
As fate would have it, I grew up among cluster bombs. During the war I was evacuated from east Suffolk to Westmorland; but returning to East Anglia before the war was over I found the lanes around the family home in Redisham festooned with tin signs, nailed on to oak trees and telegraph poles, warning of the dangers of butterfly bombs. The German prototype of the cluster bomb, also known as the SD2 or Sprengbombe Dickwandig 2kg, was the first to be used operationally. German pilots, on their way home from their targets in the Midlands, dumped their unused ordnance on what they believed to be, because of the black-out, a deserted part of East Anglia. As a seven-year-old, I found the threat from these bombs immensely exciting. The war zone had arrived in our own back garden. My war-time game of unmasking spies was replaced by looking for bombs in the ditches and hedgerows.
It is just such games that have seen UK cluster bombs kill children in Kosovo and Iraq. A study of all the known victims of cluster munitions, from Vietnam to Lebanon and elsewhere, shows that almost all of them were civilians. We cannot realistically expect to ban all weapons. But we can surely make a start with the child-killers. It is inconceivable that a civilised nation should have such weapons in its armoury, still less deploy and use them.
So where does that leave the British government, with its foreign policy supposedly still underpinned by the "ethical dimension" announced by Robin Cook in 1997? The answer to that is – all over the place. It says it wants an international treaty – but it also wants to carry on using types of cluster bombs that are well known to kill and injure the innocent.
In November last year, under the pressure of public opinion and a timely intervention by Hilary Benn, the Government announced the withdrawal from service of what it insists on calling "dumb" cluster bombs – its air-dropped BL755 and the artillery-fired M26. But it kept its Israeli-made M85 submunitions – the Government places faith in a "self-destruct" mechanism that is supposed to prevent these weapons lingering after the conflict. Unfortunately, that mechanism doesn't work. In July and August last year, while the UK government refused to call for a ceasefire, these weapons were scattered across Lebanon. Once again, civilians were killed and injured as a result, and expert teams (many paid for by the British government) are still clearing up the mess.
A UN team reported on the contaminated battlefield: "We can categorically state that we are finding large numbers of unexploded M85 submunitions that have failed to detonate as designed and failed to self-destruct afterwards. In effect, these submunitions are more dangerous than other types because the self-destruct mechanism makes them more problematic to deal with."
Not such a "smart" weapon after all.
The British armed forces also hold stocks of the gunship-fired Hydra CRV7 rockets, 19 to the pod, with each pod containing nine submunitions. The manufacturers admit to a 6 per cent failure rate (such figures are usually underestimates), which would leave 10 unexploded bomblets from a single salvo. Government officials have tried to take these weapons out of the equation by no longer classifying them as cluster munitions. "Spin" will not save civilian lives.
There are doubts about the utility as well as the morality of cluster bombs. The British have not used them since the invasion phase of the war in Iraq, where battlefield clearance again suggested an unacceptably high rate of failure. The armed forces are not using them in Afghanistan, despite being short of manpower and involved on a day-to- day basis in the most intensive combat since the Korean War. Last December a former Adjutant-General, Lord Ramsbotham, told the House of Lords: "I can find no justification for the deployment of these weapons in any activity the British Army has been involved in since the Second World War."
Public opinion is unequivocal. According to YouGov polls in October 2006 and July 2007, 81 per cent and then 82 per cent said the UK should support an international ban on cluster bombs, with 8 per cent or 9 per cent expressing no opinion. If the Government heeds the will of the people, and if its "ethical dimension" still has meaning, it will give up its two remaining types of cluster bomb.
The diplomatic campaign moves next to the Vienna Conference on Cluster Munitions, from 5 to 7 December. This gives the Government ample time to work out where it stands. Either it renounces the use of these indiscriminate engines of death and joins Norway, Austria and others in a leadership role. Or else it goes on using them. We can have it one way or the other – but not both.
Martin Bell is a former BBC war correspondent and independent MPReuse content