efforts to ban cluster bombs
On Sunday, August 1, I celebrated the entry into force of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This new treaty bans the use and production of cluster bombs—dropped from planes, these weapons open in mid-air and scatter hundreds of deadly bomblets, often killing or maiming innocent civilians. As my community gathered in Portland, Oregon, to beat our drums to symbolically pound out the scourge of these horrendous weapons, I felt like my son was watching from somewhere, smashing a set of heavenly cymbals to accompany our beautiful symphony. (In fact, they were probably a set of Zildjian cymbals—Travis wanted a set of those like nobody's business, and that has to be what he has up there.) I hope the majesty of our score also reached the ears of the U.S. Administration because it's beyond time for the U.S. to get on board this treaty that could save the lives of countless men, women, and children.
I have been campaigning for the creation of this treaty for the last five years. For one thing, I believe that the world would be a better place if these weapons weren't in it. This is not a political issue…it's a humanitarian one. Simply put, this treaty will save lives—by mandating that signatory countries destroy their cluster bomb stockpiles, clear cluster munition-contaminated land, and assist cluster munition survivors. But in addition to this, I also have a very personal stake in this treaty. My son Travis, a corporal in the U.S. Marines, was killed by a U.S. cluster bomb in July 2003. He was clearing unexploded ordnance from an Iraqi farmer's field near Karbala of unexploded ordnance when one of his friends in the unit who was standing nearby accidentally detonated a cluster submunition dud. In an instant, the explosion took an eye and an arm from the Marine who touched it…and also killed Travis.
The Pentagon may try and say that cluster bombs are needed to protect American soldiers, but I would answer that the cost to local civilians is too high and that U.S. cluster munitions also directly endanger U.S. troops. According to the Government Accountability Office, during the Persian Gulf War our own cluster bombs killed or injured 80 U.S. troops who had to pass through desert areas scattered with hidden dud cluster submunitions. Professional deminers and combat engineers see cluster submunitions as the most dangerous kind of unexploded ordnance to clear because they are designed to pierce armor and are very volatile.
These weapons are just not able to discriminate a specific target. Cluster bombs are dropped from planes and scatter hundreds of small, unguided explosives over an area as big as several football fields. When a single weapon impacts an area that big, how do you make sure that civilians aren't killed in the bombardment? Cluster munitions were developed during World War II for use against tanks on vast, unpopulated plains of warfare. They were never intended to be used in cities, villages or even agricultural areas. But in the last 10 years, the United States has used cluster bombs in civilian-populated areas of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Israel used them on the villages and olive groves of southern Lebanon. Imagine if these weapons were used in Chicago or in farming regions in Texas—how would American civilians not be killed and maimed by the thousands? If they were used here in the United States, would we stand for it?
Cluster bombs also have a very high failure rate and many will fail to explode when they hit the ground. While this seems like a good thing, it's not. These unexploded mini-bombs then lie in wait like landmines, sometimes for years after a conflict has ended. So there are still small children walking to school in Vietnam and in Lao in 2010 who accidentally detonate these weapons that dropped from planes almost forty years ago.
Currently the U.S. has the largest stockpile of cluster munitions in the world and is a major user, exporter, and producer of the weapon. While efforts to restrain the use and trade of cluster munitions are under discussion in Congress, there is no existing domestic law specifically regulating cluster munitions. In the most recent 2008 policy statement, cluster munitions were described as "legitimate weapons with clear military utility."
At this point, 107 countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including most of our NATO allies like Britain, France and Germany. Many have already started destroying their stockpiles. These countries have decided that they can protect their troops without weapons that pose a terrifying and avoidable threat to innocent civilians. Why can't we?
In December 2008, when the Convention on Cluster Munitions opened for signature in Oslo, a spokeswoman for the Obama transition team said that the next president would "carefully review" the new treaty banning cluster munitions and would "work closely [with] our friends and allies to ensure that the United States is doing everything feasible to promote protection of civilians." I call on the administration to take action now. The U.S. can start by attending the treaty's first official meeting which will take place this November in Vientiane, PDR Lao. Lao is an appropriate place to hold this first meeting, as it's the world's most cluster-bombed country—from 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2 million tons of ordnance over Lao, consisting of 270 million cluster bomblets. The U.S. should be at this meeting and should work with other countries to make sure this weapon is banned globally once and for all.
On August 1, all of the convention's provisions became fully and legally binding for states that have joined. To celebrate this occasion, I organized a drumming event on Sunday in my hometown of Portland to raise awareness and to ask the U.S. to stop using these weapons. I was proud to see U.S. citizens joining other campaigners from all over the world to celebrate this historic treaty. It's good to see our citizens taking action and speaking up for what's right. I can tell you now that I'll be even prouder when the U.S. finally joins the convention. On that day, we'll definitely have an encore performance… I can already hear Travis's cymbal crashing out that final, resounding, deafening, perfect last note.