Landmines and Unexploded Ordinances: Israel’s Legacy in Southern Lebanon

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Steve Goose, executive director of Human Right Watch’s Arms Division discusses the leftover landmines in southern Lebanon from Israel’s 18 year-occupation, new landmine legislation in Washington, the threat to civilians of unexploded cluster bombs and where it all fits into the framework of international law. [includes rush transcript]

The recent list of casualties from unexploded Israeli ordinances also includes…Israeli troops. One Israeli soldier was killed and three others wounded in southern Lebanon on Wednesday when their tank drove over a land mine. Lebanese officials told the Associated Press that the soldiers had entered a minefield–one of the many leftover by the Israeli military after their troops withdrew south Lebanon in 2000, ending 18 years of occupation. Israel is required to provide maps for the minefields in Lebanon under the UN ceasefire resolution that ended the latest fighting.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Goose joins us on the phone right now from Washington, D.C., executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, a leading expert on landmines and cluster munitions. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

STEVE GOOSE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: As you’ve listened to the reports from southern Lebanon, can you comment on landmines and cluster bombs there?

STEVE GOOSE: You’ve given a very strong and compelling report this morning on the problem of cluster munitions and other unexploded ordinance in Lebanon. The situation that we’re seeing there is compelling testimony for why governments all around the world should no longer be using cluster munitions. Cluster munitions, along with landmines, are the weapons system — the conventional weapons system that poses the greatest dangers to civilian populations. And it’s time that governments just face up to the fact that these weapons shouldn’t be used.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about a bill introduced in the Senate this month that would block the Pentagon from beginning production of the first new landmines in nearly a decade. The bill was introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Specter and would bar production of landmines and other weapons that are so-called victim-activated. Can you talk about the significance of the legislation and what that means?

STEVE GOOSE: The legislation has sort of multiple purposes. One it’s just to move the U.S. closer to the community of nations that have already banned anti-personnel landmines. There’s a 1997 treaty, the Mine Ban Treaty, that comprehensively prohibits the use, production, trade and stockpiling of anti-personnel mines. And there are now 151 countries that are party to that. The U.S. is one of the few that’s not. It’s the only NATO country, for example, that is not. And this is designed to try and move the U.S. closer to the rest of the world in rejecting completely this weapon.

But more particularly it’s aimed at stopping a Pentagon plan to produce a new weapons system called the Spider, that while usually it is used in what’s called command-detonated mode, where a soldier decides when to set the munition off, has a special feature that has been added, which would turn it into a standard anti-personnel mine, the kind of thing that’s already banned by so many other countries. And indeed this would then constitute the first time since 1997 that the U.S. would produce a weapon that qualifies as an anti-personnel mine.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the difference — landmines, cluster bombs — what the international legislation is on this, where the U.S. stands on this?

STEVE GOOSE: Cluster bombs, cluster munitions and landmines have a lot of similarities. As I’ve mentioned before, the main one is the long-term threat that they both pose to civilians. The difference is that cluster bombs are designed to explode on impact. That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re problematic, even during attack, and let me come back to that point in a minute. But they’re designed to explode on impact. When they don’t, they leave behind large numbers of what are simply called hazardous duds. Dud sounds benign. It’s not. They’re still live, and if you touch them or kick them or pick them up to play with, they’re going to explode. They, in essence, become de facto landmines. That is what the vast majority of your report from southern Lebanon was all about. These duds that are left behind that act just like landmines, posing an indiscriminate danger to civilians.

There is no international legislation that deals specifically with the problem of cluster munitions. There are the general rules against using weapons against civilians that apply to cluster munitions. There’s a protocol to something called the Convention on Conventional Weapons that deals somewhat with the cleanup side of the problem of cluster munitions, but there’s nothing specific on the weapon. We’ve been pushing governments who are part of this Convention on Conventional Weapons to take up the issue directly and agree to a new protocol that would regulate or hopefully prohibit inaccurate and unreliable cluster munitions. This contrasts with the landmine situation, where we have had a treaty that entered into force in 1999 that the vast majority of the world has already signed onto, that comprehensively prohibits the weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: And where does the U.S. stand on that?

STEVE GOOSE: The U.S., with the Clinton administration, under strong pressure from the Pentagon, refused to sign that treaty in 1997 and has not joined it since. The Clinton administration established an objective of joining this year, of joining in 2006, and instructed the Pentagon to search for alternatives to the weapon.

The Bush administration undertook a review of that landmine policy and, very regrettably, decided not to join and in fact became the first nation to declare that it would never join. Even countries like China and Russia, who also haven’t signed, have said that they eventually intend to join the treaty. But the U.S. has said that it wants to hold onto some of its high-tech anti-personnel mines indefinitely. So they put themselves really outside of the rest of the world with their approach on this issue.

And this search for alternatives paradoxically is what has led to this Spider system. Spider was supposed to be alternative have to anti-personnel mines, but the Pentagon, in its way, decided to add a feature that in fact turns it back into an anti-personnel mine.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Goose, the recent list of casualties from unexploded Israeli ordinances also includes Israeli troops. One Israeli soldier was killed and three others wounded in southern Lebanon today, when their tank drove over a landmine. Lebanese officials told the Associated Press the soldiers had entered a minefield, one of the many leftover by the Israeli military after their troops withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000, at that time ending 18 years of occupation. Now, Israel’s required to provide maps for the minefields in Lebanon under the UN Ceasefire Resolution that ended the latest fighting. Can you talk about the issue of landmines in Lebanon going back to 1982?

