How the World Let Qaddafi Get Cluster Bombs

Libyan government forces are deploying the horrific -- and, throughout much of the world, banned -- weapons against rebels, proving that we will have to do more if we want to end their use

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Despite the Libyan government's claims to the contrary, The New York Times recently found conclusive evidence that Qaddafi's military is using cluster munitions in urban areas, deploying them against the rebels in Misrata. As is often the case with these weapons, which are banned by much of the world, Qaddafi's cluster bombs appear to have caused far more civilian casualties than damage to legitimate military targets, raising the perennial question of the place of these weapons in modern warfare and what can be done to mitigate their terrible effects.

First deployed during World War II, cluster munitions have been used in at least 23 countries by at least 15 different countries' militaries. The bombs, which open up mid-flight to spray smaller bombs across a wide area, were originally developed to be used against ground troops and vehicles. The number of submunitions in a given missile varies from 2 to 2,000 bomblets, which are small -- think a baseball or a size-D battery -- and brightly colored to provide visual warning of the danger they pose if they fail to explode on impact. Early models of submunitions lacked a guidance system; more recent designs have incorporated autonomous target detection and self-destruct capabilities, features which were developed in an attempt to mitigate the indiscriminate nature and the high rate of nonperformance of earlier models.

Cluster munitions have historically been used to great effect against massed enemy troops and armor or vehicle formations. They provide a certain economy of force: one munition can incapacitate or kill many targets in its impact area, which is generally larger than that of unguided unitary munitions. Most modern cluster munitions are multi-purpose and may contain a mix of anti-armor, anti-personnel, and anti-materiel submunitions that offer an unparalleled opportunity to debilitate both enemy tanks and the men who attempt to repair the tank.

Their use in Libya, however, provides an important reminder of why cluster munitions are so problematic, especially in urbanized warfare where the enemy may not wear a uniform. These weapons are infamous for the harm they cause to civilians, which happens for two reasons: the indiscriminate, unguided nature of most models of cluster munitions and the high failure rate of submunitions currently in use. In the initial attack, individual submunitions strike at random. While this can be desirable when striking military positions, when used in urban areas, civilians are inevitably killed or maimed and non-military infrastructure is damaged, regardless of the intentions of the attacking force. During the invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops fired hundred of cluster munitions into Iraqi cities; in just one neighborhood, at least forty civilians were killed, even as the military tried to minimize civilian casualties.

The days, months, and years after an initial strike, however, are where the real danger to civilians lies. Submunitions frequently fail to explode on impact, especially as they age and component parts degrade. However, they can still explode if jostled, and no public education campaign has been able to convince children not to pick up colorful objects or prevent pedestrians from accidentally stepping on an unexploded bomblet. Even now, doctors in Misrata are reporting an uptick in amputations, a common result of unexploded ordnance. De-mining is expensive, slow, and underfunded; in 2011, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon noted that the U.N. had secured "only about one-quarter of the needed resources [for the 2011 mine removal project portfolio], leaving a funding gap of $367 million."

In 2007, recognizing the threat that cluster munitions pose to civilians, Norway led an international effort to ban these weapons. The Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), an international treaty that prohibits the use, transfer, or stockpiling of cluster munitions, became binding on signatories on August 1, 2010. Notably missing from the list of signatories are the United States, Russia, China, and Israel, all of which maintain substantial stockpiles of cluster munitions.

The CCM is only as useful as its signatories allow it to be, however. Spain's willingness to sell cluster bombs to Libya, a dictatorial regime known for human rights abuses, indicates how even the best-intentioned arms treaty cannot prevent these weapons from moving into the wrong hands. Qaddafi bought the MAT-120s found in Misrata in 2007 from Spain, a year before Spain became one of the first states to sign the CCM. There was nothing illegal about the transaction; the arms embargo against Libya was lifted in 2004 as a reward for the Libyan regime's willingness to accept civil responsibility and make payouts for two airliner bombings in the late 1980s. Spain did not sign the Convention on Cluster Munition until 2008, making the 2007 sales ethically questionable but legally acceptable.

In late 2007, as a reward for abandoning his nuclear weapons program and releasing six health workers wrongly accused of injecting patients with HIV, Qaddafi enjoyed a state visits to Madrid, where Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a fanatical pacifist, worked to build business relationships with the longtime dictator in exchange for arms trade agreements that would bolster Libya's aging military hardware -- and the Spanish economy. Spain was already in trouble well in advance of the 2008 global recession, and Qaddafi promised investments and loans valued at $17 billion. Spanish arms exports to Libya skyrocketed after the meeting. In 2008 alone, Spain exported €3.8 million worth of munitions, including the MAT-120s used in Misrata.

Such arms sales reveal one of the more pernicious drivers of arms proliferation: when an arms-producing country cuts back on its own defense acquisitions, it often looks for international buyers as a way of keeping its national defense industry in business. With international negotiations over the Convention on Cluster Munitions already underway in 2008, Spain's decision to sell rather than destroy its stockpiles of cluster bombs made economic and political sense. Rich with oil revenues, Qaddafi had the money and the desire to buy arms from a Europe still reeling from the 2007 credit crisis and the 2008 recession. As budgets were tightened and defense spending sharply curtailed across the EU, Qaddafi found Europe more than willing to sell a full range of weapons systems, including cluster munitions -- the same munitions that NATO forces and the Libyan rebels now battle.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions is a strong step towards removing these weapons from global arsenals, but it's only a first step towards mitigating the damage they cause. As more countries debate ratification, it's crucial that they do not simply sell off their stockpiles rather than destroy them; increasingly, only bad actors will be interested buyers. In the end, it will be the civilians that suffer most.