July Issue 2008

By | Opinion | Published 16 years ago

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re in Afghanistan. You’ve just stepped out, your three kids in tow, the youngest hanging on to you, the other two scampering ahead. Suddenly, there’s a huge, terrifying explosion — your two precious little ones are blown to smithereens before your eyes; you and your infant are thrown to the ground, each of you minus a limb, bleeding with massive injuries.

This is a scene, repeated with minor changes, in Afghanistan, Iraq and several other war-torn parts of the world, countless times over.

vpointThe reason for such irreparable loss of life and limb is, very frequently, cluster bombs, which rain death from the skies. Mid-air they break up into submunitions, or, in army parlance, ‘bomblets.’ (Interesting, this use of language to still the fear in our terrorised minds: baby bombs, bomblets — they make them sound like triplets and babies — collateral damage, friendly fire and war game).

These little bomblets have killed and injured countless since World War II. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), 98% of the recorded casualties are of civilians and, of these, 27% are children. Nearly 67% are killed or injured in the course of earning their livelihood. The civilian death toll is staggering. The tragic aspect of these weapons is that they do not distinguish between friend and foe, and once they fall, they do so indiscriminately. A further tragedy is that they don’t always explode on contact with the ground — sometimes the explosion happens many months later, perhaps when a child picks up a bomblet, mistaking it for a toy. Because of the widespread loss they cause, at presumably minimal use of manpower, these cluster bombs seem to have become extremely popular with the armed forces of numerous countries.

Besides the US and Pakistan, several other countries maintain stockpiles of cluster bombs. These include the UK, India, Brazil, South Korea, Egypt, Serbia, Russia, Israel, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Libya, Kuwait and Cuba. In the six months following the the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, 1,000 civilians were injured and another 1,000 killed by cluster bombs. Cluster bombs have also wrought massive destruction in Uganda and Cambodia.
The US dropped 1,228 cluster bombs which contained 248,056 bomblets in Afghanistan; the Allied forces dropped 61,000 bombs with 20 million bomblets during the Gulf War, and 1,765 bombs with 295,000 bomblets in Kosovo.

But, mercifully, sanity is prevailing. May 28, 2008 was a historic occasion — a ground-breaking and comprehensive treaty to ban cluster bombs was provisionally agreed to in Dublin, Ireland on the day. Around 110 countries have welcomed the ban, but Pakistan is not among them.

The treaty outlaws every type of cluster bomb. Stockpiles of existing weapons are to be destroyed within a transition period of eight years.According to the treaty, governments will now be obligated, under international humanitarian law, to protect civilians during conflict and to provide assistance to victims to enable them to lead full and productive lives.

However, more ameliorative steps are needed, such as educating the public about the risks and dangers of cluster bombs and clearing the affected areas to ensure danger-free zones and prevent further casualties.
International co-operation is imperative if this treaty is to work. As one of the countries which currently manufactures, stockpiles and uses cluster bombs, Pakistan has a particular obligation to abide by this treaty. The converse may prove unpalatable, because countries that continue to use cluster bombs are likely to be stigmatised. Pakistan’s stock in the global community isn’t exactly high and by not agreeing to this treaty ban, it is likely to isolate itself even further.