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Time to End the Use of Cluster Munitions

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In April, forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi fired cluster munitions into residential areas of Misurata.

Cluster munitions -- large bombs, rockets or artillery shells that contain many smaller submunitions -- are often used to attack enemy troop formations and armor covering a wide radius.

Unfortunately, civilians are often the victims of their use.

In Libya, mortar projectiles opened up mid-air, each releasing 21 bomblets, some near a hospital, in what was the latest example of the indiscriminate use of these deadly weapons.

Cluster bombs threaten civilians because they leave hundreds of unexploded bomblets -- which often experience high failure rates -- spread over wide areas. They are also notoriously inaccurate.

Ahmed, a 12-year-old from Kebala, Iraq, was walking with his 9-year-old brother and picked up a shiny object. It was actually a bomblet from a cluster bomb. It exploded, costing Ahmed his right hand and three fingers off his left hand.

In 2003, three decades after the Vietnam War, 9-year-old Dan from Phalanexay, Laos, was injured when he picked up and played with a bomblet. It exploded, causing massive abdominal trauma, multiple shrapnel wounds and a broken arm and leg.

Akim, a 13-year-old shepherd from Al-Radwaniya, Iraq, was playing on his parents' farm when it was hit by a cluster bomb attack. He suffered burns to his lower limbs and multiple fractures to his right leg.

The human toll has been devastating:
  • In Laos, approximately 11,000 people, 30 percent of them children, have been killed or injured by U.S. cluster munitions since the Vietnam War ended.
  • In Afghanistan, between October 2001 and November 2002, 127 civilians lost their lives due to cluster munitions; 70 percent of them under the age of 18.
  • An estimated 1,220 Kuwaitis and 400 Iraqi civilians have been killed by cluster munitions since 1991.
  • In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Israeli cluster munitions, many manufactured in the United States, injured and killed 343 civilians.

The devastating effect of these weapons on civilians has compelled the international community and Congress to take action.

In 2007, Congress passed and President Bush signed into law a provision prohibiting the sale and transfer of cluster bombs with a failure rate higher than 1 percent. This ban was extended in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

In December 2008, 94 countries came together to sign the Oslo Convention on Cluster Munitions. Today, a total of 108 nations have signed the treaty and 48 have ratified it. The convention prohibits production, use and export of cluster bombs and requires signatories to eliminate their arsenals.

These actions will help save lives, but more needs to be done and significant obstacles remain.

With an arsenal of more than 700 million bomblets, the U.S. did not participate in the Oslo process and refused to sign the treaty. The Pentagon continues to believe that cluster munitions are "legitimate weapons with clear military utility in combat."

In June 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a policy on cluster munitions stating that after 2018, the use, sale and transfer of cluster munitions with a failure rate higher than 1 percent would be prohibited.

That policy moves us in the right direction, but it means the Pentagon still have has authority to use cluster bombs with high failure rates for the next decade.

Senator Patrick Leahy and I have introduced the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act, which would prohibit the use of cluster bombs with failure rates higher than 1 percent and restrict their use in civilian areas. Congressman Jim McGovern has introduced the same legislation in the House of Representatives.

It is time for the United States to join this international effort and take a leadership role in protecting children like Ahmed, Dan, Akim and countless others from these deadly weapons.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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