Reactions to cluster munition use show global stigma
Thomas Nash, 16 April 2011
The recent use of cluster munitions by Thai forces in Cambodia and Gaddafi forces against his own people in Misrata is unacceptable and the international reaction to use of these prohibited weapons shows the intensity of the global stigma attached to this particular explosive weapon.
Based on battlefield inspections by Norwegian People’s Aid and other locally-based NGOs, the Cluster Munition Coalition confirmed use of artillery-launched dual-purpose improved conventional munition cluster munition shells by Thai armed forces during exchanges of rocket and artillery fire with the Cambodian military in February over the disputed border near the temple of Preah Vihear.
In April Human Rights Watch and the New York Times confirmed use of mortar-fired cluster munitions by Gaddafi forces in Misrata, Libya, where there has been sustained use of explosive weapons in populated areas for several weeks now, causing severe harm to civilians.
The use of cluster munitions in itself is unacceptable morally repugnant and runs counter to an emerging international standard rejecting their use, production and transfer, codified by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions which places a comprehensive ban on the weapon. The international reaction to this recent use is also revealing in a number of ways. Lao PDR as President of the Convention on Cluster Munitions condemned the use of cluster munitions by Thailand. Norway and the UK also condemned this use. The Thai use of cluster munitions and the ongoing denial by Thailand have been prominent in at least the English-language media in Thailand and Cambodia. The BBC’s top story in the wake of Human Right’s Watch’s report was Gaddafi forces’ use of cluster munitions.
But the stigma is not only evident in the condemnations from others. By immediately denying use of cluster munitions, both the Thai and Libyan authorities are indicating that they do not wish to be associated with the use of a weapon that is seen in the eyes of the media and the public as unacceptable. This reinforces the stigma against the weapon. A similar scenario unfolded during the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia in 2008: both sides swiftly denied use despite conclusive evidence that both sides had used the weapon. Georgia later admitted use, but Russia continues to deny using cluster munitions.
These denials are all the more revealing of the stigma given that none of the users have actually joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Even Hillary Clinton, whose government has continued the Bush administration’s policy of strong opposition to banning cluster munitions, noted that the use of cluster munitions by Gaddafi forces in Misrata was a worrying development. It is unfortunate then that the US government is working so hard to negotiate an alternative international agreement on cluster munitions that would allow continued use, production and transfer of the types of weapons used in these recent incidents in Thailand and Libya.
There is another revealing aspect to this use of cluster munitions though. Both in the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia and – to a much larger extent – in the conflict in Libya, there was significant use of explosive weapons in populated areas. In additional to Thai use of heavy artillery, including cluster munitions, Cambodia used BM21 rockets in populated areas on the Thai side of the border. In Libya both Gaddafi forces and the opposition forces have used explosive weapons in populated areas, with Gaddafi forces in particular using mortars, artillery and rockets in densely populated areas. Misrata is perhaps the most egregious example of this massive bombing of a civilian area.
Doctors in Libya have consistently been reporting injuries to civilians that include holes in people’s chests, cut off limbs, embedded, shrapnel, burns. These are the predictable results of use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The cluster munition use is unacceptable. But so is the general use of explosive weapons in populated areas. It is important that we speak out against the use of cluster munitions and that we see this use as another, particularly despicable example of the unacceptable use of explosive weapons in populated areas. BBC reporter Jon Leyne summed up well the broader concern over explosive weapons in populated areas when he ended his April 15 radio report on the use of cluster bombs in Misrata by saying there was evidence that Gaddafi forces “had been attacking using the even more devastating but not technically illegal GRAD rocket… fired from a multiple rocket launcher sending out up to 40 missiles at one time… those attacks are blamed for many civilian casualties, including 8 people killed in one bread queue alone.”