‘Cluster’ munitions and ‘humanitarian values’
March 22, 2007
The British Ministry of “Defence” has decided to ban “dumb cluster munitions”. Des Browne told Parliament on Tuesday:
I am pleased to announce that we are withdrawing dumb cluster munitions from service with immediate effect.
We have considered carefully both military and humanitarian factors, reflecting our duty both to ensure that the armed forces have the capabilities they need to undertake the missions we ask of them, and to strive to reduce civilian casualties to the minimum.
Cluster munitions are legal weapons which have a valid role in modern warfare, particularly against an array of military targets in a defined area. However, they have also given rise to humanitarian concerns because they disperse sub-munitions over an area and those sub-munitions can have a high failure rate. Some cluster munitions address these concerns including through inbuilt self-destructing or self-deactivating mechanisms, reducing the risk of harm to civilians. Dumb cluster munitions do not.
At the moment, our inventory includes two dumb cluster munitions: the RBL 755 aerial delivered cluster munition, and the multi launch rocket system M26 munition. Both will be withdrawn from service immediately and disposed of. Although withdrawing them represents a theoretical risk to our operational effectiveness, until their direct replacement is in service, there is no current plan to deploy them on operations. I have decided that this is an acceptable risk.
The types of cluster munitions we intend to retain are legitimate weapons with significant military value which, as a result of mitigating features, is not outweighed by humanitarian factors. As with all weapons, our forces’ use of them will remain regulated by rules of engagement and internal scrutiny procedures designed to adhere to international law and reflect humanitarian values.
In line with Tony Blair’s philosophy of bombing our values into the enemy, Browne emphasized usefully that the bombs we intend to carry on using will “reflect humanitarian values”, no doubt through some ingenious set-up of mirrored shells and an orbiting laser projector pumping out comforting words such as “freedom” and “democracy”. It might still be objected that the term “cluster” itself, in “cluster bomb” or “cluster munition”, is a particularly successful euphemism, since they “do not drop in a tight ‘cluster’ of limited radius but are designed expressly to spray their cargo of sub-munitions, or cutely named ‘bomblets’, over a wide distance’ (Unspeak, p116).
But this fact is as nothing beside the real problem: that some of these munitions are “dumb”. We cannot but conclude that the remaining cluster bombs that we will carry on using must be “smart”, and everyone likes a smart suit, or a smart cookie. It’s true that the usual military connotation of “smart” weapons is that they are able to be guided precisely towards their targets, by laser or GPS etc. Our non-“dumb” cluster bombs are not actually “smart” in this way. They do, however, have “self-destruct mechanisms”, which implies that they won’t join the estimated 10,000 unexploded “bomblets” dropped by US and UK forces that already littered Iraq after the end of “major combat operations” in 2003, or the “up to a million” unexploded “bomblets” that the UN estimates remained in southern Lebanon after Israel’s massive last-gasp cluster-bombing assault, or cluster-fuck, in the three days of August 2006 between the announcement of the ceasefire and its coming into effect.
Reassuringly, then, the weapons that Browne wants to keep are those bombs that, if they don’t work the first time, will allegedly self-destruct later (it would be nice to know whether such self-destruction causes an explosion comparable to the intended detonation at the time of use), or munch on the bomblet equivalent of a cyanide pill and obediently turn themselves off. Or, of course, explode as intended when dropped. What’s so anti-humanitarian about that?
Naturally this announcement was greeted in some quarters with craven peacenik scepticism. Liberal Democrat “defence” spokesman Nick Harvey said:
The Defence Secretary has only made reference to banning ‘dumb’ rocket and air delivered cluster munitions and will still maintain so-called ‘smart’ artillery fired cluster bombs. This is a dubious distinction and one that is grossly misleading.
All cluster munitions are indiscriminate and there are serious concerns that even so called ‘smart’ munitions have a significant failure rate, making them a dangerous remnant of conflict and posing a serious threat.
We cannot allow that our Minister of “Defence” in this case has made a “dubious distinction”. The distinction is crucial. Bombs that either explode on cue or commit hara-kiri when they fail are a wonderful measure of our superior intelligence. It is right and proper, on the other hand, that we ban the “dumb” bombs: they just add insult to injury.