In 2012 the United Nations Mine Action Service has received appeals for funding for various Explosive Remnants of War clearance programmes reaching US$29.9 million, as of August 2012 they are US$25.1 million short of this target. Do we care about Assad’s cluster bombs?
Adding to a growing list of human right violations the Assad regime of Syria is now confirmed to have used cluster bombs in civilian areas. In response to a video and accusations that surfaced on a blog human rights organisations and reporters scrambled to verify whether cluster bombs had, in fact, been used in Syria. Human Rights Watch has recently verified the allegations.
Why do cluster bombs matter when President Bashar Al-Assad has already garnered such a substantial record of human rights violations accusations? To begin with, the use of cluster bombs indicates a further flouting of humanitarian conventions by the Assad regime in its conflict with rebel forces. Already the regime has been accused of massacres in Houla and more recently Tremesh. It has responded to these indictments by denying that any massacres occurred, claiming that force was used only to put down an unlawful uprising, or by indicating that terrorists were responsible for the involved atrocities. Whether or not you believe these responses, they are potentially viable defences.
The use of cluster bombs in civilian areas, however, cannot be justified by asserting that rebels were being targeted. Widely, although not universally, accepted the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) carries with it a massive weight of stigmatization for any country, including a non-signator, that uses them in a civilian area.
Opposition to cluster bombs is not founded so much on the effect of the bomblets that explode, but rather on the threat posed by those that do not. Unexploded bomblets remain after the conflict acting as de facto landmines. Their shape and colour often entices children to play with them. Their metal content may attract scavengers, particularly in a war-ravaged economy. The heavy toll that these indiscriminate weapons take on civilian populations outweighs, according to the CCM, any strategic benefit they may provide.
The effects of cluster munitions use on the terrain lasts long after the bombs have been dropped. Like areas that have been mined, those struck by cluster bombs cannot be used even after conflict ends until lengthy and expensive clearance has occurred. Post-conflict redevelopment of land and, more importantly, the return of people to their homes and normal lives in Syria may thus be delayed for years. Even 6 years after the Lebanon-Israeli war areas of Lebanon are yet to be opened to resettlement and redevelopment as a result of cluster bomb use by Israel. Based on current clearance rates it will take approximately another 6 years for the remaining 758 contaminated areas in Lebanon to be made safe. A 2008 study by Landmine Action put the cost in lost agricultural productivity in Lebanon due to cluster munitions contamination at US$22.6 million.
The effects of Assad’s use of cluster bombs on Syria’s economy will also be long lasting. Post-conflict mine and cluster munition clearance will need to be undertaken. Due to the cost of this activity and to the fact that Syria’s economy has been crippled, donor countries will most likely be involved. In 2011 such countries provided US$22.7 million for clearance of explosive remnants of war (ERW), including cluster munitions from government dropped bombs, in Libya. However, according to organizations involved in ERW removal, this amount has not been nearly enough to complete the involved tasks. For 2012 the United Nations Mine Action Service has received appeals for funding for various ERW clearance programmes reaching US$29.9 million, as of August 2012 they are US$25.1 million short of this target.
Cluster bomb remnants in Syria will hold up development projects until clearance is completed. The international community will most likely be forced to pay the bill or to leave Syria hobbled. Sluggish economic growth and a large number of displaced people, problems worsened by cluster munition contamination, will increase the likelihood of continued conflict that might spread to other parts of the region despite hopes of the international community to keep it contained.
Finally, the use of cluster munitions further debases President Assad’s claims that he is just trying to hold his country together in the face of an illegitimate rebellion. The President’s decision to employ this type of weapon acts as a strong and irrefutable indication of the government’s disregard for the long-term well-being of the people. It provides further evidence that the maintenance of power at any cost is this regime’s top priority. Although not as horrifying or headline grabbing as his slaughter of women and children, the use of cluster bombs is a strong indicator of Assad’s ruthlessness.
Cluster bombs will continue to harm the Syrian people and disrupt their lives long after the battle has ended, presenting one more challenge to a society that has already faced too many.