NEW YORK — As if the ruthless air attacks on Lebanese civilians weren’t enough, Israel has been using illegal cluster munitions in populated areas of that country. Human Rights Watch researchers working on the ground in Lebanon have confirmed that an attack with cluster bombs was carried out on the village of Blida on July 19, killing one and wounding at least 12 civilians, including seven children.
This is not the first time that Israel has used these weapons in Lebanon. They were used in 1978 and in the 1980s, although the United States had placed restrictions and a moratorium on their use out of concern for civilian casualties.
According to Human Rights Watch, the use of these munitions in populated civilian areas may violate international humanitarian law.
What makes them particularly lethal is that they consist of a container that breaks open in midair and disperses smaller submunitions. These weapons are designed to explode on impact, just before impact and immediately after impact, saturating an area with flying shards of steel. They generally have a higher explosive charge than antipersonnel land mines.
The failure rate for cluster weapons is between 5 and 30 percent. Failure to explode on impact doesn’t mean they are harmless. On the contrary, they may explode with the slightest touch by a child or other innocent passerby. What makes them even more dangerous is that they become more unstable with each passing year, according to bomb disposal experts working in Laos.
Currently, no treaty specifically regulates cluster munitions, although Additional Protocol I of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions includes some internationally accepted legal standards to assess the problems they cause. While the inevitability of some civilian deaths is recognized, the protocol says that states cannot legally target civilians or engage in indiscriminate attacks.
Cluster munitions have the potential to be indiscriminate because they cannot be precisely targeted. In that regard, Article 51(4)(b) specifically prohibits attacks that “employ a method or means of combat which cannot be directed at a specific military objective.”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, states that “Cluster munitions are unacceptably inaccurate and unreliable weapons when used around civilians, and should never be used in populated areas.”
Human Right Watch researchers were able to document cluster munitions among the arsenal of Israel Defense Forces stationed on the Israeli-Lebanese border. They include the M483A1 Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions, supplied by the U.S.
As artillery shells, they have a 14 percent failure rate. Unexploded ordnance endangers civilians later. Lebanese security forces have denounced Israel’s use of cluster munitions in its attacks not only on Blida but also on other Lebanese border villages, including attacks earlier this year around the contested Shebaa Farms area.
Because of the high proportion of civilians that have been killed or injured by these weapons, many organizations such as the Red Cross, the Cluster Munition Coalition and the United Nations oppose their use. An international consensus is building against them.
Last February, Belgium became the first country to ban cluster munitions, and Norway announced a moratorium on the same in June.
At present, more states are calling for a new international instrument to deal with them, since it is felt that existing humanitarian law is not sufficient to respond to the issues associated with cluster munitions.
In a recent report entitled “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” Human Rights Watch states: “By consistently failing to distinguish between combatants and civilians, Israel has violated one of the most fundamental tenets of the laws of war: the duty to carry out attacks only on military targets. The extent of the pattern and the seriousness of the consequences indicate the commission of war crimes.”
The use of cluster munitions only adds a note of desperation in this conflict. Israel should accept widely recognized norms of civilized behavior, even in times of war, and renounce the use of these dangerous weapons.