At the same time as the Australian government is engaged in international talks aimed at securing a global treaty banning cluster bombs, the Defense Department has claimed that limitations on the Australian Defense Force’s capacity to acquire the weapons would be “detrimental to our national interest.”

Cluster bombs, or cluster munitions, are a kind of artillery shell or rocket dropped from the air or launched from the ground. Before reaching its target the shell opens and ejects multiple smaller munitions (bomblets). Cluster bombs are used primarily to kill enemy infantry, but versions are also used to start fires, pierce the armor of tanks and other armored vehicles, disable runways, disperse mines, deliver chemical weapons and even disrupt electrical power transmission.

Like land mines, cluster bombs pose an immediate and long-term threat to civilians. They typically affect a wide area, sometimes as much as several football fields, increasing the potential for civilian casualties.

Further, multiple unexploded bomblets may lie dormant for some time. The Australian Red Cross estimates that typically between 7 percent and 30 percent, even up to 40 percent in some cases, fail to detonate on impact but may still explode if disturbed.

Handicap International says 98 percent of its registered cluster munitions casualties are civilians. Many are children.

In addition to the tragedy of civilian casualties, unexploded ordnance of cluster bomblets creates long-term social and economic problems for countries attempting to recover from war. Countries significantly affected include Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Vietnam and Laos.

Australia possessed limited stocks of cluster munitions between 1970 and 1990, but these were destroyed, and Australia has until now undertaken not to use cluster bombs in armed conflict.

On May 8 Robert Tickner, former federal Aboriginal Affairs minister and now chief executive of the Australian Red Cross, urged the Australian government to consider the role it might play in supporting a ban on cluster munitions, based in part on his personal experience of the devastation they cause.

“I saw the effects of unexploded cluster munitions while visiting Lebanon in February, and they are truly devastating and alarmingly random,” he said. “Sub-munitions were found in houses, backyards, in trees, in orchards and many other places. In one street near a hospital, 800 sub-munitions were found.

“I met a farm worker who had been working in a field on Sept. 9, about a month after the conflict had ended. He was leaving the field after work and did not notice the unexploded sub-munition that was hidden under some fallen leaves. The munition exploded, severely damaging his foot and leg, resulting in partial amputation. He did not believe he could return to work as a laborer again, and I can only imagine the fear he must feel knowing that almost anywhere in the fields he once worked could be another remnant of the conflict waiting to release its potentially lethal payload.”

To support a ban on the use of these inaccurate, unreliable weapons of conflict would send a clear message to the rest of the world and be a significant step towards ridding the globe of a weapon that continues to destroy lives long after the fighting forces have packed up and gone home.

But Australian politicians and the Australian Defense Force  are instead moving in the opposite direction. Australian Democrats leader, Sen. Lyn Allison, introduced a private members bill into federal parliament on Dec. 5 to prohibit the use, manufacture and possession of cluster munitions.

The bill triggered an inquiry by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade, which tabled recommendations in Parliament on May 31. According to Sen. Allison, the Senate Standing Committee selectively ignored 80 percent of submissions which supported a total ban or far more stringent regulation of the use of cluster munitions, and effectively “gave the cluster bombs the green light.”

The ADF is further reported to be acquiring high-precision and self-destructing cluster bombs for use against armored vehicles. The preferred supplier of the bombs, Israel Military Industries, claims that they are “safer than others” and have been used to the “utmost satisfaction of its users.”

The ADF opposes legislation to ban cluster munitions on the basis that such a ban could leave Australian troops open to prosecution while serving with allies who have used the bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This action by the ADF may appear to contradict the government’s support in Lima last week for a new international treaty to ban cluster munitions. But as Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs Greg Hunt explained, “We make no apologies for wanting to maintain a capability to adequately and safely protect our defense forces.”

In addition, the Defense Department claimed the Allison Bill would have “put Australia at a serious military disadvantage in future conflicts, which would be detrimental to our national interest.”

The international response to this growing threat to civilian life has been somewhat disappointing. Although many individuals and agencies, including the Red Cross and the United Nations, oppose the use of cluster bombs, no international legal instrument specifically covers them.

Belgium alone has issued a comprehensive ban on the use of cluster munitions. Several other countries, including Australia, have engaged in parliamentary discussions with a view to a moratorium or ban. An international conference in Oslo in February 2007 led to 46 of the 68 participating nations backing a Norwegian push for a new international treaty by 2008 that would ban “cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.” What constitutes “unacceptable harm” is ambiguous and disputed.

Australia was not represented at the Oslo talks, but did send officials to a second round of talks involving 70 countries in Lima, Peru, May 23-25 aimed at a global treaty banning cluster munitions. Australia’s contribution to the latest round of talks was to call for an exclusion of weapons with a self-destruct mechanism–an apparent attempt to protect the interests of the ADF.

Mark Zirnsak, national coordinator of the Australian Network to Ban Landmines, described this as “a deadly and disastrous decision by the Australian government, as the self-destruct mechanism has repeatedly been proven not to protect civilians from the indiscriminate explosions.”

Handicap International asked whether the government had actually studied the humanitarian risks of the cluster bombs it wants to acquire:

“As with landmines, cluster munitions pose a serious threat to civilians during and after the conflicts,” the group said. “Australia should also be setting an example based on its commitment to humanitarian law that weapons that are indiscriminate should not be used.”

Perhaps the mantra of “national interest” has itself become a handicap to the advocacy of reasonable notions of justice and compassion in Australia.

Indeed, it is debatable whether there is any contested area of Australian public life in which the national interest could not be invoked by political pragmatists, or economic fundamentalists, to justify what a majority of the population regards as injustice.

Rod Benson is director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at MorlingCollege in Sydney, Australia.

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