(New York) - A new US law permanently banning nearly all cluster bomb exports by the United States will end a long period of transfers of the weapon to Israel and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Human Rights Watch said today. The measure should spur the countries in the region as well as the US to join the international treaty prohibiting cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
The US export ban was included in an omnibus budget bill (HR 1105) that President Barack Obama signed into law on March 11, 2009. Under the law, the US can only export cluster munitions that leave behind less than 1 percent of their submunitions as duds. These duds act like landmines on the ground, exploding when touched by unwitting civilians. The legislation also requires the receiving country to agree that cluster munitions "will not be used where civilians are known to be present." Only a tiny fraction of the cluster munitions in the US arsenal meet the 1-percent standard.
"US-supplied cluster munitions have caused great harm to civilians in Lebanon, Iraq, Western Sahara and elsewhere in the region," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "These countries should consider the export ban a first step toward ridding the region of this unreliable and inaccurate weapon that claims civilian lives and limbs for years following its use."
The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibits the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions, and provides strict deadlines for clearance of affected areas and destruction of stockpiled cluster munitions. A total of 95 countries have signed the convention, including Lebanon and Tunisia from the Middle East and North Africa.
The United States has transferred cluster munitions to at least eight countries in the region, including Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Israel has been a major recipient of US cluster munitions and used the weapons extensively in its 2006 armed conflict in Lebanon (https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/02/16/flooding-south-lebanon).
The US export ban was first enacted in a budget bill in December 2007, but that law mandated it for only one year.
"The permanent US export ban will prevent the potential transfer of millions of cluster submunitions to Israel and other states in the region," said Whitson. "But unless governments in the region join the international treaty banning the use as well as transfer of cluster munitions, the threat will remain."
In December 2008, the Obama transition team said that the president-elect would "carefully review" the new treaty and "work closely [with] our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians."
US policy on cluster munitions was last articulated in a three-page policy directive issued by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in July 2008. The directive described cluster munitions as "legitimate weapons with clear military utility" and said that the US will continue to use cluster munitions and, after 2018, will use only munitions with a tested failure rate of less than 1 percent.
Human Rights Watch co-chairs the Cluster Munition Coalition, which it helped found in November 2003. Human Rights Watch and others stepped up pressure for an international treaty to deal with cluster munitions after Israel's massive use of these weapons in southern Lebanon in July and August 2006. These weapons left large swaths of Lebanon contaminated by the deadly, unexploded submunitions.
Cluster munitions can be fired by artillery and rocket systems or dropped by aircraft, and typically explode in the air and send dozens, even hundreds, of tiny submunitions or bomblets over an area the size of a football field. Cluster munitions cannot distinguish between military targets and civilians, so their humanitarian impact can be extreme when they are used in or near populated areas. Cluster submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving the duds that act like landmines and pose danger to civilians.