A world awash in weapons” is the phrase Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles recently used to describe the international scene on the 25th anniversary of the U.S. bishops’ peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. Among these weapons are cluster munitions, canisters that contain submunitions, also called bomblets. Dispersed from airplanes, missiles or artillery shells over a wide area, most of these bomblets explode when they hit the ground. Some, however, do not, and become in effect small landmines that explode later when touched, causing maiming or death. The United Nations has estimated that over a million of these unexploded bomblets remained on the ground after the conflict between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon in 2006. During the six months after a cease-fire was declared, over 200 civilians were maimed or killed by these mini-bombs. According to the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Israel bought the majority of its cluster bombs from the United States.
Most recently used during the Russian-Georgian conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia last August, cluster munitions landed in populated areas of that province. The sight of an unexploded bomblet arouses children’s curiosity, and they are among those who have suffered most. It is estimated that a quarter of all casualties are children; in some regions the number reaches 50 percent. One victim among those wounded during the attacks on South Ossetia was a 13-year-old boy who went to a friend’s house to say goodbye before his family fled the violence in the town of Variani. He lost part of his skull, and shrapnel still remains inside his head. Farmers also come unaware upon unexploded bomblets in the course of their work and face injury and death from the “duds” lying hidden amid crops and foliage.
Cluster munitions have been in use for over four decades. The United States and the United Kingdom, along with Russia, Israel, France and Germany, are among the countries that have used them. Almost 80 countries have stockpiled billions of these weapons. The United States last used cluster bombs during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For the present, at least, the United States has stopped exporting them.
Hope for the eventual abolition of cluster bombs has now emerged through an international treaty that bans their use. The treaty was spearheaded by Norway and adopted in Dublin in late May. Called the Convention on Cluster Munitions, it is to be signed in Oslo on Dec. 3 in the presence of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It will go into effect after 30 nations have signed and ratified it. The treaty requires signatories not only to stop manufacturing and using cluster bombs, but also to destroy stockpiles within eight years.
The United States will not be represented at the signing. It strongly opposed the Dublin agreement on the ban and pressed allies to work against it, including the United Kingdom. Eventually, though, the United Kingdom agreed to support the treaty and become a signatory. A Pentagon spokesperson has contended that cluster munitions are militarily useful and that their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would place at risk the lives of U.S. soldiers and those of coalition partners. As might be expected, other nonsignatories include Israel, Russia and China. Largely through pressure from countries like these and the United States, the convention has a loophole in its Article 21, whereby signatories could legally cooperate militarily with nonsignatory nations, like the United States, that make use of cluster munitions.
Given the widespread suffering that results from cluster bombs, the signing of the Oslo Convention should mark the beginning of the end of their use (especially in view of a dispersal pattern that makes civilian casualties inevitable). In addition, supporters of the ban believe that the convention may bring to bear a moral force similar to that of the 1997 Ottawa Treaty. That agreement—another the United States did not sign—banned the use of anti-personnel landmines, a move that has reduced their overall use worldwide. As a world leader, the United States should become a signatory to the Oslo Convention and demonstrate a more serious commitment to world peace than it has yet shown. Bishop Zavala, who is the bishop president of Pax Christi USA, underscored in his reflection on the anniversary of the 1983 peace pastoral the relationship between a weapons-ridden world and the deepening of global poverty. He also quoted Pope John Paul II’s famous phrase, “War is always a defeat for humanity.” President-elect Barack Obama should press the country he will soon lead to become a signatory to the convention.