Stop using cluster bombs say top brass

Stuart Weir
20 May 2008

Stuart Weir (London, OK): The opaque and well-defended Ministry of Defence is under hostile and "friendly" fire - and let us hope that its officials will be overrun. For two years at least the MOD has been obstinately fending off a parliamentary and civil society offensive against the use of cluster bombs by UK forces. In Parliament there were two Private Members' Bills and an adjournment debate in 2006-07, the Foreign Affairs Committee took evidence from Human Rights Watch in January 2007 and has since kept up the pressure on government. There have also been numerous questions in both Houses seeking change.

You may remember that Hilary Benn, then International Development Secretary, broke ranks in 2006 with a leaked internal memo arguing that the UK and US should cease using these deadly weapons which kill and maim far more innocent civilians - most of them children - than they do enemy combatants. The MOD and Foreign Office immediately disowned Benn's memo. In 2006, Handicap International published estimates of the death toll, suggesting that they had killed 11,00 people in the past 30 years, 98 per cent of them civilians. In all the death toll may be as high as 100,000. Under parliamentary pressure, the government finally agreed to sign the international Oslo Declaration to cease using cluster munitions.

But with a caveat. The forces would stop using "dumb" cluster munitions - i.e., the ones that just lie there waiting to explode - but would continue, as Defence Secretary Des Browne explained, to use "smart" bombs with "inbuilt self-destructing or self-deactivating mechanisms" - i.e., ones that self-destruct so that they do not lie around waiting to kill or maim. The MOD even reclassified one of its weapons systems, the CVR-7, used on Apache helicopters, to escape the partial ban.

Of course, any bombs dropped on civilian targets can and do kill and cause unacceptable harm. Further, even Whitehall accepts that "smart" cluster bombs are not so smart: they say that the failure rate is however 2.3 per cent, while expert outsiders say it is as high as 10 per cent. Why did the MOD stop short of a full ban? Because they have a duty to protect our soldiers, a duty which as we know, they take very seriously indeed.

Now the top brass has broken ranks. A platoon of former UK and Nato defence chiefs, including General Sir Michael Rose, who commanded UN forces in the Balkans, have written to Browne to say that it would serve Britain's interests to cease using cluster bombs to "strengthen our ability to use force effectively in the modern world" and to raise our standing in the world. They point out that their use in modern wars has consistently caused civilian casualties, both during and after attacks. The public are also overwhelmingly against their use and want the UK to support the Oslo ban. Ministers of course protect themselves against parliamentary and public interference in foreign and defence affairs through the royal prerogative. Will it protect them against an unforeseen enemy within?

PS- Des Browne is one of the government ministers who has rebelled against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill out of his respect for human life. Human life is more immediately at risk through the use of these vile bombs.

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