- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

In 2005, three young Cambodian boys were playing near their village when they found four small steel objects that they picked up and used to play an impromptu game of marbles. Their new-found toys, however, were actually “bomblets” left from a cluster bomb that had been dropped years before. In the middle of their game, one of the balls was struck by another, triggering an explosion. One boy died from massive abdominal wounds. The other two boys survived with serious injuries.

Similarly, in Kosovo in 1999, a teenage boy went for a swimming in a lake near his home, where he found a small yellow canister. When he showed off his discovery to his family, the bomblet fell to the ground and exploded. It left him permanently wounded and killed his older brother and father. Several months later, his sister stepped on another cluster bomb in the region and was killed.

These terrible stories, unfortunately, are all too common in war-torn areas around the world. Tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children have been killed or maimed by these indiscriminate and deadly weapons. They were used in Laos in the 1970s and 1980s, Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1998, Serbia and Montenegro 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and most recently by both sides during the conflict between Israel and Lebanon.

The time has come to ban the use of these weapons in or near civilian areas.

Cluster bombs are intended for attacking large-scale enemy troop formations. They come apart in the air before making contact, dispersing between 200 and 400 small bomblets that can saturate a radius of 250 yards.

The changing nature of warfare, though, has meant cluster bombs have been used against enemies in or near highly populated areas. So, all too often, cluster bombs critically injure or kill innocent victims instead of their intended military targets.

The danger is this: These weapons are unreliable and cannot be used with precision. Up to 40 percent of the bomblets from cluster bombs fail to detonate immediately. This leaves a trail of unexploded munitions in war-torn areas.

These tiny bomblets end up in streets and cities. They land in trees and fields where children play. They have been found in rice fields.

Bomblets are usually no bigger than a size D battery. In some cases, they resemble small metal tennis balls. They are attractive to curious young children who find them and pick them up. And 40 or 50 years after used, these munitions remain extremely volatile.

The simple truth is that the remnants of cluster bombs become de facto land mines. They kill, maim, and wound civilians every day, even long after conflict has ended. In fact, 98 percent of cluster bomb victims are civilians. I believe use of these weapons in or near civilian areas runs counter to our values and counter to the international laws of war.

Today, the arsenal of the U.S. military contains 5.5 million cluster bombs. That’s 728 million bomblets. We need to take steps to ensure civilians are protected when these weapons are deployed.

So, when the Senate convenes for the new Congress in January, I will seek to ban the use of federal funds spent on cluster bombs until the Defense Department has articulated a new policy that will minimize civilian death and suffering from these weapons.

This means cluster bombs used or purchased by the U.S. military or sold to another country can only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians.

The International Committee for the Red Cross and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently called for prohibiting use of cluster bombs in populated areas. Their calls echoed a growing international consensus that the unintended humanitarian cost of these weapons is simply too high.

During the 1990s, a comprehensive pact was forged to protect civilians from land mines worldwide. The United States and the international community have since spent millions to remove mines in post-conflict regions. These efforts have helped to save countless lives. There is no question there should be a similar program for cluster bombs.

In November, a wide-ranging treaty went into effect to protect civilians, peacekeepers and other humanitarian agencies in post-conflict regions from cluster bombs. It will require parties to an armed conflict to clear all unexploded cluster bombs and other munitions once hostilities have ended. It is a good first step.

The United States and the international community should work together to stop use of cluster bombs when the lives of civilians are at risk. We need to ensure we don’t needlessly endanger innocent men, women, and children by dropping cluster bombs where they live, work, and play. This is the right and just thing to do.

Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, is a member of the United States Senate.

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