Back in 2006, Israel's profligate use of cluster munitions in Lebanon caught the public eye, nowhere more so than in the Arab world. During the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli forces rained rockets loaded with cluster munitions on south Lebanon, the vast majority in the last 3 days of the conflict. At the time this endangered civilians because each shell can saturate an area the size of a football field with dozens or even hundreds of tiny bombs.

But the danger did not end when the shelling stopped. South of the Litani River towns and villages, homes and public buildings, gardens and fields were littered with up to a million "duds" - submunitions that had not exploded on impact - posing a risk to Lebanese living there for years to come and turning agricultural land into de facto minefields. The extent of this contamination was far worse than what Human Rights Watch had found in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Kosovo, three other countries where cluster munitions were used recently. (Since then Russia and Georgia used cluster munitions during fighting over South Ossetia in August 2008; Hezbollah also launched cluster munitions into Israel during the 2006 fighting.)

Human Rights Watch, its partners in the international cluster munition coalition, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and others had already singled out cluster munitions as a weapon with terrible humanitarian consequences because the submunitions are spread over a wide area and unable to distinguish between military objectives and civilians.  The "duds," like unexploded landmines, pose a hazard to lives, limbs, and livelihoods long after the conflict has ended.

In late 2006, following the Lebanon-Israel war,  Norway initiated a diplomatic process that brought together governments, international organizations, UN agencies and civil society groups and within less than two years produced the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Lebanon played a high-profile role in the negotiations that finally adopted the international treaty. The Convention on Cluster Munitions was opened for state signatures in December 2008; as of mid-July 2009, 98 countries had signed and 14 had ratified it. It will take effect six months after the 30th ratification.

One might have thought that Arab states would support an effort to stigmatize and eventually outlaw the use of these weapons, given Israel's use of them in Lebanon in 2006 (and earlier Israeli use in Lebanon as well). Yet from the region, only Lebanon and Tunisia have signed.  All the other Arab states possess some stockpile of cluster munitions, for the most part supplied by the United States or the former Soviet Union. Arab states that have used cluster munitions in armed conflict are Libya (in Chad in the mid-1980s), Morocco (in the Western Sahara), and Saudi Arabia (against Iraqi forces that had moved into Saudi territory in 1991). Egypt appears to be the only Arab state that has produced cluster munitions.

Jordan participated in the conference that launched the treaty process, and Jordanian diplomats have expressed interest in joining the convention, but so far have taken no steps in that direction.  An Egyptian diplomat with experience in arms negotiations told me that whatever the merits of the cluster munitions convention, Egypt would not consider signing it as long as the United States refused to cooperate in negotiating a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This is hardly a credible explanation for inaction on the clusters munitions convention. The US has been one of the world's biggest producers and exporters of cluster munitions, and has opposed all efforts to prohibit their use.  If Egypt or any state were interested in showing displeasure with US nuclear disarmament  policies, a far better way would be to support efforts to control and eliminate weapons, like cluster munitions, that by their nature pose grave humanitarian risks to civilians.

Until now, there have been few civil society efforts in Arab countries to generate support for the convention among the public or with the governments. Iraq, the other Arab country (besides Lebanon) to experience significant cluster munitions use, should seriously consider signing and ratifying the convention soon. Given the deadly impact of cluster munitions in Lebanon and Iraq, and the threat they pose to civilians wherever they are used, activists in the Arab world should push their governments to sign and ratify the treaty, and be among the 30 countries that bring the treaty into operation.