STEVE GOOSE: It goes back even farther than that. Landmines were used there in the conflict in the 1970s, as well. And it’s not just Israel. All the parties who were fighting in the 1970s and '80s in Lebanon laid landmines. And Israel did lay the majority of them and apparently continued to use them up until the withdrawal in 2000. It's a huge problem in Lebanon. I mean, their estimates are that some 400,000 to half a million landmines were laid. And there has been a fairly vigorous effort since 2000 to get those mines out of the ground. And they now think that there are still some 2,500 minefields.

That problem has now been exacerbated greatly by this recent conflict, not so much by landmines that have been laid. In fact, we don’t know of any confirmed examples of Israel using mines in the most recent fighting, and there have only been a few spotty reports of Hezbollah laying landmines. But the overall problem of unexploded ordinance and explosive remnants of war has been exacerbated hugely by the cluster munitions, in particular, but also by the other kinds of unexploded ordinance that comes from using rockets and missiles and even grenades and other things, so that the efforts that were made to protect the population from these kind of dangers has now just been set back hugely.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch is our guest. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported the Bush administration was set to approve an Israeli request to speed delivery of missiles armed with cluster munitions. “The M-26 rockets carry hundreds of grenade-like bomblets that explode over a wide area. Israel said it needed them to strike Hezbollah missile launchers.” The U.S. halted the cluster bomb sales to Israel in 1982 — that was under Reagan — after use against civilians, but rescinded that ban in 1988. Where is the U.S. getting these munitions from, that they are sending to Israel, and can you comment on this?

STEVE GOOSE: Well, the U.S. produces — different companies in the U.S. produce a wide variety of cluster munitions and the submunitions that they carry. Indeed, the U.S. has an inventory of nearly one billion submunitions. The numbers are staggering when you start talking about cluster munitions and the submunitions that they carry. We used to be completely overwhelmed by the notion of 200 million landmines out there. But when we start talking about cluster submunitions, we’re talking about billions that are already in the stockpiles of more than 70 countries around the world. They haven’t been used as extensively as mines, and that’s why they’re not as hot an issue, but the future dangers are huge.

Israel also produces large numbers of submunitions. They’re one of the world’s biggest producers, as well. But they wanted this particular system from the U.S. they had ordered a number of years ago, the multiple-launch rocket system, that, as you say, carries a staggering number of cluster munitions. And they wanted that delivery expedited. We came out very strongly against that, because of the predictable dangers that that would pose to civilian populations.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the companies that make these cluster bombs here in this country? The U.S. is the largest producer of cluster bombs?

STEVE GOOSE: Well, that’s probably fair to say, although you never know what the arsenals are in places like Russia and China. So with that caveat, certainly the U.S. is one of the largest producers. And it’s sort of the typical people who make these kind of munitions, a company like Textron or Alliant Techsystems. But there are many U.S. companies that are involved in the business.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any names of those companies?

STEVE GOOSE: Well, two of the biggest would be Textron and Alliant — Textron in Massachusetts and Alliant Techsystems in Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: Alliant is one of the companies where Minneapolis peace activists have protested for years outside that company as a result of this. The legislation in Washington, how would it affect these companies? And how much support does it have? I mean, you’ve got a Republican and a Democrat, Leahy and Arlen Specter. Where do you expect it to go from here?

STEVE GOOSE: Well, it was just recently introduced, and they’re still in the stage of gathering co-sponsors for the legislation. We think that there will be a very strong support for it. Indeed, when the landmine issue was before Congress during the Clinton administration, a majority of senators were in favor of the Clinton administration signing the Mine Ban Treaty. So there is, I think, a strong sentiment that the U.S. shouldn’t be involved in this kind of activity.

Of course, we only have a short time left for Congress to deal with any issue before it finishes up this session. So we’re in the process here of building awareness in the Congress. But ultimately, we think that the Pentagon will get the signal that Congress is opposed to this and that the American public is opposed to this, and, indeed, U.S. allies are opposed to this.

One of the points that we’ve tried to make is that all of the U.S. allies who are part of the Mine Ban Treaty — as I say, that includes almost all of the E.U. and virtually all of NATO, and many other key U.S. allies are part of this — and those who are part of the treaty cannot assist in any way with a prohibited act. That’s one of the provisions of the Mine Ban Treaty, so that we already have a number of those who are part of the treaty saying that they would have to divest in any U.S. companies that are involved in the production of this Spider anti-personnel mine system. Norway has already made that ruling, for example, with their huge multibillion-dollar petroleum fund that they would have to no longer be involved in investments with companies that are part of this weapon. So it will create problems for the U.S., problems for U.S. companies, U.S. interoperability problems with its NATO allies. It’s just a bad idea with no real benefit.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Goose, I want to thank you very much for being with us. We’ll link to Human Rights Watch website and your reports on this issue at Steve Goose is executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Arms Division, leading expert on landmines and cluster munitions.

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