“Gadhafi Troops Fire Cluster Bombs Into Civilian Areas,” declares a New York Times headline (4/15/11). The lead of the story makes clear that these weapons are considered in many countries to be illegal:
Military forces loyal to Col. Moammar el-Gadhafi have been firing into residential neighborhoods in this embattled city with heavy weapons, including cluster bombs that have been banned by much of the world.
The story, by C.J. Chivers, goes on to explain why these weapons have been banned:
These so-called indiscriminate weapons, which strike large areas with a dense succession of high-explosive munitions, by their nature cannot be fired precisely. When fired into populated areas, they place civilians at grave risk.
Then it gives a graphic description of the human toll of these weapons:
The dangers were evident beside one of the impact craters on Friday, where eight people had been killed while standing in a bread line. Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.
And it strongly suggests that the use of cluster bombs deserves to have serious international consequences:
The use of such weapons in these ways could add urgency to the arguments by Britain and France that the alliance needs to step up attacks on the Gadhafi forces, to better fulfill the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
After all this, the story gets out of the way an awkward fact that complicates this presentation of the use of cluster bombs as proof that Moammar Gadhafi is an international outlaw whose bloodthirstiness must be countered by an intensified military campaign by the civilized world:
At the same time, the United States has used cluster munitions itself, in battlefield situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a strike on suspected militants in Yemen in 2009.
Oh–so these “indiscriminate weapons” that “place civilians at grave risk” have been used by the United States as well? But only in “battlefield situations,” far from civilians, right? Well, not exactly. The U.S. was criticized by Human Rights Watch for using cluster bombs in populated areas in Afghanistan, killing and injuring scores of civilians (Washington Post, 12/18/02). Amnesty International (4/2/03) called the U.S.’s use of cluster bombs in civilian areas of Iraq “a grave violation of international humanitarian law.” (See FAIR Action Alert, 5/6/03.) NATO employed cluster bombs in its bombing of Serbia during the Kosovo War, with one attack killing 15 civilians in the town of Nis (BBC, 5/7/99); more than 2,000 unexploded munitions from cluster bombs are estimated to remain on Serbian territory, continuing to endanger civilians (AFP, 3/10/09).
The “suspected militants” attacked by a cluster bomb in Yemen in 2009 turned out to be “21 children and 20 innocent women and men” (NewYorkTimes.com, 12/9/10)–all killed in the U.S. attack.
You can be sure that none of these examples of U.S. use of cluster bombs in civilian areas prompted the New York Times to suggest that they justified military attacks on the United States in order to protect civilians. And you’d be hard-pressed to find any descriptions in the Times of the “bits of human flesh” resulting from any U.S. military action.
As for cluster bombs being “banned in much of the world,” that includes Britain. But as WikiLeaks revealed, the U.S. colluded with the British government to circumvent the ban and allow U.S. cluster bombs to remain on British soil. WikiLeaks also disclosed that the U.S. has been lobbying for countries to keep cluster bombs legal, arguing that they are “legitimate weapons that provide a vital military capability” (Guardian, 12/1/10).