Thomas Nash: It's time to outlaw these ruthless killers

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I was in Lebanon in July 2005 on a trip to document the residual problem from cluster bombs used in 1978 and 1982. Unexploded cluster munitions were still claiming lives more than two decades after that conflict. I recently returned from another trip to Lebanon where I saw that a whole new wave of devastation from cluster bombs is beginning.

The use of cluster munitions in Lebanon was an outrage. It was known before they were used that they would kill and injure civilians in populated areas because of their inaccurate dispersal pattern. It was known that cluster munitions would leave hundreds of their submunitions unexploded to terrorise civilians returning to rebuild their lives.

With a ceasefire in sight, Israel launched millions of cluster bomblets throughout towns and villages in the last 72 hours of the war. The mounting toll of civilian deaths and injuries and the deadly unexploded ordnance contamination that will blight Lebanon for years to come were all predictable, foreseeable and preventable.

Most of the submunitions used in Lebanon look like torch batteries with ribbons and others look like tennis balls. They are a deadly attraction for children who make up about 30 per cent of the casualties.

What can be done about the cluster bomb infested fields of south Lebanon? While we cannot reverse the consequences of Israel's use of cluster munitions, we can work to prevent use of the weapon in future conflicts. Pressure to this end from civil society groups has been growing through the international Cluster Munition Coalition that now has more than 170 member groups, such as Human Rights Watch in the US, Handicap International in France and Europe and Landmine Action in the UK. Despite opposition within governments to a new law, campaigners against cluster bombs have begun to show results.

This year, even before the tragedies in Lebanon, Belgium banned the weapon and Norway declared a moratorium on its use. Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland are all calling for an international instrument, such as a convention on cluster munitions. Other user states, such as the UK, refuse even to discuss cluster munitions in international forums.

States parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons will meet for their five-year Review Conference in Geneva in November. If governments do not launch immediate negotiations for an international instrument on cluster munitions, then they will be failing the people of Lebanon and failing the citizens of their own countries, in whose name governments use and stockpile this unjust weapon.

While massive challenges remain for Lebanon, history may provide us with useful lessons. In 1974, 13 countries proposed a ban on cluster munitions at a diplomatic conference in Switzerland. In the 30 years since that proposal failed, cluster munitions have been used in Iraq, Chechnya, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. The tragic situation in south Lebanon is just the latest example of what happens when cluster munitions are used.

The massacre at My Lai spurred the public conscience to put an end not only to the Vietnam War, but also to the use of napalm, the incendiary weapon. The toll from landmines in Cambodia, Angola and Afghanistan prompted some countries to embark on a new process that banned landmines.

The civilian toll from cluster munitions in Lebanon may turn out to be a similar turning point.

Thomas Nash is the co-ordinator at Cluster Munition Coalition,