4 May 2003
The Times of India
Cluster bomb use may be war crime
By Siddharth Varadarajan
Times News Network
New Delhi: There are bombs that simply kill and then
there are bombs which subdivide into hundreds of
bomblets, which linger on the 'battlefield', literally
shredding their unsuspecting victims to pieces. Mixed in
with the thousands of tonnes of massively destructive
ordnance being dropped on Iraq since the US-UK attack
began two weeks ago are cluster bombs, easily among the
most vicious weapons in the US and British arsenal.
Already, more than 200 civilians have been killed by
these munitions alone in separate bombing runs in Basra,
Hilla and Baghdad.
The US extensively used cluster bombs in its war in
Afghanistan in 2001 and also against Yugoslavia in 1999,
to devastating effect in terms of civilian casualties.
Though it seems futile to employ the discourse of
international humanitarian law in a war where all legal
considerations appear to have been thrown to the wind,
human rights groups say cluster bombs are definitely on
the margins of legality. Indeed, their use in situations
where it is impossible to discriminate between combatants
and civilians almost certainly constitutes a war crime.
The Geneva Conventions which US defence secretary Donald
Rumsefld famously invoked when US prisoners of war were
shown on TV screens ban indiscriminate attacks that
strike military objects and civilians or civilian objects
without distinction. ''While not entirely
indiscriminate'', says Human Rights Watch, ''cluster
bombs are prone to be indiscriminate''. They also fail
another Geneva Conventions test by being impossible to
The indiscriminate nature of cluster bombs is exemplified
by the high 'failure' rate, i.e. the number of bomblets
that do not immediately explode but detonate later when
civilians step over them. A Pentagon study has estimated
the failure rate to be as high as 16 per cent. Since
these dud bomblets certainly do not differentiate between
combatants and civilians, the weapon clearly falls foul
of the laws of war.
Though no war crimes prosecutions have ever been moved
over the use of cluster bombs, the emergence of the
International Criminal Court does provide at least a
theoretical possibility for individual Iraqi victims to
seek justice. Entire families in Hilla, near Baghdad,
were wiped out by these bombs on Tuesday. The US is not a
signatory to the ICC and has threatened military action
against any country that attempts to detain and hand over
American military personnel to the international court.
Britain and Australia, however, have signed up to the
ICC, so their soldiers, commanding officers and political
leaderships could well be held accountable for war crimes
committed in Iraq.