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2008-05-20

US Skips International Conference to Ban Cluster Bombs

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Representatives of more than 100 governments are gathering in Dublin, Ireland for two weeks of talks aimed at finalizing a global treaty to ban the use of cluster bombs. But the United States, historically the world’s largest producer, stockpiler, and user of cluster bombs, won’t be at the negotiations. Other major producers of cluster bombs — Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan — also stayed away from the talks. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Representatives of more than a hundred governments are gathering in Dublin, Ireland for two weeks of talks aimed at finalizing a global treaty to ban cluster bombs. But the United States, historically the world’s largest producer, stockpiler and user of cluster bombs, won’t be at the negotiations.

The State Department said last month that it would not attend the Dublin conference, preferring sporadic UN-organized talks in Geneva that seek nonbinding rules for using cluster bombs and cleaning up their consequences. Other major producers of cluster bombs — Russia, China, Israel, India and Pakistan — also stayed away from the talks.

The coordinator of the Cluster Munitions Coalition, Thomas Nash, spoke to a reporter outside the Dublin conference about his hopes for the meeting.

    THOMAS NASH: This is the biggest meeting on humanitarian and disarmament affairs for over a decade. We’re going to ban cluster munitions here in this building over the next two weeks, and that’s going to make a difference to people’s lives for decades to come.

    REPORTER: How are you so confident at this stage?

    THOMAS NASH: We’ve got 128 countries here. We’ve got half the world’s stockpilers, half the world’s producers and half the world’s former users. They’re all coming together because they all share a common goal, and that’s to protect civilians. We’re very confident that even those countries that are calling for exceptions or delays, such as the UK, France and Germany, will get over those positions and see that the right thing to do is to ban all these weapons now.

    REPORTER: What about the big countries — the United States, China, Russia and Israel — who are not here?

    THOMAS NASH: The US, Russia and China might not be here today, but they will be influenced by the decisions that are made at this conference this week and next week. We know from history that when a weapon is stigmatized by the general moral consensus of the international community, it just doesn’t get used. The US hasn’t banned land mines, but they don’t use them.

AMY GOODMAN: Cluster munitions open in midair and scatter hundreds of “bomblets” over wide areas, which often fail to explode, creating virtual mine fields that can remain for decades. Over the past forty years, the vast majority of confirmed casualties from cluster bombs have been civilians. In 2006, the United Nations estimates Israel dropped a million-or-so bomblets on southern Lebanon during the final hours of the war.

Naema Ghazi is one of the many Lebanese victims of unexploded cluster bombs.

    NAEMA GHAZI: [translated] I was returning back from the field. I stepped on the ground, and I don’t know how, it exploded. I was bleeding. I felt immediately that I lost my leg. It was connected to the body with just one vein. My mother saw that and started screaming.

AMY GOODMAN: The draft treaty, which governments plan to finish on May 30, will ban the use, production and export of cluster bombs.

Lora Lumpe is coordinator of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines, joining us from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lora.

LORA LUMPE: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of this meeting?

LORA LUMPE: Yeah. As you heard Thomas say, this is the first major international arms control or humanitarian law treaty in a decade, the last one being the Mine Ban Treaty negotiated in 1997. This treaty will result in taking a terrible tool out of the arsenals of militaries around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the United States presence, or lack thereof?

LORA LUMPE: Well, again, as Thomas said, the US did take part in the Mine Ban Treaty talks, but then ultimately President Clinton was not able to overcome US military objections to signing onto that treaty. Nevertheless, the fact that 156 governments have banned the use of that type of weapon, of anti-personnel land mines, has made it an extreme rarity now for any government to use those weapons. Last year, only two governments were reported to have used mines.

I suspect — I firmly believe the same thing will happen here, that international law is changing, public opinion is changing. These weapons, which have been used extensively since the Vietnam War, are not going to be allowed to be used again. In every instance that they’ve been used, civilians are the primary victim at the time of attack and over days, months, years, even decades in the case of Southeast Asia, after these weapons are used. And that’s simply not acceptable to use a weapon that kills civilians for generations to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how they were developed?

LORA LUMPE: Well, they were developed during World War II, and they were originally used by the Soviet Union in World War II. They were — they are an industrial military weapon, intended for tank and armored formations, not for use in counterinsurgency kinds of conflicts, as they were used in Vietnam and as they’re being used or as they were used in both Afghanistan and Iraq by US forces.

They are meant to cover a very wide area. They are a very imprecise weapon. They have no targeting, no guidance system, so you literally blanket a huge, huge area with these weapons, which is what of course causes — poses the threat to civilians. One single cluster bomb could cover an area the size of three football fields, both endangering people or animals who are out at the time, but then also leaving behind a very large number of dud small bombs, and people stumble across those — farmers, children, anyone — stumble across those submunitions for a very long time to come, endangering them.

AMY GOODMAN: Princess Diana, when she was alive, made this her major cause. What an effect did that have? And with her death, did the whole movement lose attention from the corporate media?

LORA LUMPE: Yeah. I mean, the landmine issue, which she was so — such a fantastic champion of, I think is, you know, very firmly in place. The Princess Diana Foundation is still working now to deal with this follow-on problem of cluster munitions. Yeah, we could use another high-profile champion, for sure. Paul McCartney, the Pope, you know, several folks have spoken out against these weapons —- Bishop Tutu, lots of, you know, UNICEF, the ICRC, of course, and so on. But yeah -—

AMY GOODMAN: Lora Lumpe, what about the major US presidential candidates, their stance on cluster bombs?

LORA LUMPE: You know, this issue has been so under the radar here in the United States, unlike the rest of the world, that they haven’t had to speak out about it yet. But the only voting record we have is in 2006, following Israel’s widespread use of these weapons in South Lebanon. There was an effort to attach an amendment to a defense bill that would prohibit further US use of these weapons in areas that are normally inhabited by civilians, very commonsense measure. At that time, Barack Obama was one of thirty senators voting for that amendment, so that is voting to prohibit use in civilian-populated areas. Senators McCain and Senator Clinton voted against that, so they were part of a majority of seventy senators who voted against that commonsense amendment. And that’s really all we know about their positions so far.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you hope to come out of this meeting?

LORA LUMPE: I hope that on the 30th of May there will be a strong treaty that will prohibit all cluster submunitions with no exceptions, that it will have a short entry into force, that all the major US NATO allies who are at the table will sign onto that treaty. As you heard in the overview piece, you’ve got more than half the producers, half the users, half the victim states there. So I want a strong, strong treaty coming out on the 30th that will then be open for adoption. And I hope that we work here in the US over the coming months to persuade the permanent government, the military and State Department that this is a treaty that the US government must join and that the new administration elected in early December will be in a position — I’m sorry, elected in early November will be in a position to sign onto this treaty early in its new term.

AMY GOODMAN: Lora Lumpe, I want to thank you for being with us, coordinator of the US Campaign to Ban Landmines. As the US presidential race goes on, so does the arms race. We’ll go from cluster bombs to enriched uranium. Why is the US government giving Saudi Arabia enriched uranium? We’ll speak with Harvey Wasserman.

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