Ed Johnson, writing for Bloomberg says "Cluster munitions are canisters packed with as many as 650 small bombs that can cover an area of several thousand square meters. As many as 40 percent of the sub-munitions fail to detonate and pose a risk to civilians for years after a conflict has ended, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross."
According to Andrew Woodcock, writing in the Independent, the Prime Minister said he hoped Britain's action would "break the log jam" and make an international agreement on banning the weapons possible. He was speaking as talks reached their final stages in Irish capital Dublin on prohibiting the use of the weapons, which have been blamed for killing and maiming thousands of civilians in war zones. Speaking in 10 Downing Street, Mr Brown said: "We have decided, after a great deal of discussion, that we can help break the log jam so that we can get international agreement that would ban cluster bombs.
"We have decided we will take all our types of cluster bombs out of service. I believe that is going to make a difference to the negotiations that are now taking place. I look forward to other countries following us in this action and I look forward to other countries being able to take these cluster bombs out of service. I think this would be a big step forward to make the world a safer place."At the start of the conference, Britain was being criticised for "being the chief obstacle" to the signing of a treaty.
According to Kim Sengupta, writing in the Independent, "The two sets of weapons at the heart of the argument are the M85 and the M73, munitions fired, respectively, by artillery and rockets. British officials claim these are "smart" weapons which minimise the risk of "collateral damage" and are essential for military operations. The M85 is meant to self destruct and not pose a lingering threat to civilians. However, according to the United Nations, 300 civilians were killed or injured in Lebanon, where Israel used the weapons in 2006. An Apache helicopter can launch 684 M73 bomblets in one attack. They were used by the Americans in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Their use was criticised by US forces, who had to negotiate unexploded cluster munitions on their way to Baghdad. The first two British soldiers killed in Kosovo were casualties of Nato cluster bombs they had been trying to clear. Senior Foreign Office sources said the UK was not prepared to give up the M73 and the system was "non-negotiable". There was said to be flexibility over the M85, but the Ministry of Defence is expected to resist losing them."
Martin Bell observes, "Most senior military figures I know have no time for cluster munitions, on military as well as humanitarian grounds. A former adjutant general, Lord Ramsbotham, told the House of Lords: "I can find no justification for the deployment of these weapons in any activity the British arms has been involved in since the end of the Cold War."
"They are weapons of territory denial which substitute for infantry, but end up endangering the soldiers they are designed to protect. The UK's intervention in Kosovo was casualty-free in military terms, except for the soldiers who risked their lives – and in some cases lost them – trying to clear the unexploded ordnance."
UK government officials apparently came under pressure from the US administration, who refused to participate in the conference, not to ban the weapon. Britain's decision has implications for the storage of US cluster bombs on UK soil as well as the legal status of British military personnel serving alongside their US counterparts who may use these now banned weapons. The ban prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of the weapons.
Sengupta writes, "Lord Ramsbotham, a fomer British Army general and chief inspector of prisons, is among a number of distinguished senior officers, including General Sir Rupert Smith, General Patrick Cordingley and Field Marshal Lord Brammall, who have asked the Government to sign the treaty. Lord Ramsbotham, who flew to Afghanistan yesterday as part of a parliamentary delegation, said: "I am going to ask the commanders there whether they intend to use cluster weapons and I would be very surprised if the answer is 'yes'. There are moral objections to using cluster munitions, but tactical ones as well. They were designed to stop Soviet armour in the Cold War. There is no place for them in the type of warfare we are seeing now."
In total, 111 Countries agreed to ban the use of cluster bombs. Israel, the US, China, India and Pakistan, however, did not agree. Israel, for example, dropped over 2 million cluster bombs in Lebanon in 2006 that killed so many civilians and continue to kill and maim children who pick them up thinking they are toys. According to Ed Johnson, "More than 70 countries stockpile cluster bombs and 34 are known to produce them, according to the Cluster Munition Coalition, a network of 200 civil society organizations."
For an illustration of a cluster bomb see BBC website.