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Published:August 20th, 2008 22:52 EST
US in Club with Russia and China

US in Club with Russia and China

By Krzys Wasilewski

Giga Georgadze had been operating for hours on end. Despite Russia`s assertions about not bombarding civilian objects in Georgia, the local hospital in the town of Gori could hardly accommodate all injured. On the early morning of August 12, the fourth day of the Russo-Georgian conflict over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, surgeon Georgadze took a can of energy drink and went outside the hospital to refresh himself in the chilly air. Then a powerful distant explosion disturbed his rare moment of relax. Before he could realize what just happened, small, metallic pieces peppered his body.


What killed Giga Georgadze was a cluster bomb. Apart from the surgeon, at least nine people lost their lives in the Russian air raid on the border city of Gori, which before the conflict was mostly known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin. According to Human Rights Watch, on August 12, the Russians also dropped cluster bombs on the town of Ruisi, killing three civilians and wounding five. Both attacks were the first time in two years that a nation had decided to use cluster munitions; before the Russians, only the Israelis resorted to this type of weapons during their military operation in Lebanon in 2006.


In the opinion of many, cluster bombs are one of the deadliest types of weapons available. A cluster bomb comprises of a single dispenser and as many as 2,000 submunitions in various sizes and shapes. It is like a big bomb with hundreds of small bombs inside. When the dispenser hits the target, the submunitions are released and disperse into hundreds of directions, threatening people and objects located far from the place where the dispenser was dropped. According to the Federation of American Scientists, cluster bombs are used to "destroy an enemy in place [impact] or to slow or prevent enemy movement away from or through an area [area denial]."


But cluster munitions usually hit non-combatants. "Air-dropped or ground-launched, they cause two major humanitarian problems and risks to civilians," said Thomas Nash, a former official of the New Zealand Foreign Ministry. "Firstly, their wide area effect means they cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians so the humanitarian impact can be extreme when the weapon is used in or near populated areas. Secondly, many bomblets fail to detonate on impact and become de facto antipersonnel mines, killing and maiming people long after the conflict has ended."


Cluster bombs have been used in almost all of the conflicts of the late 20th and early 21st century. Firecrackers or popcorn - as they are called by the US military - were dropped on North Vietnam during the war in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s. It is estimated that the undetonated bombs from that period still kill around 300 people annually in Vietnam alone. Human Rights Watch reported that within the first three days of the conflict in Lebanon in 2008, Israeli air fighters had dropped more than 4.6 million submunitions.


To stop countries using cluster munitions, Thomas Nash and his friends established the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC). Formed in 2003, the CMC groups some 300 non-governmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, from 70 countries around the world. "The member organizations range from large international bodies like Human Rights Watch to smaller grass roots organizations in affected countries, including groups of survivors who give their testimony to support action on this humanitarian issue," Nash told the Student Operated Press.


In 2006, Belgium became the first country to officially clear its arsenals of cluster munitions. Austria and Norway proclaimed bans on the weapon one year later, with a number of other states debating upon taking similar steps. "The CMC has mobilized international civil society to press governments to take action on cluster munitions," said Nash. The coalition was also instrumental in convincing 107 countries - "including the majority of stockpiler and past user countries" - to accept the Convention on Cluster Munitions which is to be signed in Oslo on December 3, 2008.


Among the signatory countries, there will not be the United States. Together with Russia and China, the US has been a leading producer of cluster munitions and strongly opposes the ban. The US State Department says that although "the United States shares in the international concern about the humanitarian impact of all munitions, including cluster munitions," cluster bombs "have demonstrated military utility." Their elimination, claims the State Department, would put the lives of American soldiers at risk. The governments of Russia and China have presented the same excuses.


Nevertheless, Thomas Nash remains optimistic. "The treaty will stigmatize cluster bombs by creating an international norm that these states are likely to follow whether they sign it or not. It will no longer be politically or morally acceptable to use a weapon that over 100 governments have outlawed," he said. Nash hopes that the US will stop using cluster bombs, just like it stopped deploying land mines even though it has never officially signed the land mine ban treaty. He counts on public opinion and its ability to shape Washington`s policies.


"There is a lot that ordinary people can do to help in the campaign. One of the most important things that people can do to help is sign the People`s Treaty which is a way of showing global public support for the ban in Oslo in December. People can collect signatures for the People`s Treaty, form a local group in favor of ban on cluster bombs, write to their authorities in government, talk to their local media, organize a talk in their community," said Nash.


But what about countries where average people have little or no power at all? In autocracies such as Russia and China public opinion does not exist and any deviation from the official line of the government is severely punished. Moreover, even if the Oslo treaty eliminates cluster munitions from the arsenals of main powers, the stockpiles produced throughout the decades will eventually find their way to Third World dictatorships that refuse to abide by any international agreements. As long as cluster bombs are not completely destroyed, more individuals like Giga Georgadze will die in senseless conflicts.

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